Population getting too old, too soon

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 February, 2006, 12:00am

Planners warn of shortfall in providing services for the aged

China is poorly positioned to deal with the impact of its ageing society and must act now to deal with a peak in the elderly population, believed to be about 25 years away, according to a report published yesterday by a top state population agency.

'China's preparations for handling ageing problems are insufficient, mentally, materially or in terms of system [construction],' according to the National Ageing Working Committee.

In terms of United Nations criteria, the nation became an ageing society in 1999, when more than 10 per cent of its population was aged at least 60.

The report said the ageing problem was the result of the surge in births between 1949 and the late 1970s, when the one-child policy was launched.

Because these baby booms occurred before the economic opening-up began in the late 1970s, the mainland became an ageing society before it could achieve its goal of being a 'modernised country'.

The report said that by the end of 2004, 143 million people, 10.97 per cent of the population, were elderly - a proportion expected to peak at more than 30 per cent in 2051.

'The situation will be most acute between 2030 and 2050. We just have around 25 years to prepare,' said the committee's acting director, Li Bengong .

Xinhua quoted Mr Li as saying that population problems had to be treated at an early stage, otherwise policies would not be effective.

The report said there were about 38,000 welfare institutions dedicated to the elderly throughout the country, with a total of 1.2 million beds, working out to just 8.6 beds per 1,000 old people, a much lower ratio than the average of between 50 and 70 in developed countries.

The authors said services offering help and psychological comfort to the elderly had been 'developing slowly' in recent years, and a sound social security system had yet to be established to guarantee pension payments and medical care.

The mainland announced a deficit of more than 720 billion yuan in individual social security fund accounts last year. The money, deposited by employees to fund part of their future pensions, is used by the government to pay people who have retired.

The 'getting old before getting affluent' phenomenon is the reverse of the situation in most developed countries and government think-tanks are debating how to address the problem.

Many economists have suggested adjusting the population structure by loosening family planning policies to allow more births. But many population researchers oppose the idea and raise concerns about the impact more people would have on the resources.

The UN forecasts that the mainland will have the biggest elderly population in the world in the first half of this century and will be overtaken by India in the second half.