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China's aging population may weigh on economy

BEIJING—China is steadily turning gray and slowing its gait.

A senior official said Tuesday that the nation had climbed onto an extraordinarily steep demographic ramp that would lead to an explosion in the number of elderly.

Within two decades, China will have 300 million people 60 and older—equivalent to the population of the United States today—and the number of older citizens will keep climbing for a quarter-century after that.

"The situation is very serious," said Li Bengong, the executive deputy director of the China National Committee on Aging. "We have weak economic capability to cope with the aging of the population."

Li said accelerating changes would transform China and put heavy pressure on its strained health-care and limited social-security systems. Social conflicts may emerge between burdened workers and retirees, and in remote rural areas with high numbers of senior citizens, he added.

At the end of last year, China had 144 million people 60 and older, Li said. That figure will skyrocket to 200 million by 2014, 300 million in 2026, 400 million by 2037 and top out at 437 million in 2051, according to a research paper he released.

Only a few decades ago, demographers considered China a relatively young nation.

A population surge followed Mao Zedong's takeover in 1949. Those born in the communist era are easing out of the work force now and into slippers. China is the world's most populous nation, with 1.3 billion people.

Few major countries have ever faced such an accelerated transition to an "aged society," Li said, noting that only 5 percent of China's population was 60 or older in 1982. Now 11 percent of its citizens are in that age group. By 2020, 17.2 percent of the population will be 60 or older, and 30 percent of the population will be in that age group by 2050.

"It took China 18 years to complete this historical transformation against decades, or even centuries, for developed countries," Li said.

Many Chinese will grow old before the nation becomes well off, putting additional demands on a work force that soon will remain stagnant in size.

Even as the numbers of elderly soar, China struggles to provide social benefits to retirees. Only 17 percent of China's work force is covered by social security, leaving huge numbers of older people dependent on savings or support from extended families.

China has about 1.5 million beds in retirement centers and nursing homes, Li said, barely a seventh the rate of what's commonly available in developed countries.

One unusual aspect is the rise in the octogenarian population. China now has 16 million people who are 80 or older. By 2050, the 80-plus contingent is forecast to hit 94.4 million, nearly a third of the current U.S. population.

Rural areas host a greater percentage of elderly than cities do, Li said, a trend that will continue until 2040. That sets China apart from developed countries, where urban elderly populations usually are greater, he added.

Elderly women will become increasingly common. Today, there are 4.6 million more elderly women than men. By 2049, the peak year, the disparity will reach 26.4 million more elderly women than men, the research paper said.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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