Demographic decline: Too many places have too few people

Most affluent countries and those on the way to prosperity, such as China, all face the same basic dilemma: an aging population and shrinking workforce. China, notes the U.N., by 2050 will suffer a net loss of 60 million people under 15 years of age, approximately the size of Italy’s population. China at the same time will gain nearly 190 million people age 65 and over, approximately the population of Pakistan, which is the world’s sixth most-populous country.

It seems likely that the policy shift away from “one child” may be too late to have much impact. Gavin Jones, a demographer based at the National University of Singapore, traces China’s demographic implosion less to government policy and more to factors such as rapid urbanization and skyrocketing housing prices. Indeed, expensive, prosperous cities like Shanghai and Beijing now have among the lowest fertility rates ever recorded – near 0.7 children per woman, or one-third the replacement rate.

Chinese couples reluctant to have one child do not seem likely to opt for two. Indeed, a 2013 easing of restrictions on family size for limited populations elicited far fewer takers; barely 12 percent of eligible families even applied to take advantage of the change.

Overall, governments are notoriously unsuccessful at getting people to change their basic behaviors.