China could be on course to shed its one-child policy, allowing couples to have a second child, to counter the demographic trend of an aging society and growing labour shortages.

China Business News quoted a government source as saying that the new regulation permitting two children could come into force “as soon as the end of the year if everything goes well.”

However, the National Health and Family Planning Commission, as quoted by the state-run China Daily, stressed that, “No timetable has been set to allow all couples in the country to have a second child.”

Nevertheless, the debate regarding the two-child policy seems to be peaking in the wake of grim statistics showing that the demographic trends in China had turned sharply unfavourable.

According to UN estimates, nearly 440 million people in China would be over 60 by 2050, signaling a rapid decline in the labour pool. Last year, the working population between the ages 15-59 dropped by 3.71 million — a trend that is likely to continue in the future.

The demand for a change in the one-child policy has been growing recently. Last year, The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that the mainland should soon permit all couples to have a second child because the total fertility rate had dropped to 1.4, signifying the average number of children to be born of a woman in her entire lifespan. This was well short of the 2.1 target that was required to keep the population profile balanced.

In his annual government report in March, Prime Minister Li Keqiang said that the government would “push forward reform of birth-control management.”

Responding to the adverse demographics, the government had, two years ago, allowed couples, either of whom was a single child, to have a second child. The ruling especially benefited those couples born in the 1980s and 90s when the one-child policy was strictly enforced.

Nevertheless, the 2013 ruling has not resulted in a dramatic rise in the second child births. In Beijing, only 6.7% of eligible couples applied for permission for a second child. Overall less than one million couples applied across the country — a figure lower than the government’s forecast.

Analysts say, the lukewarm response to having two children can be attributed to higher living costs, career ambitions, especially among women, and couples getting used to the decades long one-child policy.