Politics & Policy

China’s Baby Boom Needs to Start in the Workplace

The key to increasing fertility to empower women. 

The country's fertility rate peaked under Mao.

Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images

China is home currently to 241 million people over the age of 60, approximately 17 percent of the population. By 2050, the elderly will number around 500 million and account for more than one-third of the population. According to a Monday report by Bloomberg News, the Chinese government has grown so alarmed by these developments that it’s preparing to scrap all limits on the number of children that a family can have. By early next year, the infamous one-child and — more recently — two-child policies should be no more.

QuicktakeChina's Family-Size Limits

That decision is worth celebrating as a victory for reproductive rights. On its own, however, it won’t inspire a baby boom. To encourage Chinese to have more children, the government is going to have to overcome some deeply ingrained biases and make it easier — not harder — for women to work while raising kids.

China’s been aging since at least 1965, when the country’s modern fertility rate peaked. Several factors contributed to the subsequent decline, including the Cultural Revolution and — starting in 1970 — coercive Maoist campaigns to promote later marriages, greater spacing between births, and fewer children. By one accounting, as much as three-quarters of China’s fertility decline since 1970 took place even before the government introduced the one-child policy late in that decade.

Indeed, despite being often brutally enforced, the policy’s impact on China’s fertility rate, population and gender balance appears to have been limited. During the 1980s, the most intense period of enforcement, China’s fertility rate hardly changed at all.

When the rate began to decline again in the 1990s, finally falling below replacement value, economic changes appear to have been the cause. Young Chinese, especially women, suddenly had greater access to education and jobs. To escape the burdens of small-town China, where they were expected to stay in the home and raise families, millions of women migrated to cities and took up factory work. Others took advantage of an expanding education system. Today, 52 percent of Chinese women enroll in tertiary education while fewer than 40 percent of men do the same. Career independence is a common goal, with 63.3 percent of women participating in the workforce.

These women face discrimination, even from the government, for choosing work over children. Since 2007, the government has promoted the term “leftover women” to scapegoat successful, educated, unmarried, urban women over the age of 27. The official attitudes trickle down to workplaces, where according to one comprehensive 2017 survey, 43 percent of women with graduate degrees experienced employment discrimination (compared to 22 percent overall). Likewise, married women without children and women in prime child-bearing years were much more likely to face discrimination than their peers.

Pushing women to leave the workforce to have kids will hardly help matters. At a time when the cost of raising children in China is becoming ever more expensive — and a leading factor cited by families that choose not to have more than one child — women need equal access to the job market and equal pay. The first step should be to ensure both by actively enforcing anti-discrimination laws. That’s part of a successful approach that Sweden adopted as early as the 1930s to boost a declining fertility rate, and there’s no reason — beyond political will — that it couldn’t be successful in China, too.

Officials also need to rethink well-meaning policies that are designed to help working women. For example, last year the government expanded parental-leave policies in 30 provinces. Yet rather than be embraced by the public, the decision was widely dismissed and derided as yet another excuse for employers to avoid hiring and promoting women of child-bearing age. Instead of lengthening leaves, they should be shortened and be made more generous, allowing families to receive a full salary for the duration.

They should then be supplemented with the introduction of a universal childcare program. While an expensive and long-term proposition, that’s not as far-fetched an idea as it might seem. After all, China is keen to expand its service economy and childcare is an excellent way to boost skilled and semi-skilled employment.

If employment shortages emerge, migrants from Southeast Asia could help fill the gap. (China recently concluded an agreement to hire 100,000 Filipino English teachers.) A program could be rolled out in stages from expensive cities to the rural countryside, where demand is lower due to the presence of extended families and grandparents.

There’s no question that China’s low fertility rate is a long-term burden. But it’s also a reminder of the extraordinary economic and social progress the country has made over four decades. As China looks to increase its population, it should do so by embracing those changes, not seeking to reverse them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net

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