How mechanics created China's demographic time-bomb
Updated: Mar 11
12% of China's population is over 60. By 2050 it will rise to 34%. Deutsche Bank calculates a pension shortfall in trillions of dollars. Also, many men have difficulty finding partners, with whom to have children, because the population has become skewed towards males. The cause of the problem is the one-child policy, introduced in 1980.
In the 1970s, the Chinese government became concerned that it would be unable to sustain its expanding population. They convened an all-male group of cyberneticists and engineers, to address the problem. The group concluded that China's ideal population would be 700 million, and the way to achieve that was to limit births.
In 2015, China realised it had created a demographic time-bomb and reversed the policy, allowing up to two children. However, the birthrate has not yet picked up. Mei Fong, author of One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment, says:
"The whole policy was drafted by missile scientists. It was based around mechanical systems, where you set a target then adjust accordingly. Women's bodies were treated like engines, you set inputs and expect to get a certain output
The architect of the whole (one-child) project acknowledged many years ago that an ageing population could eventually lead to problems, but just said 'that can be adjusted'. As if women's bodies can just be treated like levers, moved up and down."
Before you rush to judgement, think how often you have seen a mechanistic approach applied to a change at work? It might be something as significant as a change across a whole organisation, or it might be as simple as expecting a promotion.
The organisations we work in and with are ecosystems, not machines. A given set of inputs will not guarantee a predictable outcome. Even if something similar has worked before, it may not work the next time around because the environment and the people within it are in a constant state of flux. Moreover, changes in one part of an ecosystem can cause unexpected consequences elsewhere, as the one-child policy illustrates.
If you want to make a sustainable change, you are more likely to succeed if you act like a gardener, not a mechanic. Embrace don't fight unpredictability. Do your best to understand interdependencies and understand what you can or cannot control and influence. Don't make big bets just because you have done the maths or have a theory you think is smart.
My new book, Gardeners not Mechanics: how to cultivate change at work, will be out later this year.