Photographer: Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

China's Migrant Workforce Is Aging

China has published its annual report on migrant labor trends
  • The number of non-farm rural workers is growing less slowly
  • Migrant workers are better educated but staying closer to home

A typical Chinese migrant worker is now less likely to be a teenager trekking across the country for a factory job in a southern boom town.

Instead, as China’s economy matures, its migrant worker force is also aging, staying closer to home, and increasingly working in stores and restaurants rather than on assembly lines.

These are some of the conclusions from an annual report on migrant workers recently published by China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

First, one definition: The migrant worker category actually refers to  “peasant workers” – that is, rural workers who no longer farm the land they're registered for.

Whether in the village down the road or a city far away, their growth is slowing, standing at 281 million in 2016, up 1.5 percent year-on-year. That's still close to the population of the U.S.

The category of men and women who've left their home for better economic futures in expanding urban centers have served as a major pillar of the labor force for more than two decades – without enjoying the same social services as urban residents. But this class is now shrinking, and stands at 60.1 percent of all “peasant workers” in 2016, down from 62.8 percent in 2011.

With the general working-age population declining, lower mobility by rural residents could boost wage gains, posing a competitiveness challenge.

Still, the labor force is better equipped. More held college degrees or above than 2015 -- more than 9 percent -- and the age profile is shifting with almost a fifth now being over 50.

And if there are fewer stories of teenagers from poor central regions traveling to a Shenzhen factory job, that's actually government policy.

Officials wary of unmanageable growth in key cities including Shanghai and Beijing have strictly capped the population while encouraging workers to move to smaller provincial hubs.

Confirming this trend, even though there can be a huge gap between rural and urban wages, countryside pay is growing at a faster pace.

Here's the lowdown on China's economic data

While 52.9 percent of "peasant workers" had jobs in manufacturing and construction sectors, the usual destinations for most of them a decade ago, more are being employed in services: 46.7 percent had jobs in the tertiary sector, led by with wholesale, retail, residential services, hotel and catering. That’s up from 44.5 percent in the previous year.

Services accounted for 56.5 percent of China’s economy in the first quarter. Technology, commercial services, real estate, transportation, and lodging and catering all expanded faster than the economy's 6.9 growth rate.

Read Next: Chinese Workers Might Not Be Too Happy With Their Pay Raises

— With assistance by Xiaoqing Pi

(For more economic analysis, see Benchmark)
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