Old People, Young People: Analysing Population Age Structure in Uganda and China

– Wadeisor Rukato

In a 2007 statement delivered  at the 40th Session of the United Nations Commission on Population and Development, the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) acknowledged that “the world today is home to the largest population of young people and the largest population of persons aged 60 years and over” (Obaid, 2007).

This reality presents both development challenges and opportunities for countries on both ends of the population age structure spectrum. China, the world’s most populous country, has completed its first demographic transition. It is now classified as a ‘post-transition society’, because “life expectancy has reached new heights, fertility has declined to low levels and a rapidly ageing population is on the horizon”. Uganda, on the other hand, is the country in the world with the second youngest population age structure after Niger, a factor which is among the country’s top development challenges.

The age structure of a population can be classified according to four categories; very young, youthful, transitional and mature. A country with a ‘very young’ population is one in which “two-thirds or more of the population is younger than 30” (Leahy, Daumerie and Hardee, 2010, p.1). An example of this is Uganda. A country with a youthful population is one that has begun its “demographic transition but still [has] more than 60 percent of [its] population younger than 30 years old” (Leahy, Daumerie and Hardee, 2010, p.1).

A country with a population age structure in ‘transition’ is one in which between “45 and 60 percent of the population comprises young people under age 30” (Leahy, Daumerie and Hardee, 2010, p.1). Finally, countries with a mature population age structure have “have fertility rates at the replacement level of 2.1 children or less per woman; less than 45 percent of the country’s population is under 30 years of age, while up to one-quarter of the population comprises older adults above age 60” (Leahy, Daumerie and Hardee, 2010, p.1).

Examples of countries with mature populations include the United States, Japan and Canada. A country’s population age structure depends on what stage of demographic transition it is in. Figure 1 below illustrates the population pyramid shapes for countries whose populations are at different stages of their demographic transitions.


A country’s population age structure has important implications for its development. It has consequences for governance, a country’s inclination toward conflict, the nature of inequality and the kind of environmental issues a country has to deal with (Leahy, Daumerie and Hardee, 2010, p.1). So how do the challenges of the population age structures of China and Uganda compare, and what role does effective government policy in each of these countries play in dealing with the challenges and harnessing the opportunities presented by either young or old population age structures?


The 10 countries with the oldest and youngest populations in 2015 and the predicted batches for 2030.



 China: Challenges

In 2012 the median age of youth in China was 35.5 years and the dependency ratio was 37 (Singh, 2012, p. 3). Having completed its first demographic transition, China is now entering into an ageing society as is illustrated in Figure 2 (UN, 2015) below.


China’s ageing society has implications for both the country’s economy and society. For example, much of China’s economic boom was contingent on the availability of a large, young labour force (Singh, 2012, p. 6). As the working force gradually shrinks, there will be a decrease in the volume of labour force entrants which is likely to affect productivity. Because China has reached the completion of its demographic transition, “the era of abundant young and inexpensive labour will soon end. Additionally, as the proportion of young people that comprise China’s total population declines, consumption patterns in China will begin to change and domestic demand for consumption might weaken (Singh, 2012, p. 9).

Another critical challenge presented by China’s ageing population is the question of who will take care of the old, and what supportive structures and institutions exist at the societal level in this regard (for example, personal savings, pensions and welfare schemes). Currently, it is the younger generations that have had to take care of ageing parents, to the extent that the current profile of an urban couple’s household includes the between one to four parents that they need to take care of. This has typically been referred to as the “4-2-1” family structure (Singh, 2012, p. 9).

It has been predicted that “between 2013 and 2050, in terms of demographics, China will not fare better than Japan or Taiwan, and will fare worse than the US and France”  and that the weakening demographic dividend will present challenges for the country’s development mode.

Uganda: Challenges

In the same way that population age structure affects economic and social factors related to development in China, Uganda’s very young population (See Figure 1 above)  presents a different range of challenges for the country.


In Uganda, at least 77 percent of the population is under the age of 30 and the country continues to experience high levels of annual population growth.A study conducted by Madsen, Daumerie and Hardee links population age structure with various development indicators. They test for the effects of a young population age structure on; the risk of conflict, governance, gender equality and environmental factors. There is a positive correlation between having a young population and high risk of conflict. There is a negative correlation between having a young population and the likelihood of democratic governance (see Figures 4 and 5 below).


According to Figure 4, one of the biggest challenges presented by Uganda’s young population is the risk of outbreaks of new civil conflict. The country’s young age structure has also been linked to “restrictions on political freedoms and civil liberties, corruption, and weak institutional capacity and regulatory quality”.While countries with a young age structure do achieve democracy, they are less likely to sustain it until their age structures become stable.

Unsurprisingly, the high levels of fertility in Uganda have serious gender implications. In so far as gender equality is not adequately addressed at a household level, it is unlikely that female political and economic participation will improve. When it comes to risks associated with climate change and the environment, countries with young populations are amongst the most vulnerable. In Uganda, at least 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas and is dependent on land for subsistence. 

With China and Uganda being so different, one might ask what the point of comparing the two countries in the first place is. If anything, the comparison is useful for understanding the challenges faced by countries at opposite ends of their demographic transitions. Both now and by 2030, the top ten youngest populations in the world will belong to African countries. The Uganda case is therefore specifically instructional for several other African countries whose population age structures are particularly young.  While potential lessons from each case are not likely mutually transferable, there are lessons from the China case that may be relevant for the Ugandan case.

For China and its rapidly ageing population, it is critical for the government to address policies specifically related to “education, the labour market, reforming the Hukou System (household registration system), strengthening the social safety net and focusing more on the service sector” (Singh, 2012, p. 11).

Uganda can learn a critical lesson from China as regards the latter’s population control policies.  Fertility rates in Uganda are exceedingly high, with women having an average of 6.7 children. An obstacle to reducing fertility levels in Uganda is the “unmet need for family planning; In Uganda, 41 percent of women wish to prevent or delay their next birth but are not using a contraceptive method” (Leahy, Daumerie and Hardee, 2010, p.2). The Ugandan government needs to invest more in family planning and reproductive health accessibility. It also needs to address gender disparities by creating policies that promote gender equality. Any climate adaptability or environmental sustainability policy that Uganda considers also needs to consider gender sensitivities and the implications of a rapidly growing population.

As far as opportunities go, the Ugandan government, private sector and civil society need to explore effective ways of capitalising on the country’s youth bulge by creating opportunities for young people to be economically active. China was able to exploit its young population in order to drive economic growth. The government needs to create opportunities for young people to access education, vocational training and jobs. A young labour force is, after all, an opportunity.


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