Four Generations Under One Roof, a 1940s novel by author Lao She about life in Beijing under Japanese occupation, describes what was then an archetypal Chinese family: large, multigenerational, and united. But in modern China, a place of massive internal migration and upheaval, that image is fast becoming quaint.
That's the basic
conclusion reached in an official report released by China's
National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC), the agency charged with
overseeing the country's demographic policy, which shows that Chinese families have become greyer and more isolated, with fewer children. The Development Report of Chinese Families
is the first official study of Chinese
family structure that has been made public, and the picture that emerges from the
report is likely to worry some Chinese economists and policymakers.
Chinese families have been getting smaller for decades, and not just because of the country's reviled family planning policies. Before the 1950s, the average household in China had
more than 5.3 people. But the report shows that number dropping to 3.96 by 1990, and then to 3.02 by 2012. Since 2000, the decrease in birth rates has no longer
been the primary driver of shrinking of family size, with geographic
mobility and changes in social mores playing bigger roles.
Three demographics increasingly stand out: Unmarried young workers, couples
who have delayed or foregone childbirth, and elderly empty-nesters. 160 million
Chinese households, or 40 percent of the nationwide total, now consist only of one or two
people. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, when urbanization was at full
throttle, the number of solo households doubled, and the number of two-member households increased by 68 percent, according to the
In urban areas, 45.4 percent of unmarried residents lived
alone, spurning the traditional practice of living with parents until marriage.
Millions of young Chinese now work in cities far from home -- and even if they
live in the same city as their parents, many do not want to move back into a spare
bedroom once they start working. Young men and women are delaying marriage to
pursue career goals, save up for down payments on cars or houses, fulfill lifestyle choices, or wait to find the
According to the findings, the number of nuclear families,
defined as a married couple with children, declined "significantly" but the number
of dingke families, (a Chinese
transliteration of DINK, or which stands for families with "dual income, no kids"), has been on the rise.
(The report does not specify a number.)
For thousands of years, elderly Chinese had lived with
their children and grandchildren, but that is rapidly changing too, as young people
leave their hometowns for education and employment opportunities. According to the
report, 90 percent of China's elderly live at home instead of assisted
living facilities. But their children and grandchildren often
choose not to live with them, or cannot live with them. The problem is
particularly acute in rural
areas: Millions of young farmhands have left for factories and construction
sites, while rural social security and healthcare resources are comparatively sparse, leaving many elderly to fend for themselves in squalid conditions.
A nascent social security safety net is being built in rural areas, but is
not yet particularly sturdy. According to the report, over 40 percent of senior
citizens above the age of 80 live alone. The report cites another study that
shows 37.5 million elderly Chinese citizens lacked the ability to care
for themselves in 2013. A quarter of all elderly lived
below the poverty line. In a survey released by
the NHFPC, 80 percent of Chinese households say they are worried about supporting their
Responding to the report on social media, Chinese
web users expressed concerns about the future of Chinese families and what
it means for the country's economic and social development. Zhi Xiefei, a
professor at Nanjing Information Technology University in wealthy Jiangsu
that China "would not be able to achieve sustainable growth" based on these
demographic trends. Many blamed China's longstanding family planning policy, which
restricts millions of urban families to only one child per couple. Despite a
major reform to the policy in December 2013 that allowed certain urban
couples to have two children, bureaucratic red tape remains thick, and the cost of
raising children may prove
prohibitive to some couples.
To be sure, there is one bright spot in the report, at least for enterprising real estate developers with an eye on the long term. The report projects that China will
have 500 million households in 2040, compared to 430 million today, because of
the trends toward smaller families. That could mean more demand for urban housing units in the decades to come.
For everyone else, the report is likely to stoke concern. It shows anxieties about the expense of caring for children and parents weighing on Chinese families; that, in turn, is likely to reduce their propensity to spend, just as the Chinese economy becomes increasingly reliant on a burgeoning consumer culture to bolster its growth. For Chinese policymakers, this may be the wake-up call they need to continue to reform the country's much-maligned family planning policy. It may get increasingly rare for four Chinese generations to live in one home. But neither need there be so many families of one.
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