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Changing demographics create new research foci

Age group data collected from China's previous six national censuses Source: National Bureau of Statistics


In light of new demographic conditions, scholars can expand their demographic theoretical framework with Chinese characteristics in two ways. First, demographic study is expected to bolster balanced demographic development in the long run. Second, tackling population aging should become a national strategy. The demographic research circle is tasked with constructing a comprehensive research system consistent with social development trends and national governance demands in the new era. 
 
Major features
Regarding national development, population remains a fundamental and strategic influence. Its scale, structure, distribution, and quality are national conditions that greatly affect a country's economic and social development. In the new era, the Chinese population will demonstrate four features.
 
First, the population size is growing at a slower pace. The 13th Five-Year Plan period saw a baby boom due to the two-child birth policy. The number of births started to fall when women of childbearing age who wanted two children finished giving birth to the second child. In the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021–2025), the growth in population numbers will decrease as there are fewer women of childbearing age, and as women share a declining interest in having children. China may even experience negative population growth in these five years. 
 
Meanwhile, personal family decisions will replace national birth policies, whose impacts are dwindling, and become the major factor affecting fertility. China will formulate measures to provide families with childcare support, such as lowering parenting costs, coordinating between family duties and workloads, and improving medical services.
 
Second, the population structure is facing unprecedented challenges. The adjusted birth policy brought about a short-term rebound in the number of newborns, but it failed to reverse the long-term trend. During the 14th Five-Year Plan period, China will see fewer newborns and a decreasing working-age population, therefore, the demographic dividend will be fading. China will undergo a demographic transition to a moderately aging society and is expected to fall into the category of super-aged society around 2035, challenging the social security and welfare system. Meanwhile, marriageable men and women are experiencing a cultural shift in regard to perspectives on marriage. Climbing divorce rates, increased median ages for a first marriage, and higher cohabitation rates, coupled with low interest in childbirth, have resulted in a decline in the average household size, and also persistent growth in household numbers. The growth rate of household numbers will be higher than that of the population size, exacerbating problems such as empty nesters (senior citizens without children around to help care for them).
 
Third, the economic transformation has encountered obstacles while trying to improve population quality. Thanks to rapid economic and social development, China’s immense investments in basic and higher education have started to have a positive effect. Improvements to the workforce demographic have laid the human capital foundation for economic and social development. However, at the current stage, the overall demographic quality still significantly lags behind the level of social development. People with low education levels still account for a large share of the workforce, amplifying the fading demographic dividend’s negative impact upon the economy and society. Demographic studies and policy design should consider ways to increase people’s education levels and health conditions, cushioning the downward demographic dividend.
 
Fourth, regional population discrepancies show new trends. China is, and will long remain, in the primary stage of socialism. Therefore, Chinese populations continue to gather in megacities, and regional population development shows remarkable differences. Major problems remain unsolved, including uneven progress in urbanization, imbalanced population distribution and public resource allocation, worsening urban environments, and frequent "big city diseases" such as air quality, traffic congestion and cost of living. In the current context, as urbanization deepens and migrant populations surge, individual migration cases have grown into group movements. The focus of demographic research has shifted towards domestic migration and social integration, expanding to include studies of left-behind children and empty nesters.
 
New scholarly missions
Demography, compared with other disciplines, pays greater attention to realistic problems. Through a dynamic prism, it examines new trends and discovers population development opportunities. Facing multiple emerging problems due to the demographic transition, academia should embark on a population development path consistent with national conditions, form localized research discourse that keeps pace with the times, boost creative solutions to population governance, and enact measures targeting major demographic shifts.
 
Scholars should reconstruct a disciplinary and discourse system of demography that is suitable for the new population situation. As a latecomer to modernization, China is different from Western countries in terms of its population problems, which feature a large scale, abrupt changes, and great complexity. Meanwhile, its demographic features and problems come from distinct cultural and institutional backdrops, intimately related to practical, systematic, and targeted national population policies.
 
Demography should re-examine the positioning of its research in the new era, reduce dependence on Western theoretical approaches, innovate population governance concepts, and put forward academic propositions based on local practices, shaping demographic transformation and governance theories with Chinese characteristics.
 
Second, demographic scholars should connect to other disciplines and leverage their strengths. The integration will create novel development opportunities. The shift in demographic development will reach a range of fields beyond population, such as national economic resilience, social stability, and quality of life. Therefore, demographic study in China should interact with politics, economics, technology, and medical care. Its re-positioning will help train professionals proficient in demography and other disciplines and establish a comprehensive theoretical framework so that policymakers can detect potential risks, turn crises into opportunities, and nourish new engines for development. 
 
Third, demographic researchers should have a wide role in consulting national social and economic development. As the direct reference for decision-making and technical support for top-level design, population research needs to explore more new ideas and strengthen research integrity, keeping in mind that the population problem is a complex and systematic project. 
 
The research field should focus on the whole picture of economic and social development, and better tackle population challenges through mid- to long-term analysis and forecasting. China's population governance is complex, so demographic research should reflect this, observing the exploratory measures of demographic governance at the primary level. Their practices should align with macro planning and curtail policy fragmentation. In this way, the construction of top-level population mechanisms and the practice of primary-level population governance practices can interact and connect in a beneficial way. This integration will improve China's ability for demographic research and governance. Also, governments will better detect and prevent major social risks, promote reasonable demographic decision-making, and encourage the rational optimization of decision-making mechanisms and the implementation of scientific research outcomes.
 
Finally, demography should integrate survey data and innovate analytical methods in a uniquely Chinese context. Population research emphasizes quantitative analysis and empirical research, and innovation in analytical methods and technology is paramount. Demographic analysis technology is a science that adopts modern theories and research methods such as modern mathematics, systems engineering, and computer science to compile and analyze all population survey data, thereby inspecting and studying population phenomena and connections with the economy, culture, and society. Facing new problems and challenges, population research should not solely adopt a theoretical perspective, but also should observe the process of population movement and development, pay attention to the role of survey data, and sharpen population survey methods. 
 
Integrated survey data from several departments can help establish an open data-sharing platform, and use research results to resolve future population risks. Scholars should strengthen the applicability of population research based on the principles of innovation and feasibility. Also, it is necessary to further innovate population analytical technology, use emerging technologies to compile population survey data, apply big data technology to demographic study, and achieve a profound understanding of population phenomena and their links with the economy, culture, and society.
 
In short, China has entered a crucial juncture in which the nation's demographics are undergoing transitional changes. The COVID-19 pandemic, as an emergent factor, will also have a significant impact on the country's fertility, mortality, and internal migration. From a medium- to long-term perspective, its population development faces multiple problems. Interwoven problems' impact on economic and social development will run deep. Therefore, it is time to grasp disciplinary development opportunities brought by new research foci while modifying theoretical approaches to, and analytical methods of, demographic research.
 
Lu Jiehua is a professor from the Department of Sociology at Peking University. Gu Yuchen is from the same department.

Edited by MA YUHONG


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