New Perspectives on Aging in Contemporary China… and Beyond

By Justine Rochot

Key words : China, retirement, aging, generation, inequalities, third age

The aging of the Chinese population now constitutes a well-known topic, regularly treated both by media and academic literature in China and abroad. As a consequence of growing life expectancy, demographic transition and family planning policies (with its most important one dating from 1979), people aged more than 60 represented 18.1% (253 million people) of the Chinese population in 2020, against 7% in 2000. According to projections, they might reach as much as 28% of the population by 2030.

While existing research has mostly focused its attention on the institutional aspects surrounding the growing needs for long-term care among the eldest and most dependent fringe of the elderly, little has been done to understand the intimate experiences of aging of the people concerned, the elderly being often seen as a homogenous category of passive recipients of care. Moreover, part of existing analysis remain tainted with more or less explicit culturalist approaches, partly cultivated by Chinese authorities themselves, which tend to consider Chinese elderly as necessarily more respected than their western counterparts, thanks to a principle of filial piety supposedly irrigating inter-personal relationships for thousands of years.

Against those dominant interpretations, I will show that the statistic threshold of the “60 years and older”, usually considered as an natural and obvious category, doesn’t do justice to the diversity of experiences, identifications and expectations formulated by Chinese older people themselves. By focusing on the new generation of Chinese retirees who, for the past decade, has shaped new ways of imagining aging and retirement, this article will point out the important diversity of experiences and attitudes associated to aging in China, as well as the social factors currently shaping them.

A heterogeneous group marked by inequalities

Retirement policies, inherited in part from the Maoist period, first play an important role in shaping inequalities between the elderly nowadays, these policies having implications on the financial autonomy of older people and consequently on the state of intergenerational relationships.

Rural elderly indeed remain largely excluded from pensions and other social safety net available to their urban counterparts, despite the recent development of still insufficient rural pension schemes: in 2010, 78% of urban people aged 60 and older benefited from personal incomes (mostly pensions) while 88% of rural elderly still depended on their own labor or on financial support from their family.

The urban elderly themselves also remain largely unequal, as the age to which people can pretend to retire and the amounts of social benefits they can enjoy still vary according to their gender (women’s retirement age being usually about 5 years younger than their male counterpart, sometimes as early as 50 years old), their profession (workers being able to retire earlier than “cadres”) and to the work unit they retire from (opposing retired employees from the public administration, retirees from private and public enterprises, as well as qualified cadres from the Party and public administration).

In 2014, the average age of retirement in China was estimated at 54 years old, about 10 years younger than the world average: this fact can be linked both to the low ages of retirement among some categories of urban retirees, and to the early retirement forced upon (mostly female) workers since the late 1990s as part of the massive downsizing of public enterprises.

Inventing a Chinese third age of life

Beyond producing inequalities, aging policies also participate in shaping the ways various cohorts of Chinese retirees imagine both their aging process and the redefining moment within one’s life course that is retirement. The policies of retirement of “revolutionary cadres” (who, until then, were not subjected to compulsory retirement) in the early 1980 constituted for instance a historically defining moment, which pushed the Party-State to portray retirement in a new fashion – not as a withdrawal from society, but as a continuity of one’s activity, a new step in one’s revolutionary career, allowing one to remain socially useful. Those reforms have moreover coincided with the participation of China to the World Assembly on Aging organized by the UN in 1982 – an event which sensitized Chinese authorities both to the challenges to come in terms of population aging and to the importance of the spiritual, cultural and socio-economical contributions of the elderly themselves.


figure 1: the cover of one the first issue of the Magazine «Elderly Chinese» (中国老年), created in 1983 and initially essentially addressed to retired cadres.
Source: personal collection Justine Rochot

Since the 1990s, the Party-State, along with new market-oriented actors who have seen in population aging an attracting financial opportunity, have therefore participated in shaping the emergence of a new “third age” of life, both essentially urban and bearing specificities intimately linked to the Chinese context. New expressions reflecting the emergence of intermediary age categories have started to appear: the “middle-aged” (zhonglaonian ren 中老年人), the “retired clan” (tuixiu zu 退休族) and the “silver-hair clan” (yinfa zu 银发族), as well as the “little elderly” (xiao laoren 小老人). Initiatives targeting this new category of middle-aged consumers have also sprouted – from senior universities to magazines for retirees and online WeChat accounts, through travel agencies, holiday resorts in China and abroad, neighborhood activity centers, health-product companies and volunteering programs – all offering their key-audience with new perspectives for their retirement, described as a “second spring” in their life course.


figure 2: while 2% of people aged 60 and older are estimated to be enrolled in a University for Senior Citizen in China (2,9% in cities, 0,9% in rural areas) according to a 2015 census, more than 20% of the elderly actually wish to enroll in an institution of the sort, revealing the huge existing gap between supply and demand as far as lifelong learning initiatives are concerned. In this picture, people are lining up to enroll at the Hefei City University for Senior Citizen (Anhui Province).
Source: (last visited on October 27, 2021)

The retirement of the “Mao Generation”

However, the forms taken by the Chinese “third age” cannot be separated from the specific cohorts which appropriate these new initiatives today with an unprecedent enthusiasm, and among which the “activist ageing” (jiji yanglao 积极养老, a twisted yet somehow revealing local translation of the concept of «active ageing») promoted by the Party-State finds a surprising echo. Since the late 2000, a new urban generation, born between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, have indeed progressively entered retirement: as the first generations to grow up in the early days of Maoism, they have seen their secondary school-years interrupted by the Cultural Revolution and have experienced, for 17 millions of them, being sent to the countryside to “undergo re-education by poor peasants” during the Down to the Countryside Movement (1968-1980); after having entered the workforce during economic reforms, and becoming parents right after the only child policy of 1979, they represent today the first cohorts of retired only-child parents.

Their experiences of aging and their attitudes as retirees indeed distinguish them strongly from their own elders. Benefitting admittedly from larger access to pension and home ownership, they nonetheless cultivate a shared consciousness of belonging to a distinct generation, repeatedly disadvantaged by shifting state policies which have affected each of their critical life transition. Fearing to become a financial burden to their only child in case of illness because of the rising cost of healthcare, their demand for activities allowing them to further postpone dependency is particularly strong, and even more so among those who still have their own elderly parents to take care of. Health also takes a particular importance in a context of rising cost and reduced numbers of child care institutions, which constrain adult and working only children to increasingly delegate the care of their offspring to their retired parents (a phenomenon reinforced after the progressive relaxing of the one child policy since 2013). In 2014, 60 to 70% of children aged less than 2 years old were estimated to be mainly taken care of by their grandparents – a fact considered by these current retirees as yet another sacrifice experienced by their generation at a critical moment of their life course.

The recent intensification of retirees’ gatherings (often symbolized by the “square dance fever” – guangchang wu re 广场舞热 – which has marked urban public spaces since the 2010s) as well as the growing national and international mobility of older people, must therefore be understood as a product of multiple factors: the development of a number of new spaces and activities specifically dedicated to “young elderly”, the circulation and reappropriation of new norms of retirement, and the aging of a new generation of one child parents socialized under collectivism. Beyond enjoying forms of collective effervescence which echo their youth experiences, these new cohorts of retirees also find in these gatherings places where they can exchange and learn how to negotiate retirement (a life transition particularly confusing for this generation for whom work constituted an important part of their social identity), distance themselves from the pressure they experience as aging parents of only children, but also make up for the lost years induced by their suspended education, and remain connected to a fast-changing world.


figure 3: a “square dance” session in Beijing Ditan park, gathering more than a hundred persons, mainly retired women.
Source: Justine Rochot, August 14th, 2014.

Disrupting common and unified representations of Chinese elderly, the third age of the “Mao generation” therefore offers a heuristic entry point to further complexify existing approaches to aging in China and beyond : on top of allowing us to wonder what the expectations and practices of current young retirees will look like as they get older, these observations also compel us to further deconstruct the image of old age in East Asia, beyond the sole prism of filial piety, and to question more systematically the role played by political cultures, social welfare models, knowledge circulation and generational socializations in the shaping of ever-changing experiences and representations of aging.

Justine Rochot
Doctor in sociology from the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS, Paris), Justine Rochot is currently a Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Research Center for Modern and Contemporary China (EHESS) and an associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (Taipei). Her PhD thesis on young retirees’ sociability spaces in contemporary urban China was awarded three prizes. Currently based in Taiwan, she is extending her interest for the study of aging and retirement to other parts of the sinophone world.


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couverture de l’un des premiers exemplaires de la revue Elderly Chinese (Zhongguo laonian中国老年), créée en 1983, initialement à destination des cadres retraités.
November 2021
Justine Rochot
Docteure en sociologie de l’EHESS, post-doctorante de la Fondation Chiang Ching-Kuo au CECMC (EHESS) et chercheuse associée au CEFC (Taipei)