Successful Retirement in China

April 30, 2012

I just returned from a two week trip in China where I spent time in some large cities (Beijing, Xi’an, Chongqing, Shanghai) and points in between. While two weeks isn’t enough time to really get to know a country and its people, it is enough to make a few observations:

  • The major cities are very clean, safe and colorful but the air quality is marginal at best.
  • Traffic in the cities is very challenging. This despite the fact that it can cost as much as $10,000 (U.S.) to obtain a license plate!
  • With few exceptions, the Chinese people seemed very polite and welcoming. A number of them posed to have their pictures taken with us and/or asked us to hold their babies for photos.
  • English is clearly becoming a second language, both spoken and in signage.
  • The food was good and quite varied, but you can’t drink the water (other than bottled). The beer is good.
  • The population is getting older on average.
  • Most of the retired people I saw or met seemed quite happy.

The population is getting older in large measure due to China’s one birth per couple policy. While it doesn’t apply to everyone, the Chinese claim it has reduced population growth by about 400 million since it was instituted in 1978. Since there are fewer young people and life expectancy has been increasing, the population is on average getting older. There are about 166 million people over the age of 60 in China at the present time or about 12.5% of the population; that number is expected to increase to 360 million by 2030. This leaves China with the problem of getting old before it gets rich enough to support the aging population.

The traditional Confucian ethic was for children take care of and support their elders. The one birth per couple policy has led to what has been called the “4-2-1 problem” – one child might need to support two parents and four grandparents if savings, pensions and charities of the elders are inadequate. The Confucian ethic was pushed aside by the Communist Party, but has not gone out of existence. One of the first questions a Chinese may ask you is how old you are. The older you are, the more you are to be respected.

The Chinese retirement age is 60 for men, 55 for female civil servants and 50 for other women. Life expectancy is about 72 for men, 76 for women.

It is easy to find retired Chinese: go to any park or open public space and you will find them doing Tai Chi or other gentle martial arts, graceful ballroom and solo dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, playing badminton, meditating or simply watching others engaged in these pursuits. And they love to have people join them. We stopped to listen to a group of singers. When their “conductor” noticed us he called out a new song and they serenaded us with Jingle Bells. That was followed with Oh Suzanna during which they took most of our group by the hand and danced in a large circle with much laughter and back-slapping at the end. As we left they sang Auld Lang Syne.

I had a lengthy chat in one park with a retired female accountant (age 57) who was studying English. We discussed the United States, our families, our work before retirement and my impressions of China. She said she was happy in retirement. She apologized several times for her English, which I must note was much better than my Italian (the language I’m studying in retirement).

The parks also contain many happy and proud grandparents caring for their grandchildren. I assume this is because the parents were both working but I didn’t have the opportunity to dig into that.

In the country-side I met a 78 year old woman who lived in house on a small portion of what used to be her farm. The Government had taken most of the farm for expansion of a nearby airport. She lived off small land compensation payments from the government and still grew vegetables in several gardens for her own consumption. Her living room walls proudly displayed portraits of her deceased husband, Mao Zedong and Yao Ming the Chinese basketball star who last played for the Houston Rockets. She too seemed content and happy, consistent with all the other senior Chinese I was able to observe or meet during the trip.

R. Kevin Price

© 2008-2012 R.K. Price