China’s population growth hit by ‘fewer babies’ and childless households which pose risks for the future, experts say

·6-min read

At 49, Fang Qin says she is content with life without a child.

She has plenty of freedom in how she spends her money and time, and more importantly, her parents are not pushing her to have a baby.

“DINK – double income, no kids – families like mine are nothing new nowadays,” says the handbag shop owner from Jiaxing in eastern China’s Zhejiang province.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

“I’m glad that people are gradually changing their attitudes.

“Compared with 10 years ago, I’m receiving more envy than puzzlement now when I tell people I’m married but don’t have a kid.”

Both Fang’s and her husband’s parents live independently; the three couples are part of the growing number of 2-person families in the world’s most populous country.

As the cost of raising a child rises, many Chinese people are delaying having children. Photo: AFP
As the cost of raising a child rises, many Chinese people are delaying having children. Photo: AFP

According to China’s last population census conducted at the end of 2020, the average number of people living in a Chinese household has dropped to 2.6, down from 3.1 in 2010. In comparison, the average was nearly 4.5 people in the early 1980s.

To have several generations living under one roof is traditionally regarded as a blessing in Chinese culture, but a growing reluctance to have children, an ageing population, and the increasing trend of a mobile population, where one or both parents live away from their children, are creating a large number of smaller families like Fang’s, experts say.

Average household sizes have declined across the globe, according to the United Nations Database on Household Size and Composition from 2019.

In the United States, census data showed that as of 2020, the average family consisted of 3.15 people, down from 3.7 in the 1960s.

The top factor is that there are fewer babies. People are unwilling to raise children

Professor Zhu Qin

Professor Zhu Qin, from the Center for Population and Development Policy Studies under Fudan University, says while it’s a global trend, the decrease in China was quite drastic – half a person has been lost from each household over the last decade.

The Chinese government released the figures of the once-in-a-decade census earlier this month, including the average household size, but has not released detailed statistics about how families are actually formed.

Noting that solid conclusions could only be drawn when such data is available, Zhu says there could be several reasons for shrinking family sizes.

“The top factor is that there are fewer babies. People are unwilling to raise children due to various reasons,” he says.

“Though the government started encouraging all couples to have two children five years ago, rising childcare and education costs and stress from work have dampened enthusiasm of the young generation for babies,” says Zhu.

China witnessed its fourth consecutive fall in the number of newborns last year since it ended its notorious one-child policy in 2016. About 12 million babies were born last year, a drop of 18 per cent from the previous year.

Meanwhile, the proportion of older people is rapidly increasing; with many of them living alone, he says.

“Especially as the average life expectancy increases, there are more families of two or just one person of old age, dragging down the average household size level.”

The latest census found that over 18 per cent of the population are aged 60 or older, up by 5.4 per cent points from 2010.

The rise in the number of parents seeking work away from home means many children and elderly are being left alone in smaller households and, in some cases, face neglect. Photo: AFP
The rise in the number of parents seeking work away from home means many children and elderly are being left alone in smaller households and, in some cases, face neglect. Photo: AFP

“In the past, more people lived in the form of an extended family, with several generations living together, but now there are more nuclear families. Young people tend to live independently after marriage,” Zhu says.

The third reason is the increasingly mobile nature of the population, Zhu says. As family breadwinners leave home to seek better-paid jobs elsewhere, numerous children and elderly people are left behind in smaller towns and villages.

This means a family of five people where two have left seeking work, is split into two and counted as separate households.

“Normally when migration is active, the household size will drop,” Zhu says.

For the 7th census, which was conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s also possible that many people were stranded at the places where they work when the census took place.

As the government encouraged people to stay where they are, more migrant workers who should have been counted as living with their family at home would have been counted as a separate household in the city, he adds.

Cai Yong, an associate professor at the Carolina Population Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says what the census reveals is a combination of family size changes but also changing living arrangements.

“To many, having the choice not to live in a crowded home means privacy and freedom. The drastically declined female suicide rate in China is a good example,” he says.

Under the traditional multi-generation household, conflicts between wives and their mothers-in-law were very common and have been linked to the high suicide rate among rural women, says Cai.

Now, as more couples live independently, such conflicts have decreased considerably and the female suicide rate has dropped by 30 per cent in the past three decades.

A smaller family also means the transformation of social relationships, Cai says.

“Having a DINK family or remaining single doesn’t mean they will lose social support network. They have something different from what we traditionally understand.”

“Kinship is just part of a person’s social relationship. When this part weakens, there’re others to fill. For example, those who don’t have siblings can find similar support from their cousins,” he explains.

The full results of China’s latest census have not yet been released, including detail on how households are being counted. Photo: AFP
The full results of China’s latest census have not yet been released, including detail on how households are being counted. Photo: AFP

The biggest impact of shrinking households may occur in poor areas, he adds. As the labour force in those areas flows to the cities, the elderly and children left behind can face neglect.

There are elderly people living alone in the cities too, but those in the city are relatively better-off and can solve the caring issues by buying services, such as hiring a nanny, he says.

For Fang, the Zhejiang shop owner, life without a child means she could save more money for later in life, and spend more time travelling and exercising while young.

“Having a small family could be good or bad for different people,” she says. “One thing for sure, however, is our society should get more diversified, instead of everybody living in the same way.”

More from South China Morning Post:

This article China’s population growth hit by ‘fewer babies’ and childless households which pose risks for the future, experts say first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2021.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting