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Lost among all the chatter about China and its effects on oil prices, global economies, and capital markets is the evolution of its workforce, which can at least partially explain some of the “hard landing” scenarios discussed for the country. More specifically, the slowing growth in China’s working age population is not expected to reverse, and this trend could have a meaningful impact on future growth prospects, both domestically and abroad. If its workforce is aging and growing at a rate slower than past generations, future economic growth may be muted.
Shown here in the red line is China’s working age population, using the left-hand axis, as it grew from about 800 million in 1990 to about 1 billion today, and its projected decline projected to about 750 million in 2050. We similarly plotted Japan’s working age population, using the right-hand axis, but 20 years earlier, in the blue line. Japan showed a similar trajectory of working age population growth, from about 70 million in 1970 to a peak of about 85 million in 1995, and is projected to drop to 70 million in 2030. In other words, China’s working age population growth and decline pattern are almost identical to that of Japan’s, but only one generation behind.
With Japan’s working age population currently less than its peak in 1995, economic growth has slowed as the non-working age population increasingly lives off of the economic growth generated by the working age population. Japan has had to resort to fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reforms (Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Three Arrows” Abenomics policies) to battle this slowdown. If the current trajectory of its workforce continues, China may also have to implement similar measures in the decades to come. While continued technological and production efficiencies as well as a delay in the retirement age may help mitigate this slowdown, it is a dynamic that bears watching in the coming years.
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