China

China's 430 Million Families Shrink and Age


Retired Chinese women practice Tai Chi at a park in Haikou city, south China Hainan province on March 25

Photograph by Imaginechina via AP Photo

Retired Chinese women practice Tai Chi at a park in Haikou city, south China Hainan province on March 25

China’s families keep shrinking in size, says a new report by the National Health and Family Planning Commission, released earlier this month.

It’s well known that the One-Child Policy played a key role in radically reducing the size of China’s households, which have shrunk from an average of 5.3 members in the 1950s to just 3.02 in 2012. (The numbers were 3.96 and 3.10 in 1990 and 2010, respectively.)

But that longtime policy restriction has not been the main driver in recent years, according to the China Family Development Report 2014. Instead, internal migration and changing social norms have been bigger contributors to the phenomenon in recent years. (That also means last year’s loosening of the family planning regulation isn’t going to reverse the smaller household phenomenon.)

By 2010, China had 160 million households made up of either one or two people. That’s 40 percent of the total number of households, a proportion that rose from 25 percent of the total in 2000. Over the same decade, the number of single person households doubled, and those of two people went up by 68 percent, according to the commission.

So what’s driving the surge in little families? In the cities it has a lot to do with young people waiting longer to get married. “A growing number of well-educated people now decide to marry at a later age because of their careers,” the China Daily reported, citing the survey. “Changing attitudes toward marriage also prompted many to stay single.”

As China’s population rapidly ages, more and more families are elderly. China now has 88 million families made up of people over 65, about one-fifth of the total, the report says. That reverses the longtime Chinese custom of older parents living with their children. With some 300 million rural migrant workers living far from their hometowns, the problem is particularly acute in the countryside—that is contributing to a growing problem of poverty among the elderly.

Today’s 430 million Chinese households (one-fifth of the world’s families) will increase to more than 500 million by 2040, the report estimates.

Dexter_roberts
Roberts is Bloomberg Businessweek's Asia News Editor and China bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter @dtiffroberts.

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