Dramatic demographic changes are underway in China that will shape the country’s economic, social, and geopolitical outlook for decades to come. These much-discussed shifts include a slump in the numbers of working-age people, the rapid aging of the population, and a growing gender imbalance with men significantly outnumbering women. Yet one absolutely momentous demographic trend has attracted far less attention: the coming transformation of the Chinese family structure.

In the span of a generation, Chinese families will be much thinner than ever before. Extended kinship networks will atrophy across the nation, and many people will no longer have close blood relatives. This shift in the nature of the Chinese family is the unavoidable consequence of China’s prolonged decline in fertility rates, a trend that predated the implementation of Beijing’s harsh one-child policy in 1979 and continues beyond the official conclusion of the policy in 2015. It amounts to a radical change in a society historically defined by the importance of filial ties.

The withering of the Chinese family is by now essentially inevitable, and its ramifications will be felt surprisingly soon. It will impose financial burdens on individuals and limit their ability to move and pursue risky entrepreneurial careers. The Chinese state will see its economic power and defense policies curtailed. To a degree that China’s leaders may not yet anticipate, the changing structure of the Chinese family poses a threat to the country’s great-power ambitions in the decades to come.

PEAK FAMILY

Empires and states have conducted censuses for thousands of years—enumerating head counts for military mobilization, for example, or households for taxation—but governments have rarely collected data on the structure of families. Beijing is no exception. Researchers must turn to modeling, as we have, to understand what Chinese families will look like in the future according to historical and anticipated trends in birth, death, marriage, and divorce rates.

Our modeling of Chinese kinship reveals that the country has entered the era of “peak family”: on average, the Chinese extended family is larger now than in any preceding period—but is set to become only smaller in subsequent years. This finding may seem counterintuitive, in that the stereotype of a traditional Chinese family from the past includes large contingents of siblings, cousins, and other relatives. But that image is actually misleading. Birthrates were higher in the past than they are now, but living kin were much scarcer thanks to higher death rates.

The withering of the Chinese family is by now essentially inevitable.

As recently as 1950, we estimate, only about seven percent of Chinese men and women in their 50s had any living parents; the corresponding figure today exceeds 60 percent. Even after three decades of sub-replacement level fertility (that is, the average couple has fewer than two children), older Chinese adults have decidedly more living children and are also much more likely to have a living spouse now than they were around the time of the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Counts of cousins are even more remarkable: only one in four Chinese people in their 30s had ten or more living cousins in 1950, but more than 90 percent do today. It seems safe to say that Chinese networks of relatives have never been as large as they were at the start of the twenty-first century.

The last 40 years have seen China’s breathtaking economic boom coincide with the strengthening of its extended family networks. No one has yet examined the role of changing family structure in China’s dazzling developmental advance, but family dynamics surely helped China take advantage of its much-discussed “demographic dividend” of having a disproportionately young, working-age population. Numbers of working-age siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, and other relatives surged in post-Mao China, providing one another with access to professional and entrepreneurial opportunities as well as strengthening informal safety nets. Big families helped their members navigate the upheavals and transformations in the Chinese economy.

FUTURE IMPLOSION

But the extended family in China has already reached its quantitative zenith. Families in China are not only aging but shrinking—and at an accelerating pace. China’s sub-replacement level fertility rate—a pervasive and by now prolonged trend—is drying up the nation’s pool of siblings and cousins. Fertility rates increased slightly immediately after the relaxation of the one-child policy in 2015 but then slumped. The overall trajectory remains one of decline, running parallel to similar declines in fertility rates in East Asian countries that have not imposed coercive population control policies. A veritable implosion of China’s kinship networks looms.

Let’s look forward by roughly a generation. In 2050, the average young Chinese person under the age of 30 will have only a fifth as many cousins as today, and almost no young Chinese will live in families with large numbers of cousins. Barely one percent of those under ten will have ten or more living cousins by 2050, and almost one in six will have no cousins at all. A similar collapse looks to be in store for Chinese networks of uncles and aunts. The average numbers of aunts and uncles will soon be not only vastly lower than today but significantly lower than pre-Mao times as well.

Chinese people will have fewer siblings. In earlier times, it was highly unusual for young people to have no living brothers or sisters, high death rates notwithstanding. Declining fertility rates coupled with China’s strict one-child policy changed all that. By 2050, two-fifths of Chinese under 50 will be only children.

Nevertheless, almost all 30- or 40-somethings in 2050 who don’t have siblings will still have cousins, uncles, and aunts. Not so Chinese youth: by then nearly a sixth of China’s children and teenagers will have no brothers, sisters, uncles, or aunts. The slump in births that followed the lifting of the one-child policy in 2015 may have surprised planners in Beijing, but it should not have: sub-replacement level fertility rates are the norm today throughout East Asia, from Japan and South Korea to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Even poorer neighbors, such as Myanmar and Vietnam, have seen similar declines in fertility rates. Still more siblingless young people will have just one or two such relatives. Thus, a significant minority of this coming generation in China—many tens of millions of people—will traverse life from school through work and on into retirement with little or no firsthand experience of the traditional extended family so integral to Chinese culture. Theirs will be the generation that in effect finds 2,500 years of Confucian tradition coming to an end.

FILIAL BURDENS

The great graying of China’s population will magnify the pressures from the coming hollowing of the family structure. The percentage of the population over the age of 65 is on track to nearly triple by 2060. Today, four out of five Chinese men and women 70 and older have two or more living children. That relative abundance of grown children is fortuitous, because the family remains China’s primary social security system for supporting the elderly. According to one economic study, personal earnings plus public benefits cover less than half of current living costs in China for those aged 65 and older: family members make up the rest.

But tomorrow’s seniors will have to find other sources of support. Roughly half of China’s 60-somethings in 2050 will have only one living child, and a large share of China’s older population will have no children at all. Almost all of these childless seniors will be men. Today, just five percent of China’s men in their 70s have no living offspring. Our simulations suggest that share will rise to 14 percent by 2050 and 19 percent by 2060. In a best-case scenario, 15 percent of today’s young Chinese men will never marry.

Middle-aged people will face extraordinary new obligations for the care of aging parents. The overwhelming majority of middle-aged Chinese in 2050 will have elderly parents: more than 90 percent of men and women in their 40s will have at least one living parent and nearly three-fifths will have two of them. A substantial minority of middle-aged people will be only children (or sole surviving children). Most of these only children will have not just one but two living parents when they are middle-aged. Moreover, only children who marry only children will face the pressure in their middle-age years to care for both their parents and their in-laws. Those who do not marry—mostly men—will shoulder this filial burden alone.

FRAYING SOCIAL BONDS

In China’s future upside-down population pyramid, extended families will wither from the bottom up, the result of relatives never born.  These shifts will cause profound and far-reaching change in China’s society and economy—and may recast geopolitical realities as well. Material advances notwithstanding, the shrinking, aging, and more atomized China of 2050 may be a profoundly pessimistic place.

China’s elderly will vastly outnumber its children by 2050. People over 65 will consume far more than they earn. An even bigger government, with more expansive public programs and greater claims on national (or global) resources, is on its way.

Yet the most consequential economic impact of China’s coming revolution in family structure may be not on macroeconomic balances but instead on the microeconomic foundations of the national economy. From China’s earliest recorded history, guanxi networks of informal social relations (mainly but not exclusively through family ties) have helped get business done for the modest and the mighty alike by reducing uncertainty and facilitating economic transactions. These sorts of networks remain essential today and supply the necessary trust that helps business get done. The coming decades’ implosion of China’s extended family networks portends a national decline in this kind of trust and social capital.

Newborn babies in Wuhan, China, August 2006
Newborn babies in Wuhan, China, August 2006
Stringer / Reuters

The future plunge in living biological kin will batter the Chinese economy. Just as the proliferation of blood relatives was a powerful stimulant for growth during the era of China’s economic upswing, the rapid evaporation of these same networks may serve as an economic depressant and help cause a downswing.

With fewer family members, people might take fewer risks, eschewing entrepreneurship for more reliable but less productive forms of economic activity, such as rent seeking. Such risk aversion may also reduce both geographic and social mobility. For instance, the migrants who have fueled China’s urbanization and economic growth often depend on trusted sources to find jobs and lodging. The engines of urbanization may sputter if people do not have these extended networks, if they cannot stay with a cousin in the city, for example, or leave their children with relatives in the countryside. To be sure, humans are adaptable social beings and functions traditionally performed by relatives will doubtless be approximated tomorrow, after a fashion, by neighbors, friends, and even the Internet. It is unclear how serviceable these substitutes will prove to be, even as the impending implosion of the extended family—until now, perhaps the central institution of Chinese civilization—is essentially certain.

A CHECK ON GREAT-POWER AMBITIONS

Developments within the Chinese family could complicate the quest of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for power at home and abroad. The dissolution of the Chinese family is likely to undercut China’s economic potential in ways as yet unaccounted for in official calculations. A generation from now, China will likely be wealthier and more productive than it is today—but not nearly as wealthy and productive as its national directorate assumes it will be, thanks to these demographic headwinds. And if the waning of the family requires China to build a huge social welfare state over the coming generation, as we surmise it will, then Beijing will have that much less wherewithal at its disposal for influencing events abroad through economic diplomacy and defense policy.

The winnowing of the family could shape future Chinese foreign and defense strategy. Policymakers will be wary of any actions that could lead to great casualties. Such losses could engender resistance and anger in a population composed largely of one-child families, constraining Beijing’s security policies in the decades ahead.

Beijing has a superb cadre of well-trained demographers upon whom Chinese leaders rely for expert advice. But these experts cannot analyze what they cannot count, and China has never gathered data on the country’s extended family patterns. The coming transformation of the Chinese family is for now likely a blind spot for the CCP—and has all the makings of a “strategic surprise,” with the potential to throw Beijing’s great plans into disarray.

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  • NICHOLAS EBERSTADT is Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • ASHTON VERDERY is Harry and Elissa Sichi Early Career Professor of Sociology, Demography, and Social Data Analytics at Pennsylvania State University.
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