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“Demographics is destiny”- Arthur Kemp

I take a good bit of pleasure in researching world demographics. I am particularly interested in learning about the age structures of societies because cohort size has a significant influence on quality of life.

This evening, I strolled around Houhai Lake in Beijing with my family. We came to China to celebrate the wedding of my sister-in-law. We promenaded around the shore of the lake which was crowded with thousands of Chinese who were on a week-long national holiday. Families took photos on an arching bridge over the lake and snacked on pungent treats that vendors were selling. While many of the foods were off-putting to me, I could tell by the gusto with which people ate that I was in the minority and out of my own culture.

China is in a very curious, and indeed troubling, demographic situation. The Middle Kingdom experienced a Baby-boom during the Cultural Revolution as many nations do post-war when economies grow and people are confident enough to have multiple children. When the growth of the population became too great, the central planners instituted the widely known one-child policy. There are many reasons that the policy was myopic and damaging to the Chinese people. Not only are there fewer children than older people in China, one consequence was that the Chinese preferences for sons resulted in a dramatic gender imbalance of roughly 117 boys to 100 girls for several generations.

In China today, there are many families with four grandparents, two parents, and one child. Having been a family caregiver and having founded a company that serves elders and caregivers, I know first-hand how important elders are in the lives of the young and how critical the young are in helping the aged manage the physical and cognitive decline that may come in later life.

Quality of life

Over the past few decades, millions of Chinese have worked their way out of poverty and the economy of China continues to grow. While many remain in what I consider to be abject living conditions, as I walked around Houhai Lake, I could see that many more people have better quality of life than I had seen eleven years before when I visited China last.

One measure of quality of life that I use is the smart phone. I could join a debate on either side about the mind-numbing, yet marvelously liberating aspects of the gadget that rarely leaves my pocket. Perhaps that will be another post. The Chinese people I saw snapping photos and chatting on Skype had an amazing link to the world that could not have been imagined in the days of Mao (although the government regrettably restricts internet access).

There are many examples of improved quality of life in China such as; better access to transportation, nutrition, information, health care and education. I pause to reassert that the rosy picture I’m painting here does not note that roughly a billion people in China still live in poverty. However, improvements have been made.

When blending the alarming demographic realities of China with the improvements in quality of life, my line of thinking goes to the great number of people who will age without the support of children. For those Chinese parents who were lucky enough to have a child, the burden of caregiving will be great for that child as they balance the responsibility of family and the continuous effort required to improve quality of life in China’s new economy.

Looking at the Chinese situation objectively, there is great reason to be pessimistic for quality of life in older age. I am an optimist however and as we strolled around the lake and as the sun began to set on an evening that could be best described as sultry, I couldn’t help but notice elders in wheelchairs being accompanied by family members who seemed genuinely pleased at their presence and I remembered that numbers don’t tell the whole story.

My best,

Thomas

 

 

 

 


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