After the scorching heat of July and the floods, smog and clamminess of August, September has brought cooler air to Beijing for the start of the city’s favourite season. The pavements are alive again as restaurant diners emerge from months sheltering in the air-conditioned chill indoors to take up the tables outside.
The ping pong tables down the street are busy well into the night, the clicking of the balls loud and frantic as they fly over and back beneath the bright fluorescent lamps above. The recreation park further along is livelier too, with senior citizens stretching and swinging their limbs or lounging around doing nothing.
This is a kind of pensioners’ playground with every kind of outdoor exercise machine, mah-jong tables and numerous wooden benches under big leafy trees. Some of the retirees are stiff and leather-faced but many are lithe and spry, perhaps because they are still at what might qualify elsewhere as the upper end of middle-aged.
The pension age for men in China is 60, while women retire from white-collar jobs at 55, or if they work in factories at 50. There was a baby boom in 1963 with a record 29.5 million births, about 25.6 million of whom are believed to have survived to see their 60th birthday.
There are already almost 250 million people over 60 in China and Du Peng, vice-principal of Beijing’s Renmin University and director of its Institute of Gerontology, says that number will double by 2050.
“We are still at the foot of the mountain. From this year we will enter a period of rapid population ageing, in terms of the absolute number of elderly people. From now to 2050 it will gradually increase to close to 500 million people,” he said.
As the number of people over 60 increases, China’s overall population is expected to shrink, as it did last year for the first time since the 1960s. Increasing fertility is one way to reduce the proportion of elderly people as a share of the population and Du said China is looking around the world for ideas about how to encourage people to have more babies.
“Ireland is one of the countries we pay attention to,” he said.
“In the whole of Europe, Ireland and France have relatively effective measures to encourage fertility, so we are constantly tracking and analysing how we can learn from these experiences to promote the development of Chinese families and increase the fertility rate.”
Du noted that when China mandated a one-child policy, many parents wanted to have more children but now that they are encouraged to have two, they are happier with one or none. But even if China’s birth rate increases, the country will still face the challenge of almost half its population being over 60 by the middle of the century.
The government said earlier this year that it would start increasing the retirement age gradually but such changes are unpopular. Many people approaching retirement age are grandparents to small children and they want to be free to help to take care of them.
The dramatic economic and social transformation China has seen in the past 40 years is reflected in the educational profile of each generation of pensioners.
In 2000, 48 per cent of the 130 million elderly people in China had not been to school. By the 2020 census, the number of elderly people who had not been to school had dropped to 10 per cent. Now, as people born in the 1960s retire, a considerable proportion have gone to high school and college.
“They have a very different expectation for elderly care service and a yearning for a better life,” Du said.
The focus is on developing community-based care so people can access services at home and Chinese researchers have been studying elderly care models in Ireland as well as in France, Japan and Britain.
“Under a socialist system like China’s, with the goal of China’s modernisation, how can we give full play to China’s fine traditional culture and embark on such a path with Chinese characteristics?” Du said.
“It is certain that the ultimate solution will not be a single model, but one that draws on the advanced experience of other countries.”