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There have been numerous news articles in recent years telling us that China faces a demographic crisis. The basic story is that the market reforms put in place in the late 1970s, together with the country’s one-child policy, led to many fewer children being born in the last four decades. As a result, the number of current workers entering retirement exceeds the size of the cohorts entering the workforce, leading to a stagnant or declining workforce. This is supposed to be a crisis.
I used the word “supposed” because it is not in any way obvious that a declining workforce is any sort of crisis. We see shifts of population all the time, which can lead many cities or regions to have a decline in their population or workforce, even if the country as a whole does not. That doesn’t necessarily mean a crisis for the areas losing population unless of course the population decline is due to the loss of a major employer.
A drop in the growth rate of the workforce, or an actual decline, will likely mean slower GDP growth, but so what? A country’s standard of living is determined by its income per capita (along with many other factors), not its absolute level of GDP. India’s GDP is almost eight times Denmark’s, but Denmark is the far richer country. The reason is that India has more than two hundred times as many people.
If a country’s growth rate is slower because the growth rate of its workforce slows, that is hardly a disaster. People can still be seeing improvements in their standard of living, and in the case of China, these improvements would still be quite rapid even if its annual growth rate slowed by 2-3 percentage points from its recent pace of more than 6.0 percent annually.
There is a common argument that countries with aging populations, like China, will suffer because each worker will have to support a larger number of retirees. It is easy to show that this view is silly. Even a modest rate of productivity growth will swamp the impact of a declining ratio of workers to retirees. With output per worker increasing, both workers and retirees can enjoy rising living standards even as the ratio of workers to retirees fall.
That should not sound surprising. The ratio of workers to retirees has been falling in the United States for the last two decades, yet we have seen substantial increases in living standards, even if the wealthy have gotten the bulk of these gains. The idea that China’s declining ratio of workers to retirees poses a supply-side problem, where it cannot produce enough goods and services to support its population, is absurd on its face.
The Problem of Secular Stagnation
It turns out that the major problem of an aging population is not too much demand, but rather too little. Older people tend to spend less money than people in their working years. Also, when a country’s workforce is not growing, companies need to spend less money on investment. Employers need more capital when they hire more workers. This could mean desks and computers, or it could be machinery in a factory, or a truck on the road. The more workers companies hire, the more capital they need, which means more investment.
But if the workforce stagnates, then companies need to spend less on investment. They will still modernize their equipment and replace worn out items, but they don’t have to invest to accommodate the needs of a larger workforce.
With both consumption and investment falling relative to GDP, economies will face the problem of inadequate demand. In principle, the economy is capable of producing more goods and services than households and businesses are prepared to buy. This is the situation that we faced in the Great Depression, and again, on a smaller scale, in the Great Recession. It means mass unemployment. In the Great Depression, unemployment peaked at 25 percent of the workforce.
It is ironic that the economists warning about the implications of an aging population not only got the magnitude of the problem wrong, they even got the direction wrong. With our aging population, we don’t have to worry about too much demand, we have to worry about too little. This is yet another example of the old saying that economists are not very good at economics.
Spending Money: The Cure for Secular Stagnation
We discovered the cure for secular stagnation in the 1930s: the government has to spend money to make up for the failure to spend by the private sector. President Roosevelt embraced this strategy to a limited extent with his New Deal programs. These put millions of people back to work while modernizing our housing and infrastructure.
Of course, the government spending program that really got the economy back to full employment was World War II. With the country united behind the need to defeat Germany and Japan, budget deficits ceased being an issue. We saw record low unemployment rates in the war years as tens of millions of workers were either serving in the military or producing the food, clothes, and weapons needed by the military.
The war provided the political support for massive spending (and budget deficits), but it was the spending that got the economy to full employment. Money spent on civilian uses will create jobs every bit as well as money spent on the military.
This brings us back to China’s demographic crisis and global warming. As Paul Krugman wrote in a recent column, China is going to have to make a massive adjustment in its economy in the years ahead. It has been spending an incredible 43 percent of its GDP on capital formation, either investment goods purchased by businesses, or residential housing. By comparison, the figure for Japan is 24 percent and for the United States less than 22 percent.
This massive spending on capital formation made sense when China was seeing rapid growth in its labor force and also a huge shift in its population from rural to urban. But this process is now reaching an endpoint, both with a decline in its working-age population and the rural to urban shift largely completed.
Currently, over 62 percent of China’s population lives in urban areas. The figure for most wealthy countries is close to 80 percent, but the pace of shift for China will be much slower going forward than in the past. In 1980, less than 20 percent of its population was urban.
This means that China’s big problem going forward is to find a way to spend a very large amount of money. For simplicity, let’s say that their needed spending on capital formation falls to 23 percent of GDP, roughly splitting the difference between Japan and the United States. This would mean that China’s government has to figure out what to do with 20 percent of its GDP.
This is an incredible amount of money. In 2021, 20 percent of China’s GDP would be $5.4 trillion. According to the I.M.F.’s projections, the annual amount would be almost $8 trillion in 2026. Over the next decade, it would be more than $80 trillion, that’s more than 20 times the original $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan. In short, it’s real money.
It is also important to note that China is already heavily invested in clean energy. China is by far the world leader in solar energy, with more than twice as much as the United States, the second-largest user of solar power. It is also by far the world leader in wind energy, again with more than twice as much installed wind power as the United States. And, China also has more than twice as many electric cars on the road as any other country.
This means that China has a large domestic clean energy sector which can stand to gain by further spending on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, no one expects that the country will spend anything like $80 trillion over the next decade reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it certainly can commit considerable resources to this effort. In addition to the benefits to the environment, this spending will help China’s economy grow and keep its workforce employed.
This is one of the opportunities created by China’s supposed demographic crisis. The issue is that because of the aging of the population it faces the prospect of a huge shortfall of demand in the economy. This is a good problem for a country to have, if its leadership is adept at managing its resources.
There are many grounds on which to criticize China’s government. It severely represses minority populations, most extremely the Uighurs, many of whom have been imprisoned for months or even years. It also does not respect freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or basic labor rights. But there is no doubt that it has done an outstanding job in managing its economy over the last four decades in a way that has led to an enormous improvement in living standards for the overwhelming majority of its population.
If China wants a path through its “demographic crisis,” or, in other words, coping with secular stagnation, devoting substantial resources towards greening its economy would be a great path forward. In the process, they can also give a big hand to the rest of the world, both by sharing the technology and showing how it can be done, as well as reducing the damage they are doing to the planet themselves.
Dean Baker co-founded CEPR in 1999. His areas of research include housing and macroeconomics, intellectual property, Social Security, Medicare and European labor markets. He is the author of several books, including Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer. His blog, “Beat the Press,” provides commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan.