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The Elderly Boom E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by Local Ren
For nearly three decades, Mao Zedong encouraged population growth, seeing it as an asset to development. In the late 1970s, amid a runaway population boom, Mao left one extreme for the other and slapped on a one-child policy to limit the offspring of couples. Since then, the policy has halted an estimated 300 million births, leaving China's population at 1.3 billion today.

A possible effect of the "one child" policy, however, is the hastened arrival of China's silver tide. The consequences of the policy had not all been fully recognized when it was put into effect, but note that overpopulation is a far more problematic situation than an "aged" society. The early arrival of an aged society is an inevitable price for solving the great pressure of overpopulation. If we hadn't carried out the policy, the uncontrolled increase in population would be too large of a burden to shoulder.

Falling fertility rates and lengthening life spans combine to produce a population age structure increasingly skewed toward the older age brackets. The number of octogenarians is going to rise sharply and Chinese life expectancy has risen to 70 years (even higher in major cities). Facing a period of rapid aging that will outpace the aging of most of the world's populations, China may be the first major country to grow old before it grows rich, as China's age wave threatens to overwhelm government budgets and family support networks.

Beijing and Shanghai seem to contain more old folks than youngsters these days, as both have crossed a threshold: have more retirees 60 and older than children under age 15. It is estimated that, by 2025, one out of every three Shanghainese will be over 60 years of age. Those cities are a prelude. Even worse, those Chinese who were born during the population boom are now nearing or entering retirement, and they may face acute challenges, especially in rural areas.

This has caused a tremendous demand for elderly-focused health care, pensions, and welfare. The elderly of Shanghai have faced a dearth of adequate medical care in particular. Fear of costs and possible liability prevent nursing homes from providing medical attention for anything beyond colds and other minor ailments.

Many elderly people who live alone do not have family that visit frequently to help clean, cook, or provide company. They are always helpless and face the difficulty in providing themselves the possibility of a medical emergency. They also face an even greater threat: Loneliness.

Many Chinese families today face what is popularly known as the "4-2-1 phenomenon". That is, four grandparents and two parents, both from single-child families, must be supported by a single child. The one-child policy is one of the main causes of the problem that is expected to grow. Even in cities, older people are hesitant to lean on children for money and care, given the massive changes roiling society and the workplace where competition intensifies. Sons and daughters do not have the time or energy to take care of their parents!

Our valuable Editor Local Ren has been with us since Wednesday, 23 January 2013.

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