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China’s graying population faces an uncertain future

By 5 June 2009 2 Comments

For all too many of China’s seniors today, work life does not exactly glide into a blissful or even comfortable retirement. Ideas of relaxing holidays and peaceful independence still, in many cases, remain the stuff of dreams because workers hit the mandatory retirement age (55 for women, 60 for men) without having the luxury to stop working. For some this means taking up a second job in their retirement while for others, it means hoping their children will ultimately choose to care for them when health problems and infirmities kick in.

For Zhang Yuan, 55, retirement was a light at the end of the tunnel. She started working at a children’s clothing store in the near Nan Liu Gu Xiang in central Beijing  after she officially retired from an administrative job at a local supermarket three months ago. “This job is a lot better,” said Zhang.

Although Zhang is 34 years older than her employer, she does not mind working for the young entrepreneur. The extra money Zhang earns finances her daughter’s college degree in multimedia design.

Zhang is just one of many seniors in China who must work past retirement age for financial reasons, but she does not mind it. ”Staying at home after retirement is not fun,” she said. “I really want to be active and still [stay] a part of society.”

Before China’s economy opened its door to market forces in 1987, the state guaranteed its retiring workers sufficient pension and retirement benefits in a “cradle to grave” socialist system of public welfare. Today, China is riding a wave of capitalist-style initiative that has propelled some to unprecedented wealth while leaving retirees like Zhang in a financial slump, even after a lifetime of hard work. In 2002, only 55 percent of the urban workforce and 11 percent of the rural one were covered under China’s public pension systems, according to statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Labor and Social Security quoted in the book, China The Balance Sheet.

Moreover, due to the one-child policy, most people approaching retirement only have one child to rely on for financial support. As the youth of China embrace more modern lifestyles, the traditional concept of several generations under one roof is diminishing.

Eighty-year-old Xu Xiuzhen lives with one of her sons in the Zhuiba hutong in East Central Beijing. Despite her minimal needs, she does not take his care for granted. Xu’s son Wang Guoqing, 57, took on the responsibility for Xu’s welfare after a leg injury made it difficult for her to continue living on her own.

As an increasing number of Chinese youth prefer to live separately from their parents, however, senior citizens tended by their children are becoming increasingly rare. Although Wang’s son has a good job with a Japanese company in Beijing, he does not expect financial support in the future.

“I think as society develops, there will only be more elderly people,” said Wang. “In the modern home system, there is no way that young couples can take care of four older people.”

Wang’s views echo the predictions of many China observers such as Howard W. French, associate professor at Columbia School of Journlism and a reporter for The New York Times.  In a Times article from 2007, French argued that China is bracing to be the first developing country with the largest number of senior citizens. The number of Chinese retirees is set to double between 2005 and 2015 to roughly 430 million. Approximately a third of the population will reach retirement age by 2050, according to projections from the United Nations.

Such numbers carry serious implications for the future of China’s economy, seeing as how its labor force has helped support the country’s rapid expansion of factory production and exports. Beyond that, the social engineering effects of the one-child policy have created a new Chinese home culture, making it financially difficult a single child to support to elderly parents.

“It depends on the kind of relationship older people have with their children,” Xu said. “If the children are independent and private, we cannot demand things or force them.”


  • Anup said:

    Very good and informative article on the future of china.
    so india’s free policy of unlimited children under a family may turnout to be
    saviour for the senior citizens of the country.

  • Sani Adamou said:

    This is really an excellent article, and I am so proud of you. I learned a lot in these few lines.
    Thanks for the link!

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