China became the largest consumer of industrial robots in 2013. It could have been a reaction to the U.S. reshoring initiatives, which have relied on increased automation. China could have been working to increase automation in their local factories in an effort to offset the rising labor costs that made multinational corporations think they might be better off with fewer human workers.
But it might also be one of the side effects of China’s one-child policy, as the working age population of China sinks to its lowest numbers ever. The working-age population peaked in 2012 and has dropped by millions each year since then. It fell by 3.71 million in 2014 and 4.87 million in 2015, according to China’s National bureau of Statistics.
China has for decades had a policy requiring couples to limit their families to just one child. This policy was relaxed a bit in 2013, when only children were allowed to have two kids. The policy kept China’s population from exploding — but it has also led to an aging population.
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs expects that one quarter of China’s population will be over age 65 by 2050. Even now, the number of people of working age is smaller than ever before, making it hard to care for the elderly, many of whom have only one child to rely on.
Rather than worrying about robots taking human jobs, China is hoping that robots will fill the anticipated gap.
Japan has been a leader in developing robots for elder care. As the nation with the oldest population (a median age of 45), Japan needs to come up with plans for providing care for the elderly when the elderly outnumber the young.
China’s current elderly population is larger than the entire population of Japan.
So China is not only working on service robots to help with the elderly, but also industrial robots to provide workers in all areas of their economy. The rising generation in China, just as in the U.S., is less likely to choose to work in factories. The rising wages in China, which have helped to fuel reshoring in the U.S., are pushing Chinese companies to increase efficiency and affordability of robots.
China hopes to become the robot provider for the world. Their president has called for a robot revolution. If China is able to make the gains they want in robotics, it will help them with their worker supply issues. Will cheap Chinese robots threaten human workers elsewhere in the world? Time will tell.
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