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Combat Between the Great Powers in a Low-Fertility Era

In this past decade, the strategic competition between the U.S. and China has been centred on the two countries' economic development, international influence, military strength, social stability, and crisis management capabilities. However, China's newly imposed three-child policy signifies how much healthy and resilient demographics matter to the long-term competition between the two great powers.

After its radical transition from the one-child to two-child policy in 2016, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took a step further and passed the three-child policy on May 31, 2021. However, soon after its release, the policy was bombarded with criticism from Chinese female netizens and the Western media. In particular, the policy was condemned for exacerbating gender-based reproductive labour and job market inequalities. Additionally, it failed to address the problem of “involution” – a toxic phenomenon where Chinese citizens are compelled to overwork themselves and partake in incessant competition with others due to limited socio-economic resourcesas the real culprit for the country’s low-fertility trap.

Despite China’s three-child policy being controversial, it is undeniable that the CCP is one step ahead in tackling the issue of declining fertility rates that have plagued almost all developed countries, including the United States. In fact, after the U.S. baby boom era ended in 1965, the country’s population has been on a steady decline since the 1980s. The recent 2020 Census only shows only a 7.4 percent increase in population from 2010. In addition, the country experienced the lowest annual growth rate in the past year since 1900. Low birth rates may seem like a natural characteristic of Stage 4 of the Demographic Transition Model, where a country’s population growth declines due to modernisation, industrialisation, and ideological progress. However, there are greater implications to demographic shifts, especially in the context of the U.S.’ demographic realities.

Falling population: A disaster or a success

While the perks of a small demography or declining fertility rates entail a reduced need for resources and delayed environmental pollution, it is essential to note that fertility rates are positively related to many developed countries' economic development. Similar to China, the declining fertility rates of the U.S., South Korea, Italy, and Germany have long dropped below replacement level of fertility and subsequently constitute these states’ aging and shrinking workforce.

On a domestic level, the negative implications of a state’s aging workforce can add unprecedented weight to the country's social welfare system and jeopardise its economic potential, quality of human capital, and national competitiveness. From a foreign policy perspective, the population momentum for different powerful nations can influence the long-term competition between great powers – akin to China, Russia, and the U.S. For example, the U.S.'s large, well-educated, and highly productive population allows the country to secure its place as the world's largest national economy since World War II. In contrast, in recent years, stagnant economies and a growing division between urban-rural population growth have cultivated a rise of isolationism and right-wing populism in the United States, France, and Brazil. Even though the U.S.’ demographic problem may not seem as alarming in comparison to China, the U.S.’ decentralised institutional structure prevents it from implementing radical, centralized, and draconian policy measures in comparison to authoritarian states like China. It is thus important for the Government of the U.S. to combat the following three demographic risk indicators at its inception to ensure the nation’s long-term global competitiveness and its sustainable development in the area of demographic change.

The U.S' looming population problems

1. Low life expectancy in the U.S

Even though the U.S. government has the highest health care budget globally, the average life expectancy of American citizens is comparatively lower than other developed countries. According to OECD’s 2019 Data, U.S. citizens have the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rates out of all G7 countries. Compared to its peer developed countries, the U.S.’ increased socio-economic inequality hinders its citizens’ ability to adopt a healthy lifestyle. In particular, smoking, obesity, homicides, drug overdoses, suicides, and road accidents are key causes of death that contribute to the U.S.’ low life expectancy.

(Chart: OECD 2019) G7 countries’ life expectancy at birth and Infant mortality rates.

Low life expectancy in the U.S. is also associated with the country being the only industrialised nation without universal health coverage. From critiques on Clinton’s proposal of a Universal Coverage Plan in 1993, to Bernie Sanders’s inability to push forward the single-payer health care in 2016, and finally to the most recent alterations in the Affordable Care Act under the Trump Administration – the multi-generational gaps in U.S. health insurance coverage and health care access continue to put U.S. citizens’ health and life expectancy in a precarious state. Unfortunately, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic only lowers the U.S.’ average life expectancy and population growth rates further. As of June 11 2021, the number of recorded COVID-19 deaths in the States contributes to 16% of the global fatalities, data from 32 of 50 U.S. states has also shown a 4% drop in the state’s birth rate during the pandemic. Thus, how the U.S. government plans to fill the void of its fragile, yet politically conflict-ridden health system is critical in shaping the country’s future demographic trends.

2. The disconnection of young adults in the U.S. during the age of global turbulence

In 2020, the U.S. fertility rate was 1.64 birth per woman. Akin to China with a fertility rate of 1.7 birth per woman, the U.S. young adult (age 18-30) demographic is in a relatively weak position. As the country’s population skews considerably towards older ages than the global average, there has been a lack of political representation and engagement of the younger generation in the U.S. past elections. Unlike U.S. older cohorts, who were beneficiaries of U.S. postwar economic growth rates, U.S. young adults must reckon with problems including unemployment, underemployment, lack of affordable housing, and academic inflation amidst the ongoing global pandemic and fiscal crises that have appeared over the past two decades.

Putting aside the ideological differences between the U.S. and China, the young adult population of both countries have been stuck in the same series of unfortunate events. While the U.S. millennials are being categorised as the “New Lost Generation”, the disenchanted young adult population in China has adopted the “lying flat” or “tang ping” strategy to rationalise the exploitation of the 9-9-6 work culture (working from 9 AM to 9 PM, six days per week). It is evident that the youth adult population of both countries has limited socio-economic resources to mobilise oneself in a shared era of disillusion. Thus, the future strategies adopted by the U.S. and Chinese government to support and engage the younger population will have a detrimental effect on each country's long-term economic prosperity and social stability.

3. U.S’ low-skilled workers shortage

There are ongoing misconceptions that only highly-skilled immigrants can add value to the economic growth of a country and that low-skilled immigrants can take away jobs from the U.S.-born native workers. In reality, the States’ economy is heavily dependent on international migration to fill the labour gaps because the size of the less-skilled, U.S.-born younger population has been on a steady decline in the past 30 years. This particular phenomenon is evident in the U.S.’ recent economic recovery. Although the U.S. government added another 559,000 jobs in May, the country is still 7.6m jobs below its pre-pandemic employment rate. In particular, employers now have a hard time finding candidates for blue-collar positions due to the rising educational attainment of U.S. citizens accompanying a sharp reduction in migrants during the pandemic.

Interestingly, the U.S. is not alone in its low-skilled labor shortage; China has also had a shrinking blue-collar labor force since 2012. Although China still holds its title as the “world’s factory,” with its rising national wealth and education levels, more and more of the Chinese population considers blue-collar positions low-pay and unappealing. The ongoing Sino-US trade war has further intensified this shortage, as a decrease in Chinese exports has prompted more job openings in China’s tertiary industries. However, unlike the U.S.' rigidity to respond to its labor imbalance, the Chinese government has adopted a rather proactive approach. In particular, in China’s Education Modernisation 2035 Plan, the Chinese government has aimed to increase apprenticeship programs to achieve a radical national vocational education reform.

Compared to China and other ethnically homogenous countries, the longstanding population heterogeneity of the U.S. is a source of strength and resources to combat the country’s declining demography. Rather than perceiving low-skilled migrants as “threats” to the U.S.’ political, economic, and social stability, embracing these migrants as potential economic contributors to the country would allow the U.S. to find a quick fix for its ageing workforce. Overly stringent and exclusionary immigration policies are often counterproductive, as they perpetuate an increased number of undocumented migrants, the influence of an informal underground economy, and incidents of labour exploitation. Despite, Biden’s recent immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants is an incremental step in rebuilding and strengthening the U.S.’ immigration system. The U.S.'s migration system is still overshadowed by many draconian policies, such as Title 42, imposed under the Trump administration. Whether these “incremental” positive changes in the migration system will endure the transition between administrations, in the U.S.' increasingly polarized political arena, is a subject for future discussion.


For now, it is evident that the Biden Administration has an ambitious foreign policy plan to address the escalating tension between China and the U.S. However, aside from the massive $1.9 trillion stimulus package to revitalise the U.S.’s stagnant economy from the pandemic, more progressive domestic policies are needed. It is evident that a country’s demographic change is closely associated with its social, economic, and political stability. Therefore, the U.S. government needs to modernise its migration, health, labour, and social policy to combat these demographic changes, especially in an era of global turbulence.


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