China Turns to Face Its Aging Population

China Turns to Face Its Aging Population


While Mark Zuckerberg was meeting with officials in Beijing in Shanghai two weeks ago, there was another, far less public meeting on the population aging challenge facing China going on. Both gatherings were about China’s willingness to open its minds and policies to address the three 21st century mega-trends of population aging, connectedness and innovative technology.

We also recently saw a report that the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is about to overtake Wal-Mart in global sales. Last year’s OECD workshop at Oxford on ageing and the digital economy was not just about health benefits but how the one billion of us over 60 can engage in commerce and contribute to economic growth. There is no doubt that the demographic over 60 will increasingly benefit from e-commerce. 

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Whatever deal Mr. Zuckerberg is making with Chinese officials, they must know that implementing their 13th Five Year Plan will require some very serious social changes. Not only must they treat their aging population differently, but they must open their economic system to the full measure of trade and investment flows that can drive economic growth. 

Note the language used by Chinese President Xi Jinping to explain the profound impact of aging on their economic growth prospects: “Over 15 percent of the population is 60 years old or above. The working-age population has started to decrease and the trend is continuing … The new policy [of allowing two children without fines] should reduce the pressure of an aging population, increase the labor supply and promote balanced population development.”

China today has well over a quarter billion people over age 60 and that number will grow to about the size of today’s entire European population. It’s a market if ever there was one; it’s also a challenge if public policy and external conditions are not ripe.

Several public policy proposals that could help ease the pressure were the subject of the “Shanghai Roundtable on Active Aging” held coincidentally when Zuckerberg was having his meetings in Beijing:

1. Treat the 60+ demographic in China the same way we are increasingly doing across OECD countries -- as important consumers of product from healthcare to financial services, technology to retail. Growing proportions of this commerce is already taking place through the Internet – witness the Alibaba phenomenon – and this will grow over the next decades as the aging population in China reaches numbers that are equivalent to America today. Moreover, if Mick Jagger in his seventies can keep singing, how is it not obvious that “old” in the 21st century is to be redefined?

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2. Recognize the special needs of the 80+ demographic, the most rapidly growing segment of the overall population. Technology will be essential to this elder caregiving, especially if China is to meet its goals of 90 percent of this demographic “aging in place” at home. From telehealth and telemedicine to censors recognizing falls and measuring medicine compliance, China will have to open its borders to the best of what is produced across the globe. Free trade is essential as China confronts an aging population.

3. Like everyone else, keep people working longer – the “ditch retirement” movement is as relevant for China as anywhere.

China is experiencing the medical and health benefits of the 20th century that lead to 21st century longevity. Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenyang and the rest of China’s urban centers are joining New York, Tokyo, Berlin and Sydney where the once rare achievement of long lives is becoming the norm. Young girls and boys born in Shanghai in the 1990s are likely to see three centuries, as are our sons and daughters in the West. We increasingly understand this and more and more are beginning to plan.   

What we tend not to fully appreciate is the low birth rates that have now also become a condition of 21st century life across the globe – developed and developing, rich and poor, everywhere. Of course, the infamous one-baby policy has only exacerbated the huge challenges of population aging for China. All the more reason that China will have to change its ways to achieve greater openness – in trade, the Internet and learning from others on productive urban development.