Dilemmas facing migrant workers in their 50s

By WANG OU / 02-07-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Construction workers on break at a construction site Photo: TUCHONG

In a recent report released by the National Bureau of Statistics, data collected from 2008 to 2022 reveals a rise in the average age of migrant workers in Chinese mainland. The average age has increased from 34 to 42.3 years, while the proportion of older migrant workers aged 50 and above has soared from 11.4% to 29.2%, reaching a total of 86.32 million people. Given the evolving trend of China’s population structure, the number of older migrant workers is expected to continue expanding.

Based on multiple surveys conducted in two industrial zones and two rural areas, we found that when migrant workers are identified as “older” by urban labor market standards, their employment becomes less stable and declines in quality, but they remain in those urban markets. This means that employment goes from relatively formal to increasingly informal, gradually descending along the labor market’s employment hierarchy. Despite the “downward” spiral, these workers do not return to agricultural labor.

‘Downward’ trajectory

For the vast number of migrant workers who seek urban employment, coastal factories have long been their primary employment sector. While employment contracts are relatively formal, age has become a highly relevant factor shaping the industrial workforce. In the industrial zones of coastal cities K and S, job advertisements at the entrances of industrial parks and in nearby human resource markets explicitly specify state requirements for certain positions, including gender, education, skills, and age. 

Typical recruitment criteria are as follows: “under 35 years old, junior high school or above, male or female, with relevant work experience preferred.” At the turn of the 21st century, China emerged as the “world’s factory,” with a seemingly infinite supply of first generation internal migrant workers. At that time, coastal factories generally had higher age restrictions on labor. However, with the gradual disappearance of the “demographic dividend,” the average age of migrant workers increased, and coastal factories faced hiring challenges and labor shortages. To respond, they had to extended their age restrictions to 35, 38, and even 45 years old gradually. 

Generally, laborers in coastal factories are at risk of dismissal if they have not been promoted to a management position by the age of 45. Factory managers might pressure older workers to resign.

After leaving relatively formal employment in large factories, older migrant workers often enter informal sectors such as manufacturing, services, and construction. With higher basic wages paid in coastal industrial zones compared to inland cities, these zones remain a desirable place to work.  At the same time, there are many small and micro-factories or private workshops which support large factories, and older migrant workers who leave large factories usually choose to work in this ecosystem. In contrast to the relatively formal corporate environment of industrial factories, the small factories and workshops are often operated by private entrepreneurs. These workshops rely on orders subcontracted from corporate factories or small projects related to the upstream or downstream needs of larger factories. There are no standardized processes for labor management, which results in a high turnover of workers. 

During the off-season or factory shutdown periods, older migrant workers employed in informal manufacturing jobs often turn to labor intermediaries to make ends meet. This temporary work involves fulfilling seasonal orders in formal factories, rush work in small workshops, night “picking and packing” in logistics centers, stage setups for shopping mall events, temporary construction teams at building sites, or even temporary labor in private households.

As they age out of desirable contracts, a significant portion of older migrant workers spend time working informally around industrial zones before moving on to even less stable jobs in the construction industry or in low-level service sectors. Compared to factory work, construction work provides little social security. This is unfortunate as construction work involves intense labor and longer project transition times, resulting in more unpaid time while laborers wait for assignments. However, many older migrant workers prefer such jobs as the income is higher and employment is often secured through relationships with fellow villagers. This allows workers to partially balance work and family life. 

Meanwhile, other older migrant workers directly engage in lower-paying, less secure, and often more gendered low-level service jobs. Among them, older male migrant workers are more commonly employed in low-level security, cleaning, and municipal jobs, while older female migrant workers enter household services, caregiving, and lower-level cleaning jobs.

Beyond the age of 60, a significant number of migrant workers remain at the bottom of the urban labor market, faced with less desirable job opportunities but reluctant to return to agricultural and rural labor. For example, former coal miners and factory workers in the Xibian Village of Shangrao City, Jiangxi Province fit into this “urban-oriented” employment pattern. And this trend is further supported by a survey of older construction workers in Xibian Village that tracked their employment trajectories over time. 

Surprisingly, despite residing in rural areas and having spent most of their professional lives engaging in small-scale farming, these laborers who returned from construction sites to a rural village have not resumed any agricultural operations, invested intensive labor in the agricultural sector, comfortably waited for job opportunities, or transitioned to retirement. Instead, these unemployed older migrant workers in rural areas share a strong sense of anxiety, and they eagerly continue to seek job opportunities beyond agriculture and back in cities.

The desire to seek urban employment beyond agriculture and rural settings is evident among these older migrant workers, reflecting a complex set of economic and social factors influencing their decisions and attitudes toward work and retirement.

Structural reasons

The formation of the work mobility trajectory of older migrant workers, characterized by a “downward and urban-oriented” pattern, is rooted in their differential exclusion from various levels of urban labor markets, and the increasing burden of labor force reproduction for older migrants. 

As labor mobility shifts downward, the severe lack of preparation for retirement among older migrant workers drives them to continue working strenuously. Since the labor market requires a period of development and construction, only a limited number of first-generation migrant workers can receive pensions after reaching retirement age. These pensions are usually reserved for laborers who have worked in formal factories for longer periods of time.

Therefore, when reaching their 50s, most first-generation migrant workers, especially female workers, lack adequate preparation for labor force retirement. They usually are only eligible to receive a meager monthly pension of around a hundred yuan, distributed from their rural hometown, after the age of 60. This meager “retirement income” is not enough to cover the cost of living, expenses from major illnesses, or even ordinary medical expenses which retirees will face as they continue to age. All these pressures drive older migrant workers to persevere and continue to seek work, even if at the bottom of the urban labor market, as they age and their physical abilities decline.

Beyond personal labor force reproduction, the continuous increase of family labor reproduction in recent years has further pushed older migrant workers into the urban labor market. In surveys of rural areas in Jiangxi Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, there is a widespread trend where not only workers, but also their families, relocate to cities. This means education, housing, and living expenses have moved from rural to urban areas—causing these costs to rise. Older migrant workers and their spouses, as caregivers for their grandchildren “left-behind” in villages or participants in the wave of home purchases for their adult children in cities, directly or indirectly bear the costs of family urbanization. This is another powerful pressure driving older migrant workers to continue working in cities.

Older migrant workers, especially those beyond the “super-aged” stage, are reluctant to return to agricultural labor and would rather stay at the bottom of the urban labor market. This reluctance is rooted in the fact that the labor at the bottom of the urban labor market are far more rewarding than agricultural labor. In one case study, “Lao Gao,” an older migrant worker initially worked as a general laborer on construction sites but started working as a security guard after the age of 60. After being laid off, he started working as a cleaner in the same residential community and began collecting garbage when he was nearly 70 years old. This sanitation job does not have a signed contract, but with basic wages plus income from additional inspections, his monthly income ranges from 4,000 to 5,000 yuan. In contrast, the long-term agricultural income in his rural hometown in southern Jiangxi Province has been consistently low and has recently declined further. Therefore, in our last interview in 2023, even facing the risk of dismissal, he still plans to “stick” to the bottom of the urban labor market.

Urban-rural tracking

For the large population of migrant workers aged over 50, which exceeds 80 million and accounts for nearly one-third of the total migrant worker population, entering the senior or even “super-aged” stage of life does not necessarily mean retirement and a return to rural hometowns for old age care. Instead, they continue to seek employment and draw incomes from the bottom of the urban labor market. It is essential to dispel the false assumption that older migrant workers will return to rural areas for retirement once they reach “retirement age.” 

At the same time, there is a need to reflect on the limitations of data collection methods that solely focus on rural areas. Restricting our observations to a rural perspective and considering only the working and living conditions of older migrant workers at the bottom of the urban labor market can lead to limited analytical perspectives and biased data collection.

Contrary to the limitations of a rural-centric approach, an urban-centric perspective, especially one that focuses on specific industries or job sectors through single-point investigations, also has drawbacks in terms of analytical perspectives and data collection methods. Observing older migrant workers from an urban perspective makes it impossible to capture spatial behavior, such as the frequent shuttle between urban and rural areas. Additionally, conducting surveys at a single urban workplace cannot grasp the pattern of older migrant workers drifting among various informal jobs.

In summary, to map out the characteristics of older migrant workers who have detached from relatively formal urban employment but persistently “stick” to the bottom of the urban labor market, while constantly shifting between various informal jobs and shuttling between urban and rural areas, we need a multi-point tracking survey method which aligns with their high-level of mobility in labor and life. 

This method aims to investigate their work mobility patterns in greater depth, as it simultaneously observes the urban dynamics of work mobility for older migrant workers while also recognizing their connections with their rural hometowns, especially their ties to agricultural labor. In terms of data collection, this survey method would involve examining multiple work locations, understanding the differentiated management and regulation of older migrant workers in labor markets at different levels and in sectors with varying degrees of formality. The method also demands a greater focus on daily life through a “life history” approach, placing older migrant workers within the context of their personal life experiences and family structures.

As their age, physical conditions, individual late-life labor force reproduction, and family reproduction responsibilities change, this detailed approach seeks to comprehend work mobility at different labor market levels. In the end, such an approach is expected to help track the subsequent work mobility trajectories of the ever-growing population of older migrant workers, providing a deeper understanding of their urban-rural encounters and late-life circumstances. 

Wang Ou is an associate professor from the School of Sociology at Central China Normal University.

Edited by YANG XUE