China’s leaders have long known that the country is nearing a demographic crossroads. Policymakers have warned that China must prepare for a slowly shrinking population and an era of fewer workers and more retirees. State media has urged young couples to seize the opportunity to have two or three children under relaxed family-size rules, to soften the looming economic crunch.

And yet the sense of incipient crisis grew Tuesday, when the government confirmed that the nation’s population shrank last year for the first time in six decades, sooner and sharper than many experts had forecast.

Even if Chinese officials have warned of an approaching demographic Rubicon, their preparations have not kept pace with the long-term needs of an aging society, in the eyes of many experts and Chinese people.