Tea Leaf Nation

Will China Get Lonely Before It Gets Rich?

Will China Get Lonely Before It Gets Rich?

Four Generations Under One Roof, a 1940s novel by author Lao She about life in Beijing under Japanese occupation, describes what was then an archetypal Chinese family: large, multigenerational, and united. But in modern China, a place of massive internal migration and upheaval, that image is fast becoming quaint.

That’s the basic conclusion reached in an official report released by China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC), the agency charged with overseeing the country’s demographic policy, which shows that Chinese families have become greyer and more isolated, with fewer children. The Development Report of Chinese Families is the first official study of Chinese family structure that has been made public, and the picture that emerges from the report is likely to worry some Chinese economists and policymakers.

Chinese families have been getting smaller for decades, and not just because of the country’s reviled family planning policies. Before the 1950s, the average household in China had more than 5.3 people. But the report shows that number dropping to 3.96 by 1990, and then to 3.02 by 2012. Since 2000, the decrease in birth rates has no longer been the primary driver of shrinking of family size, with geographic mobility and changes in social mores playing bigger roles.

Three demographics increasingly stand out: Unmarried young workers, couples who have delayed or foregone childbirth, and elderly empty-nesters. 160 million Chinese households, or 40 percent of the nationwide total, now consist only of one or two people. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, when urbanization was at full throttle, the number of solo households doubled, and the number of two-member households increased by 68 percent, according to the report.

In urban areas, 45.4 percent of unmarried residents lived alone, spurning the traditional practice of living with parents until marriage. Millions of young Chinese now work in cities far from home — and even if they live in the same city as their parents, many do not want to move back into a spare bedroom once they start working. Young men and women are delaying marriage to pursue career goals, save up for down payments on cars or houses, fulfill lifestyle choices, or wait to find the right mate.

According to the findings, the number of nuclear families, defined as a married couple with children, declined "significantly" but the number of dingke families, (a Chinese transliteration of DINK, or which stands for families with "dual income, no kids"), has been on the rise. (The report does not specify a number.)

For thousands of years, elderly Chinese had lived with their children and grandchildren, but that is rapidly changing too, as young people leave their hometowns for education and employment opportunities. According to the report, 90 percent of China’s elderly live at home instead of assisted living facilities. But their children and grandchildren often choose not to live with them, or cannot live with them. The problem is particularly acute in rural areas: Millions of young farmhands have left for factories and construction sites, while rural social security and healthcare resources are comparatively sparse, leaving many elderly to fend for themselves in squalid conditions.

A nascent social security safety net is being built in rural areas, but is not yet particularly sturdy. According to the report, over 40 percent of senior citizens above the age of 80 live alone. The report cites another study that shows 37.5 million elderly Chinese citizens lacked the ability to care for themselves in 2013. A quarter of all elderly lived below the poverty line. In a survey released by the NHFPC, 80 percent of Chinese households say they are worried about supporting their elderly relatives.

Responding to the report on social media, Chinese web users expressed concerns about the future of Chinese families and what it means for the country’s economic and social development. Zhi Xiefei, a professor at Nanjing Information Technology University in wealthy Jiangsu province, wrote that China "would not be able to achieve sustainable growth" based on these demographic trends. Many blamed China’s longstanding family planning policy, which restricts millions of urban families to only one child per couple. Despite a major reform to the policy in December 2013 that allowed certain urban couples to have two children, bureaucratic red tape remains thick, and the cost of raising children may prove prohibitive to some couples.  

To be sure, there is one bright spot in the report, at least for enterprising real estate developers with an eye on the long term. The report projects that China will have 500 million households in 2040, compared to 430 million today, because of the trends toward smaller families. That could mean more demand for urban housing units in the decades to come. 

For everyone else, the report is likely to stoke concern. It shows anxieties about the expense of caring for children and parents weighing on Chinese families; that, in turn, is likely to reduce their propensity to spend, just as the Chinese economy becomes increasingly reliant on a burgeoning consumer culture to bolster its growth. For Chinese policymakers, this may be the wake-up call they need to continue to reform the country’s much-maligned family planning policy. It may get increasingly rare for four Chinese generations to live in one home. But neither need there be so many families of one.