China's controversially successful one-child per couple birth control policy has added fuel to the fire of a looming healthcare and labor shortage crisis expected to hit the country within the next decade, says UCI sociologist Wang Feng.

His findings have been the subject of several published studies, the most recent appearing in the April 2007 issue of Population and Development Review.

With a newly awarded three-year, $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Wang and his research team will further explore the policy's social and economic implications in hopes of impacting change on an international level.

"A fundamental shift has been occurring in the demographic structure of more than half the world's population over the last 20 years," he says.

Fertility levels necessary to maintain population sizes have dropped below replacement levels in a number of countries due to factors such as rising costs of daycare and education expenses that cause couples to delay plans for families or halt them altogether.

The issue for China, says Wang, is further compounded due to the country's 30 year strict enforcement of the one-child policy which, in limiting 63% of couples in the country to having only one child, has led to a disproportionate ratio of males to females and a subsequently steadily declining fertility level.

For China, as well as other countries in the world who have achieved a low mortality level, the national fertility numbers would need to be approximately 2.1 children per couple for rates of births to counter deaths over the long run.

The country's current level, however, is between 1.5 and 1.6 children per couple.

As a result, says Wang, the country's once favorable age structure of younger workers that helped propel economic growth during the last two decades is now trending downward while the median population age continues to creep up.

"With China's low fertility level, we are already certain to see the number of new entrants to the workforce, aged 20-24, cut in half within the next 10 years," he says. "We will also see the median population age of the entire country increase to 50 years old by the year 2050 if the current demographic trend continues."

He warns that the economic and social implications of these trends will be irreversible as large population shifts carry a momentum that can last for decades, and no country to date has been successful at reversing the downward shift.

Mass labor shortages and a strained healthcare system will be some of the effects, he says, as older workers retire at a rate quicker than the waning younger population is able to take their place.

The increasingly older population will negatively impact the country's social and healthcare systems as smaller family structures with only one child or no children at all will be less capable of taking on the responsibility to care for aging parents.

"Continuing enforcement of the one-child policy in China, in light of the changed demographics, is not only unnecessary but also harmful as Chinese families and society continue to pay the costs of such a draconian and outdated policy," says Wang.

With their new funding, Wang and fellow researchers will continue their investigation into the reasons why fertility has dropped to such a low level and the effects of China's population control policy with hopes of impacting future policy changes for China and other countries around the world facing similar demographic scenarios.

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