Commentary RESEARCH

Traditional demography in need of upgrading


2024-05-09 12:00

Wang Xuehui, Peng Xizhe
Chinese Social Sciences Today

As China undergoes unprecedented socioeconomic and technological transformation, analyzing critical issues such as population migration, evolving family dynamics, urbanization, and population aging requires moving beyond the conventional theories and methods of demography. Over the past decades, although scholars have become increasingly aware of the limitations of traditional demography when conducting population studies in China, they have yet to transcend traditional research paradigms. 


Firstly, many traditional demographic concepts, indicators, and analytical tools lag behind the times. They are no longer adequate to accurately describe and interpret population dynamics in China and other countries, which is exemplified by the study of population aging. 

The United Nations defined the elderly as persons aged 60 years or over in 1956, and then raised the threshold to 65 in 1982. Based on this criterion, demographers devised a set of population structure indicators, with the “working-age population” being a representative foundational indicator. From this, the “potential support ratio” emerged as a key indicator for analyzing the demographic dividend. Over the past 50 years, however, society has undergone substantial changes in population, health, and disease patterns. Most countries and regions have witnessed remarkable improvements in population health and substantial increases in life expectancy. 

Secondly, due to rapid demographic and socioeconomic changes, it is increasingly difficult to analyze demographic phenomena in China using traditional demographic indicators, which are mostly in line with the process and characteristics of demographic transition in Western countries. This problem is particularly salient in population migration studies and family studies. 

Existing indicators and theories of population migration have largely been derived from the historical processes of developed countries. China’s population migration in recent decades differs considerably from population migration delineated by traditional demography in terms of the size, destinations, distances, underlying causes and external conditions, institutional barriers, as well as synergy and divergence between labor migration and overall population migration. 

In view of China’s household registration system, Chinese demographers have introduced concepts such as “migrant population” (those who have left the place of their household registration), “long-term residents” (those who have resided in an area for more than six months), and “persons with current residence different from their household registration” (those who have been away from the place of their household registration for at least six months). 

Family is the basic social unit for raising children, caring for the elderly, and passing down cultural traditions. Based on family patterns and their evolution in Europe and North America, traditional demography typically describes family types using concepts such as “nuclear family,” “stem family,” and “joint family,” and analyzes intergenerational relationships using terms like “single-generation household” and “multi-generation household.” Household size and structure, which primarily reflect the living patterns of family members, are also commonly used indicators in family studies. However, it is difficult to reveal the true nature of Chinese families and their evolution using either “family” or “household” as core indicators. 

Future Paths 

First, the indicators and research topics of demography need to allow for extensive and interdisciplinary studies. Due to the complexity of demographic phenomena, demography is inherently compatible with interdisciplinary approaches. In the future, the field needs to explore both the intrinsic properties of populations and new demographic issues that emerge over time. 

On one hand, there is a clear need to innovate the meaning of traditional demographic indicators. It is important to focus not only on the quantity, structure, and distribution of populations but also on the correlations between various demographic phenomena. This expanded focus will allow for a deeper understanding of changes and future trends in socioeconomic behaviors, modes of production, and lifestyles. 

On the other hand, it is necessary to deeply investigate interconnections between population dynamics and other societal subsystems, such as the economy, resources, and the environment. Many demographic phenomena are not inherently beneficial or harmful per se and only present challenges when placed in specific socioeconomic contexts. For instance, population aging itself merely reflects long-term trends in the age structure of a population. It only poses serious challenges to the development of society when it directly challenges traditional institutional patterns of employment, social security, and intergenerational equity. 

Second, the improvement and innovation of population indicator systems should be based on local conditions and oriented towards international integration. In order to achieve balanced and high-quality population development in the long term, which is entailed by China’s modernization, Chinese demographers needs to devise demographic concepts and indicator systems with Chinese characteristics by drawing on the research paradigms and indicator systems of Western demography while also considering China’s own population dynamics and population development strategies. It is also necessary to take into consideration disciplinary norms and the potential for international communication when designing new demographic indicators. 

Wang Xuehui (associate research fellow) and Peng Xizhe (professor) are from the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Fudan University. 



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