China's gray revolution

As its population ages rapidly, Shanghai may become a city of Zimmer frames within 30 years and could soon face manpower shortages

By Howard French  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SHANGHAI

Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 17

Shanghai is rightfully known as a fast-moving, hypermodern city full of youth and vigor. But that obscures a less well-known fact: Shanghai has the oldest population in China, and it is getting older in a hurry.

Twenty percent of this city's people are at least 60, the common retirement age for men in China, and retirees are easily the fastest growing segment of the population, with 100,000 new seniors added to the rolls each year, according to a study by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. From 2010 to 2020, the number of people 60 or older is projected to grow by 170,000 a year.

By 2020 about a third of Shanghai's population, currently 13.6 million, will consist of people over the age of 59, remaking the city's social fabric and placing huge new strains on its economy and finances.

The changes go far beyond Shanghai, however. Experts say the rapidly graying city is leading one of the greatest demographic changes in history, one with profound implications for the entire country.

The world's most populous nation, which has built its economic strength on the basis of seemingly endless supplies of cheap labor, China may soon face manpower shortages. An aging population also poses difficult political issues for the Communist government, which first encouraged a population explosion in the 1950s and then reversed course and introduced the so-called one-child policy a few years after the death of Mao in 1976.

That measure has spared the country an estimated 390 million births but may ultimately prove to be another monumental demographic mistake. With China's breathtaking rise toward affluence, most people live longer and have fewer children, mirroring trends seen around the world.

Those trends and the extraordinarily low birth rate have combined to create a stark imbalance between young and old. That threatens the nation's rickety pension system, which already runs large deficits even with the four-to-one ratio of workers to retirees that it was designed for.

Demographers also anticipate strains on the household registration system, which restricts internal migration. The system prevents young workers from migrating to urban areas to relieve labor shortages, but officials fear that abolishing it could release a flood of humanity that would swamp the cities.

As workers become scarcer and more expensive in the increasingly affluent cities along China's eastern seaboard, the country will face growing economic pressures to move out of assembly work and other labor-intensive manufacturing, which will be taken up by poorer economies in Asia and beyond, and into industries based more on services and information.

"For the last two decades China has enjoyed the advantage of having a high ratio of working-age people in the population, but that situation is about to change," said Zuo Xuejin, vice president of the Shanghai

Academy of Social Sciences. "With the working-age population decreasing, our labor costs will become less competitive, and industries in places like Vietnam and Bangladesh will start becoming more attractive."

India, the world's other emerging giant, also stands to benefit, with low wages and a far younger population than China.

Even within China, Zuo said, many foreign investors have begun moving factories away from Shanghai and other eastern cities to inland locations, where the work force is cheaper and younger.

As remote as many of these problems may seem today in Shanghai, the country's most prosperous city, evidence of the changes is already on abundant display. If Shanghai represents the future of China, it is in central Shanghai's Jingan district, where roughly 4,000 people, or 30 percent of the residents, are above 60, that one can glimpse that future.

Squads of lightly trained social workers monitor the city's older residents, paying regular house visits aimed at combating isolation and assuring that medical problems are attended to.

At 10am on a recent spring morning, Chen Meijuan walked up a narrow wooden stairway to the second-floor apartment where Liang Yunyu has lived for the last 58 years.

"Good morning, granny," Chen called out as she entered the 100-year-old woman's small bedroom, which is filled with old wooden furniture and wall hangings with calligraphy honoring her centenary. "Did you have a good night's sleep"

Chen, 49, earns about US$95 a month as one of 15 agents who are responsible for monitoring the neighborhood's elderly population. Her caseload includes more than 200 seniors.

"I usually pay visits to about five or six households a day, stay a little while and chat with them, she said. For Grandma Liang I am a little more focused, visiting two or three times a week. I can basically handle all the people I'm responsible for, even though you feel a bit overwhelmed at the beginning."

After being introduced to a foreign visitor, Liang regaled her guests with stories, ranging across the decades of the 20th century. In the space of a few minutes, she recounted the arrival of Japanese invaders in the city nearly 70 years ago, her opening of a kindergarten in 1958 and her husband's arrest and death in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution 40 years ago.

"My daughter always invites me to live with her family, but I feel embarrassed to be with them," Liang told a visitor, pausing from her tales. "I'm worried I might die in her home, so I prefer staying where I am."

Her son, Zha Yuheng, 76, a grandfather and retired textile industry worker, lives with her now, which also concerns her. "I am taken good care of here," she said, "but living with my son leaves him with a big burden, I'm afraid."

Zha protested that his mother was little trouble at all. "Every morning I get water for her and make sure it is not too hot or too cold, and she handles everything else on her own," he said. "She gets up, dresses, makes the beds and even makes food for herself."

In many wealthy societies the very old are candidates for nursing home care. That sector is still tiny in China, though, especially compared with the size of elderly population. Zhang Minsheng opened the city's first private nursing home in 1998, a rambling 350-bed affair in an industrial area far from central Shanghai. It is now 95 percent occupied.

"People were not willing to enter nursing homes in the past, because they were considered places for those without descendants," Zhang said. "Now, from the standpoint of ordinary people, it is becoming a normal thing."

The average age of the residents of Zhang's home is 85, and most live several to a room, sleeping on narrow beds separated by flimsy partitions. Many pass the daytime hours in long corridors furnished with chairs, where they chat or simply stare into the distance.

The sheer magnitude of the aging phenomenon has Chinese officials and academics grasping for answers, but almost everyone agrees that there are no easy fixes. Population experts here speak of "patching one hole and exploding another."

China has a wide range of retirement ages, generally from 50 to 60. Raising the retirement age would relieve pressures on the pension system but make it harder for young people to find jobs. And it would be resented by many elderly people, most of whom have missed out on China's economic boom.

Lifting restrictions on internal migration raises the unwelcome prospect of a mass migration, while abandoning the one-child policy would be politically unpalatable.

The government has already tinkered with the policy. It now allows husbands and wives who were their parents' only children to have a second child, for example, and has eliminated a four-year waiting period between births for those eligible to have a second child.

But Chinese demographic experts say the leadership is unlikely to abolish the one-child rule, because it is reluctant to admit that one of its signature policies was in any way a failure particularly in view of the disastrous population boom encouraged by Mao in the 1950s.

Moreover, lifting child-bearing restrictions might not help. Poorer people in the interior might have more children, but the rising middle class probably will not, experts say.

"More births would only change the structure of the population and prolong the aging process of the society as a whole, said Ren Yuan, a professor at the Population Research Center of Fudan University in Shanghai. But it has nothing to do with the number of old people. The scale of this large group has already become a reality. The beds you've got to add in nursing homes, the labor you need to take care of the old, is a reality than can't be changed."