1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Ageing, Development and Social Protection

Case Study by Du Peng & David Phillips

  • Project from: 2001 to 2003



As the most populous country in the world with some 1.27 billion total population, China also has the largest population of older persons, 127 million persons aged 60 and over, 10% of the national population. China also has more than 88 million people aged 65 and over, 7% of the total population. With its low fertility well under replacement level and a life expectancy of greater than 71 years, China is one of the leading ageing countries in the developing world.

Since 1990s, the process of demographic ageing in China has been accelerating and, when the baby boom cohorts reach their 60s in the decade of the 2020s, China is expected to reach its peak period of population ageing which will last for about three decades. It is projected that, by the middle of this century, the percentage of people aged 60 and over in China will be higher than 27% and that the absolute number of older persons in China will be more than 450 million. With the prospect of steady demographic ageing, this aspect of population will be a major challenge in the coming decades which China realises it will have to face seriously. Its potential consequences for socio-economic development are being paid more and more attention.

The main determinants of population ageing in China are similar to those in other rapidly developing countries with rapid fertility decline and a mortality level showing one of the fastest epidemiological transitions in the human history. China's family planning policy has played an important role; it has given rise to the new generations of the 'only child', which has been part and parcel of declining family size and simpler family structures. This has been accompanied by changing living arrangements for older persons, and in combination these features pose serious challenges to the traditional family support system which has attempted to provide for older persons over the many centuries.

The obvious heterogeneity of the ageing process across China makes it essential to note the huge differences between urban elderly people and their counterparts in rural areas. In general, urban elderly residents are well covered by the social protection system and can lead mainly independent later lives with a fair quality of life. By contrast, many older rural citizens now have to depend on their children's economic support and have lower economic status, especially since the reform of the agricultural collective system over the past two decades. It is especially true for females who are facing greater pressures and problems in their daily life. At the same time, the socio-economic differences among China, a very large country, are evident, especially between the east developed region, and the middle and west developing regions. Although China does not have a very high national proportion of older persons, it is very important to note that the major cities and east regions already have more or less the same proportions of older persons as in many developed countries.

The main challenges of population ageing for social development include the following:

1. Huge numbers of elderly people need to be covered by the newly evolving social security system, and China currently still lacks a comprehensive, especially a truly national system. The ongoing reform of social security system has been facing serious challenges: a growing ageing population, increasing demands for pensions, Medicare and the inability of enterprises with poor economic performance to pay their share of basic social security costs for their employees, etc.

2. As the ratio of older persons to workers increases in the coming decades, issues will arise in generational relation in families and wider society. This is especially important in China, because the majority of older persons still depend on their children's support and the existing social security system is essentially one of pay-as-you-go.

3. As the coming cohorts of older persons with better education and a professional work history enter old age, society will need to meet not only their needs for material support but also for spiritual life in order to raise their quality of life. Effective measures have to be taken to promote the welfare, education, culture, health care and sports of older citizens with the purpose of creating an appropriate and pleasant environment for older people.

4. The challenge emerges strongly of how to share the responsibilities of support for older persons among state, society, family and individuals. Previously, this was traditionally the responsibility of the family, especially in rural settings, except during the collective farm era. As filial piety is predicted to become more and more unreliable, it is likely that legislation may even be required to guarantee the rights and benefits of elderly people.

5. Demographic ageing makes the establishment and development of community services. Increasing numbers of older persons, dramatically declining family size and changing living arrangements mean that increasing numbers of frail older people are living alone. Can they manage to stay at home or enter institutions? With the extensive economic reforms, today the majority of older persons have to seek support from their community and as they spend most of their time in the community, community support are increasingly crucial for senior citizens to live as long as possible at their home.

6. These factors and others have been pushing the government to integrate aging into the national socio-economic development plan to harmonize all of these relationships.