With largest number of older people and earliest retirement, China mulls extending working age as life expectancy rises

By Huang Lanlan, Li Qiao and Lu Yameng Source: Global Times Published: 2020/12/8 3:08:34

Huang Lijun, a retired cultural relics repairer at the China National Silk Museum, repairs a piece of colored silk cloth at the China International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS) in Beijing on September 7, 2020.

Retiree Li Ailing, 56, was glad that China's future policy of delaying retirement won't cover her.

Li retired in September 2019 at the age of 55 from her job as a client manager at a bank in Qingdao, East China's Shandong Province. She met the legal retirement age requirement - the minimum statutory retirement age is 60 for men and 55 for women (50 for those engaged in physical work) in China.

The pressure of working in a bank made Li not want to work one more day. "I had been working hard in my position for half my life," she told the Global Times. "Now I want to travel and enjoy life as soon as possible."

After years of heated discussion, China will "gradually raise the minimum statutory retirement age" in its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) for National Economic and Social Development, where "actively responding to the aging population" has risen to a national strategy priority for the first time.

Postponing retirement has become a much discussed topic in China although details about how the retirement age will rise have yet to be released. Many people of different ages reached by the Global Times had mixed feelings about the plan, with some worrying that a longer working life may bring uncertainties to their jobs and retirement plans.

Concerns from both old and young

Whether Chinese senior citizens can afford several more years of employment is one of the major public concerns over postponing retirement. On Weibo, some users who oppose the proposal lamented they may die before the retirement age after decades of diligent work.

Sitting in the office all year round, Li has bad eyes and a sore back. In fact, by the age of 50, Li said she was no longer fit to be at her previous main job.

"Delaying retirement will not give the old more room for promotion. I have no passion for work," Li added.

Lin Bi (pseudonym), a 53-year-old radiologist at a hospital in Daqing, Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, said he feels that his work style and experience are out of step with the times.

"Nowadays, doctors make comprehensive use of the internet and technological innovation to diagnose and treat patients, and young doctors also have a wide range of knowledge through the internet. Sometimes I feel that I am not as good as they are," he said.

The radiologist, who will retire at the age of 60 under China's current policies, said he is not as energetic as he used to be, especially during the night shift. "I would not like to delay retirement," he told the Global Times. "I can't imagine that I can still catch up with my [younger] colleagues seven years later."

In a poll launched by the Southern Metropolis Daily in November 2019, more than 80 percent of respondents disagreed with postponing retirement.

Many people said delaying retirement age will intensify competition between the older and young workers, with 78 percent of the poll's respondents agreeing it will be more difficult for young people to get a job, especially a job in government departments or public institutions where people usually stay in a post for decades until retirement.

Xiao Yun, who worked at a public agency in East China's Fujian Province after graduating from college this summer, said she was the only 20-something staffer at her department. "All others are over the age of 40," she said, adding that she guesses her department won't hire new people until someone retires and leaves.

"If the retirement age is delayed, they may occupy posts for more years, limiting job opportunities for young people," Xiao sighed.

Late retirement benefits

Despite the concerns of some people, China is very likely to change its statutory retirement age in the face of a growing aging population and labor shortages, economists and public management experts told the Global Times.

There were 253.88 million people who are 60 or older on the Chinese mainland in 2019, accounting for 18.1 percent of the country's population, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

China has the world's largest number of seniors, and they are required to retire earlier than those in any other country, said Li Chang'an, a professor at the School of Public Administration under University of International Business and Economics, referencing data released by the national human resources authority in 2017 which said the average retirement age was only 54 in China.

"The current retirement standard was made in the 1950s when the average life expectancy was much shorter," Li told the Global Times. "Now our average life expectancy is approaching 80 years old, and the length of time we can work is much longer than in the past."

Life expectancy in China reached 77 years in 2018, which in 1957 was only 57 years, official statistics showed. The US life expectancy is 78.6 years and the average retirement age is 65 for men and 63 for women. 

Early retirement causes waste of China's labor resources, which are theoretically richer than other major populous countries. Official data showed that working-age people (15-64 years old) account for 70.64 percent of Chinese mainland's whole population in 2020, with Beijing enjoying the highest percentage of 78.12 and Southwest China's Guizhou Province having the lowest of 66.17. The mainland's overall proportion was 70.72 in 2019, higher than that of Brazil (69.74), India (67) and the US (65.24).

The retirement age in China, especially for women does need adjusting, said Xi Heng, a professor at the School of Public Management of Northwest University in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

"Most Chinese women retire too early," Xi told the Global Times. "Look at the grannies dancing in the parks. Many of them are only in their early 50s."

By the end of 2019, the accumulated balance of China's basic endowment insurance fund was 6.2 trillion yuan, according to data released by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security in June 2020. 

The average pension payment for urban workers is more than 3,000 yuan per person per month in 2019, People's Daily reported.

The current pension fund in China can certainly guarantee basic living conditions, said Chu Fuling, head of the China Social Security Research Center under the Central University of Finance and Economics, who added that the average pension of more than 3,000 yuan is not low. 

"In general, there is a surplus in the pension fund, but in the face of the aging problem, there is an imbalance between pension income and expenditure," Chu told the Global Times.

Raising the retirement age will extend the pension insurance and shorten the payout period, he noted.

Xi doesn't agree that older workers are taking jobs from younger workers. "Many jobs held by older employees need years of experiences, which newbies can't handle, or are low-paying service jobs that young people are reluctant to do."

Many older workers who are required to retire are often rehired on contract. Lin Lezheng, former chief engineer of the Architectural Planning and Design Institute of Hunan Construction Group, said he continued working until he was 89.

"Sometimes young engineers who I worked with will call me for advice when they met design problems," said Lin, who is now 93.

"My strength is extremely limited at my age but I think it's nice to still be able to do something and continue to contribute to society," he told the Global Times.

Flexibly implement

Postponing retirement is an irresistible trend for aging societies like China. How to formulate corresponding policies in line with China's national conditions and implement them flexibly will become a major task of authorities in the coming years.

Many experts reached by the Global Times said a step-by-step adjustment of the retirement age is feasible and more acceptable to the Chinese public.

Chu said the retirement age should be extended over a long transition period, perhaps by extending retirement a month or two per year until reaching a statutory retirement age, and the process may take 30 to 50 years. 

Shen Shuguang, a professor of School of Government of Sun Yat-sen University, also suggests future delaying retirement policies follow principles of practicality, reality and flexibility. "People working in different jobs should also be treated distinctively based on the degrees of working intensity and danger," Shen said.

Chu said it is necessary for the country to introduce corresponding policies to guarantee the employment of older workers and provide employment training to ensure older people don't encounter employment discrimination.

And gender also matters. Considering the fact that most Chinese women retire years earlier than men, some experts have suggested women should retire at the same age as men to ensure gender equality, which caused heated debate among Chinese netizens recently.

The postponement of retirement has been implemented among some female officials and professionals since 2015, when the organization department of CPC Central Committee and national human resources authority jointly proposed that female workers at senior professional posts, or female officials at higher level, can retire after they reach 60.

In the past, an earlier retirement was regarded as kind of a compensation for women who worked and bore most responsibility for raising children, Xi said. This policy seems no longer keeping with the times today as an increasing number of women say they don't want a child.

Instead of retiring years early, "women with children could be given extended maternity leave or higher pensions," he added.

Newspaper headline: Senior treasures

Posted in: SOCIETY

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