08/31/2011 01:51 EDT | Updated 10/31/2011 05:12 EDT

Biden, China and Our Shared Only-Child Dilemma

Despite having the large, pouty eyes of a female manga character, Rachel Yan, a pretty 25-year-old woman in Beijing, thinks a lot about aging.

"I'm the only child and so I have to look after my parents," she says, as we sit in a dead night club near Tiananmen Square. As we talk, Ian, her boyfriend and owner of the club, joins us at the table. "And if I married my boyfriend -- he is [also an only] child -- so we have to look after four people," Rachel continues, alluding to her parents and to Ian's. "And this is only my generation. If I have a child, and he or she is only child, he or she will have to look after more [people] because of grandma (and) grandpa. So it's not very good."

She describes the conceivable step beyond what the Chinese already call their '4:2:1 problem': four grandparents and two parents, all retired, financially dependent on an only child.

The 4:2:1 problem is becoming increasingly common in China, as the parents of only children born after its one-child policy went into force in 1980 now start to retire -- which in China can happen as early as age 50. Rachel sees what lurks around the corner thanks to increasing life expectancy, a growing preference for only children and, as the Economist has reported, a flight in Asia from not only multiple children but marriage itself. I believe the result could be what is, for lack of an established term, a 8:4:2:1 scenario, where an only child could be expected to help finance not only their own retirement, but also that of two parents, four grandparents and eight great-grandparents.

But to me, an only child myself, this scenario is another sign that we only-children are changing not just China but the entire world. China's potential 8:4:2:1 problem is ours, too, just with a different name: A glut of people are growing old and there are fewer of us to pay for their care, while also having to save for our own retirement. At the personal level, there are more of us without siblings shouldering the costs of care for aging parents. And at the global level, according to some economists, we all now owe $22,733, a number that is set to grow and that is convincing more and more of us to ask if one child is enough.

U.S. vice-president Joe Biden, known for his 'was-that-out-loud?' moments, won himself controversy recently with his remark while in China that he's "not second-guessing" its one-child policy. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney saw this as a comment on abortion -- local enforcement of China's one-child policy has infamously led to forced and elective abortions and to female sterilizations, though that's becoming far less common than in the past. He attacked Biden, describing the policy as "gruesome and barbaric" and saying Biden's remark "should shock the conscience of every American."

But what Romney and the others who criticized Biden missed (including HuffPost blogger Jason Linkins -- who incorrectly wrote, "China permits each family to have one child, understand?" even though some Chinese people are allowed to have multiple children, as are ethnic minorities and a slew of other people who have loopholes) was that he was kind of right.

Not that contentious "second-guessing" part about the policy, mind, but the part of the comment where Biden alluded the situation China and the West find themselves headed, thanks to falling fertility, only-children and aging populations, is "unsustainable."

Unlike China, the links to family members supporting parents and grandparents have been broken in the West, but they've been partly replaced by a social safety net paid for by the working population through taxes. Just like 4:2:1, those of us working face a future with intense pressure. The reason is that the pyramid is inverting while our fertility is falling, as we seek to reduce our costs. Only children are becoming more common -- in Canada, 43 per cent of kids born today will grow up without siblings -- while people are living far longer than a generation ago.

Many Chinese, just like many Americans, Canadians and Europeans, are choosing only children because of factors like the recent recession and the ever-rising cost of living, not one-child policies. Take Gus, a friendly lawyer I met recently in Hong Kong, his home. Much like the Economist reported, Gus -- an only-child himself but whose father has seven siblings, showing how quickly things are changing -- says the price of life there is rapidly on the rise and has seen many of his friends give up entirely on the idea of having kids or even marriage. "A baby is just too expensive," he says.

Like Hong Kong shows, the inverting pyramid problem is something that appears to feed on itself. Despite wanting a brother growing up, Rachel says if she has a child, she'll have an only child. "I believe I have only one, because it's very expensive."