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Opinion
Justin Fox

China's Economic Engine Is About to Start Shrinking

The nation’s working-age population could decline by two-thirds or more by century’s end, according to new UN projections.

A shrinking advantage.

A shrinking advantage.

Source: China Photos/Getty Images AsiaPac

For a few decades now, China has been converging with the US economically. Depending how you measure it, its gross domestic product has either already passed that of its great global rival or is getting ever closer. Average incomes are still much lower in China, but by another key metric of living standards, life expectancy, China matched the US in the pandemic year of 2020. 

As this century progresses, though, it appears that China will be experiencing economic convergence with the US of another, less positive kind. The country’s working-age population of nearly a billion (defined here as those ages 15 through 64) has been essential to its economic rise, enabling it to become the workshop of the world and a vast consumer market. But according to population projections released last week by the United Nations, this cohort will start declining rapidly in the 2030s, and shrink by almost two-thirds by the end of the century. With the US working-age population projected to be about the same size in 2100 as it is now, China’s will go from more than four times larger to less than twice as big. Throw in Canada and Mexico, which aren’t exactly part of the same labor market as the US but do share a free-trade zone, and China’s working-age population is projected to be only 1.2 times bigger.