China, too, Faces Challenge of an Aging
By Cesar Chelala, The Japan Times
May 28, 2012
NEW YORK —
Parallel to its economic development, China is
facing the challenge of a rapidly aging
population. This is happening at a time when
urbanization and industrialization is quickly
increasing in the country. It is a trend that has
weakened traditional family support networks,
particularly for the elderly. New policies are
necessary to face this situation.
In 1979, China adopted a one-child policy to limit
population growth and ensure economic stability.
As a result, with fewer children and better living
standards, the proportion of elderly in the
population has grown substantially and will
continue to do so in coming years.
According to one study, within 20 years China will
have 350 million citizens over the age of 60,
which is more than the current U.S. population.
This situation will present special problems as
well as unique opportunities. This century's
leading countries won't be those that consider
their aging citizens as dependent and disabled,
but those that empower them to be active
participants in the country's economic growth —
what some people now call "active aging."
In this regard, the International Monetary Fund
reported last year that China's economy should
surpass the U.S. economy in real terms in 2016. In
spite of this, one of China's greatest fears is
that the country will grow old before it grows
As stated in UNFPA's (U.N. Population Fund's) "The
State of World Population 2011," professor Jiang
Xiangqun, a gerontologist at Renmin University,
Beijing, has argued that when developed countries
entered the period of significant population
aging, they had a much higher level of per capita
The situation for older people was also affected
when state-owned enterprises trimmed their ranks
by tens of millions. They were let go with small
pensions and were replaced by younger workers. The
vast majority of retired older workers now have
extremely low pensions that are almost irrelevant
and, in many cases, make them unable to meet some
As a result, the vast majority of older Chinese
live with their families, a situation that
reflects the Confucian tradition of respect for
age and experience as well as a national law,
passed in 1996, making it a legal obligation for
people to take care of elderly family members.
According to some estimates, 98 percent of old
people in China remain in their homes, or try to
do so. Many remain mostly by themselves in "empty
nests," as their children migrate to cities for
work or start their own families in separate
Some researchers have called this phenomenon the
"1-2-4 problem": one child taking care of two
parents and four grandparents.
However, as China's population ages rapidly, the
young workforce available for economic growth is
diminishing. This may hinder not only the
development of the country but also the quality of
life for its senior citizens, since the young will
be less able to support their elders. This is
happening as the ratio of elderly dependents to
people of working age rises sharply. It is
estimated that over the next few decades this
ratio will rise from 10 percent in 2012 to 40
percent by 2050.
As the numbers of caregivers fail to keep pace
with the growing elderly population, more of them,
particularly those with poor health, will seek
care in specialized institutions.
The proportion of elderly who develop diseases
such as diabetes, heart disease and different
kinds of dementia will increase. It has been
estimated that the total medical cost for treating
these diseases could reach almost 9 percent of
China's gross domestic product by 2025.
The government has responded to the challenge of
elders' care by constructing more nursing homes.
However, most of these homes are located in big
cities, and their quality varies widely. Also,
they only provide basic health care and services,
and tend to lack trained social workers.
As things stand now, the Chinese government has to
devise new strategies to deal with the demographic
challenge of a rapidly aging population.
It is necessary to improve a social security
system to cover both rural and urban areas,
improve the administration of welfare
institutions, and address old people's special
needs with physical and mental health support.
China's health care system will have to address
the shifting disease burden of an older
population, such as the rising tide of
At the same time, it is critical to increase the
training of social workers through special courses
that teach them to understand and deal with the
needs of older people.
It is also important to increase the retirement
age, which is now 60 for men and 50 for women,
taking into account that today's life expectancy
is now 73.
Because of medical advances, people now can still
be productive at later ages. How the government
meets this challenge will be a measure of the kind
of society China intends to build in the future.
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