Food for Thought on Valentines Day: Chinese Couples Will Be Making a LOT Fewer Babies

Here’s a little something to think about with Valentine’s Day coming up: Chinese couples will be making a lot fewer babies in the years ahead. And this has major implications for China’s future growth.

A China baby bust might sound counterintuitive to anyone who follows China, as the government announced in 2013 that it would be relaxing the One Child Policy. Most China watchers assumed this would lead to a Chinese baby boom. But this ignores the very large demographic elephant in the room: Babies require mothers. And after three decades of the One Child Policy, China is about to have a major shortage of potential mothers.

Take a look at the chart, which forecasts the population of Chinese women by age bracket using demographic data from the United Nations. China’s population of women of prime childbearing age (25-29) goes into steep decline this year and doesn’t significantly recover…ever.

Chinese Women by Age Cohort

Average age of marriage and first childbirth are rising worldwide, and as a general rule the more developed a country becomes (and the more educated its women become) the higher the age of marriage and first childbirth. So, let’s assume that China’s women, like many Western women, are postponing motherhood until their early 30s. Even then, China has a major problem. Its population of women aged 30-34 goes into steep decline starting in 2020.

Conception is still possible into the late 30s and 40s, of course. But it gets far more difficult and, realistically, it limits family size. You can’t realistically have a large family if you’re getting started in your late 30s. And in any event, the population of women aged 35-39 goes into steep decline ten years from now.

Let’s say that Chinese women, aided with new technology, somehow rewrite the laws of human anatomy and make large families possible into early middle age. Even then, China still has a major problem: the country has evolved with small families as the norm and costs have risen accordingly. Living costs have risen in the cities to the point that large families are not economically viable for the vast majority of Chinese households, and urban apartments are not big enough to accommodate them.

This is a major problem for China and for any Western company that has made large investments in Chinese growth. Children are the future.  You need them to pay the taxes and man the factories of tomorrow. More critically, in the age of modern consumer capitalism, you need them swiping the credit cards and buying the homes of tomorrow. This is particularly critical for China given its government’s stated goal of reorienting its economy away from exports and towards domestic consumption.

Is mass immigration of young women the answer? Well, that sounds good, at least to the red-blooded young men in the room. But the math doesn’t quite work out. China’s population of 20-24-year-old women shrinks by about 30 million over the next ten years. Where, exactly, would China find 30 million blushing brides willing to immigrate? To put that number in perspective, that’s bigger than the entire female population of South Korea, including everyone from newborn baby girls to elderly women.

Let’s just say that Chinese pediatricians are looking at lean times ahead.

This piece first appeared on Economy & Markets.

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