CHINA has the largest and fastest-growing elderly population in the developing world. Today there are 44 million elderly Chinese. By the turn of the century, when 11 per cent of the population will be over 60, there will be nearly twice that number.
The numbers game always takes on frightening proportions when applied to China. But Chinese planners are used to dealing with huge figures and no longer blench at a long row of noughts. Nevertheless, 80 million elders by the year 2000 is 80 million mouths to feed. And, despite her enormous achievements, China is still a very poor country.
After thirty years of domestic peace, one-third of the urban population lives in apartments with less than four square metres per person. And in rural areas, one or two room houses shelter whole families as well as their tools, grain stocks and farm animals. Per capita grain production hovers around just 300 kilos per year, meat and fish continue to be luxury items, and the most basic of commodities must still be rationed.
In spite of this, government leaders face the prospect of an elderly population explosion with apparent equanimity. This is partly because providing for the old has always been — and remains so today — a family affair. But it is also because Chinese planners have more pressing things to worry about — such as a youthful population so vast that the increase in the elderly pales in comparison. Between 1966 and 1975 there were more than a quarter of a billion births. For the next two decades these children will place unprecedented burdens on an already-strained economy to provide basic education, adequate living space and steady employment. In the past five years over 100 million have entered the job pool and the annual push for new employment can only intensify. Small wonder then that Chinese planners seem totally preoccupied with ‘youth unemployment’.
And one way to create jobs for the young is to retire the old. As it exists today, China’s limited retirement programme is extremely flexible. This flexibility stems from the criteria used for granting pensions to those who are eligible for them.
To receive a full pension Chinese workers must pass three tests. First they must meet certain age and work requirements: 20 years of service, and a minimum age of 50 for women and 60 for men. Second, their work-mates and foreman must approve their application; and third, the appropriate personnel office must also sanction the retirement request. This means that the number of retirees can be varied at will according to the level of youth unemployment.
In the past withdrawal from the workforce of a healthy adult was regarded as unpatriotic. During the Great Leap Forward (1958-1959) and again during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) routine retirement disappeared completely. Today retirement is an honour and a privilege: the reward of a healthy economy. And pensions are generous in recognition of the privations the old suffered to produce the relative prosperity of recent years. No eligible employee retires with less than 50 per cent of the average industrial wage. And those with histories of outstanding achievement receive up to 100 per cent.
Because pensions are so generous, the Chinese government can only afford to provide them for a relatively small number of people. So ever since the national pension programme began in 1951 the 80 per cent living in rural areas have been excluded.
As a result virtually all rural elders work as long as they are physically able and are paid in grain on the same basis as everyone else —according to the amount of work they do. Even so, people well into their sixties are still able to earn a subsistence income. And many supplement this by raising pigs, ducks and chickens to sell for cash.
This dual system — retirement on a generous pension to make room for incoming younger workers in the industrial sector, and continuous employment for as long as health allows in rural areas — ensures a relatively secure future for old people in China.
On its own, however, the system would just maintain them as the least advantaged age group in the country. But when it is combined with the continuing existence of large, stable families, prospects for China’s elders begin to look almost rosy.
Contrary to some popular notions, China’s policies since 1949 have supported — not attacked — strong loyalties among family members. And the methods have been disarmingly simple: restricted migration and laws that require the young to care for the old.
Since 1955, Chinese citizens have been forbidden to move home without government approval. This rule was originally instigated to prevent massive, uncontrolled migration into the towns. And it has been successful. Unlike most developing countries, the percentage of those living in the countryside has remained stable for over 30 years in China.
One important, if inadvertent, consequence of this stability has been increasing immobility of the younger generation. And because most people spend their entire lives in one community — often in the very same house where they began their married lives — urban and rural elderly remain in close physical contact with the younger generation, often pooling their incomes into a single household budget.
The National Marriage Law and local welfare restrictions strengthen these bonds even more directly. The Marriage Law requires children and grandchildren to take full responsibility for elderly family members. Only the old without responsible children are eligible for welfare.
As China enters the last decade of this century she faces two population explosions — one of young adults of working age and another of the elderly. The strain created by these huge increases will severely test Chinese resources. Yet, in 1982, it appears that the Chinese will cope successfully with these challenges.
Most old people are firmly integrated into multi-generation households where the economic gains and losses are shared out among members — providing each person with a buffer against sudden downturns in income and allowing the government temporarily to favour one generation — the young — without immediately jeopardising the security of the old.
As long as current policies bind young and old into multi-generation households, families will plan their lives to maximise the welfare of all members. And the government will depend on the family to make the final allocation of scarce resources between the young, the middle aged and the elders.