The number of people of working age in China has fallen for the first time on record, according to new data reported by the Xinua news agency and the Financial Times.

China is feeling the crunch of its controversial policy of restricting family size which is now seen to be hindering rather than helping the world’s second largest economy.

Over the last 30 years, Chinese families strictly followed the one child rule in a bid to curb the ballooning population but the repercussions threw the population off balance in the long run, with the elderly now outnumbering children who will later comprise China’s working age population.

According to the 2010 consensus, the number of people over 60 has risen to 13.3% from a little more than a tenth of the population a decade ago. Children under 14 comprise less than a sixth of the population now from almost a quarter previously.

The shortage of workers has spurred debates over the future of the policy. Last year, government think-tank China Development Research Foundation urged Beijing to allow two children for every family by 2015, according to Xinhua News Agency reported.

“China has paid a huge political and social cost for the policy as it has resulted in social conflict, high administrative costs and led indirectly to a long-term gender imbalance at birth,” Xinhua cited the report as saying.

However, even if it were abolished, families would likely opt to keep the small size they have grown accustomed to, demographic experts say.

The estimated 2011 birthrate among women aged 20 to 29 was only 1.04 while the overall birth rate in cities stood at 0.88 from the previous year.

“Government policies should change with the times,” says Long Ting, mother of a seven-year old girl. “Thirty years ago, China needed the policy to deal with overpopulation. But now families need more children, not fewer, to deal with the problems of an ageing society.”