Two developments this week have accelerated the assessment that China’s power and influence has plateaued. First, Chinese officials announced that the nation’s population declined last year for the first time in more than 60 years; and second—China’s economy grew by only three percent, well below the target of 5.5 percent growth for the year.

German Lopez reports in the New York Times that “both these outcomes are closely linked to Chinese policy. Decades-long government efforts to reduce birthrates nationwide, including the policy of allowing most families to have only one child, sped up the population decline. And the economic slowdown is in part tied to the zero-Covid policy that China backed away from only last month, which left the country unprepared to reopen.”

Economist Paul Krugman reminds that an aging population puts additional stress on a nation’s economy by using more government resources for health care and retirement benefits. And Brett Stephens warns that because of China’s opaque authoritarian leadership, these developments make China more dangerous, not less so, on the global stage.

I am intrigued by (and have recently written in this space about) important but mysterious developments in China that seem to have largely escaped the attention of an American audience preoccupied with ongoing political fisticuffs in our nation’s capital, the crisis at our southern border, concerns about inflation and the unrelenting series of partisan or racially charged incidents that have led to violence in many of our communities.  

But in reading Lopez’s commentary, I was particularly struck by one point that evoked troubling visions of a future not limited to faraway China. He writes, “The median age in China has already surpassed that of the U.S. and could rise above 50 by 2050. Even Europe’s fastest-aging countries are not expected to surpass a median age of 50 until around 2100.”

Is China the canary in the coal mine of demographic stress that will eventually impact us all? The thought that in 100 years much of the world will have a median age of over 50 prompts dystopian images of what it might be like to be born into such a world.

How will our society be structured? What will be the burning issues faced by young families when the elderly who need care outnumber the caregivers? What will be the shape of youthful hopes and dreams, fears and dreads? What will be the most pressing justice issues? How will the term “inclusion” expand to focus on the increasing number of those who live past the century mark? How will the growing effects of climate change impact an aging world? How will we navigate the moral imperative of sharing wealth in a world of even greater income disparity? How will we approach our mortality?  

These are sobering questions. As I enter the second half of my 75th year, I am mindful that if China is the “canary in the coal mine,” then for my grandchildren’s children, these will not be theoretical questions, but practical concerns that demand answers every day.

3 thoughts on “The Canary in the Coal Mine?

  1. Those who venture to forecast the future will no doubt succumb to the same wild experiential improbabilities that remain the one true hallmark of human existence.

    The hope here is that we continue to evolve in a manner befitting welfare for all, which brings to mind the Rev. Martin Luther King’s illustrative metaphor: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

    He went on to say that change takes a long time yet change does happen.

    Change is inevitable. Where, when and how that change might present itself is a story best told by future historians.

  2. I’ve only grazed the surface of the data, but it seems likely that China’s bigger issue is with net migration. Yes, they’ll struggle to fill the low wage jobs as the next generation of workers takes shape, as have other ‘developed’ economies, but the usual remedy for that is offering ‘guest workers’ an opportunity to make a living at a wage that’s better than they could expect at home. The workers that are harder to replace are the skilled workers that have choices of where to work. I already suspect that China has been suppressing net migration data, but the issue will become more acute over the next decade.

  3. This is a new thought for me.. Like many, I’ve been experiencing the fallout of this age shift but hadn’t yet thought about it in global terms. 😶 Around Christmas, a dear friend passed and just today, I helped her daughter and son-in-law with emptying my friend’s Bergen County home in preparation for the closing and the new owners taking possession. In past generations, the property would have been handed down to children and grandchildren. Today, the proceeds from the sale will only assist with the cost of her husband’s Long Term Care facility. This new aging population has so many ramifications and none of it looks good. (PS Bob, my own planned WordPress blog was to be called “The Sooty Canary”. 😌)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.