> topics > Sociology

Longevity and innovative social governance

HU ZHAN | 2022-04-07 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

An 85-year-old woman waters her home-grown vegetables in Fuqing County, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province. Photo: Weng Rong/CSST

Since the end of the 19th century, human longevity has increased significantly while fertility rates have dropped sharply, leading to an aging global population. This demographic trend is shared by all countries and regions, the only difference lies in how early the trend emerges and how quickly it progresses.
In 2015, there were 115 countries and territories worldwide that had not yet reached the aging stage, but by 2050 this number is likely to plummet to 33.
Since China entered the aging stage in 2000, the population’s aging level has been increasing. Data from the Sixth National Population Census in 2010 shows that the proportion of people aged 60 and above, and 65 and above in the total population rose to 13.3% and 8.9% respectively.
According to the Seventh National Population Census in 2020, these shares have reached 18.7% and 13.5% respectively, with the size of the population aged 60 and above exceeding 264 million. Moreover, the growth rate of the elderly population is moving at a significantly faster pace than that of the total population, and the growth rate of the senior population—aged 80 and above—is remarkably faster than that of the entire elderly population.
It is expected that by 2050, China’s elderly population aged 60 and above, and population aged 80 and above, will approach 500 million and exceed 100 million respectively.
As an inevitable consequence of the shift in population reproduction models, aging will continue for an extended period of time and is irreversible. In particular, aging caused by longevity or “top aging,” typified by a general increase in life expectancy, is gradually replacing aging caused by low birthrates or “bottom aging,” marked by a decline in fertility rates, as the dominant driver of an aging society. Individual longevity and demographic aging are becoming commonplace in contemporary society and may even be regarded as one of the features of social development in this era.
Deeper understanding of aging governance
In the 1990s, the World Health Organization (WHO) introduced the concept of healthy aging, the process of developing and maintaining functional abilities that enable wellbeing in older age, based on the international community’s growing understanding of extending lifespans and the development of aging. As research and practice advances, its connotations and extensions also develop. The elderly need to not only live a healthy life, but also participate in family and social activities to the fullest extent of their abilities. This led to the WHO’s 2002 introduction of “active aging,” which is to say “the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation, and security in order to enhance the quality of life as people age.” The UN has promoted this ideal as a global framework for action and continues to develop the concept.
Active aging is undoubtedly based on healthy aging and develops the three pillars of health-security-participation, which reflects that the international community has deepened its understanding of the governance of aging. Effective participation must be based on health and security. Meanwhile, participation outcomes must contribute to enhanced health and security.
This makes active aging a lifelong issue for the whole population, not just for the elderly. At the same time, for the elderly, active aging is not only about having “a secure old age,” but also “a useful old age,” “a sense of purpose,” and “a sense of enjoyment.” Healthy aging focuses on the continuity of growth, emphasizing that the ability to live a longer life depends on accumulation in earlier years, while active aging emphasizes participation and makes responding to aging a subject of universal involvement.
These goals cannot be achieved through social policies that focus solely on the elderly. Health and health care expenditure problems involving the elderly can often be addressed by investing in the health of younger people and by changing the lifestyles and behavior of society as a whole. The problem of distributing pensions to the elderly also needs to be alleviated by increasing the labor productivity of young people and promoting the economic participation of the older workforce. Individuals have different potential at different ages, and different age groups must contribute to social development through constant choice and mutual compensation in their survival and development.
Active aging and healthy aging have become the most widely recognized frameworks for the governance of aging societies within the international community. Based on this, WHO has proposed the concept of an “age-friendly world.”
In research and practice, it is more commonly referred to as an “age-friendly society,” or a society where people of all ages are actively involved and respected; a society where older people are more likely to stay in touch with the people who matter to them; a society that helps older people stay as healthy and active as possible, and provides appropriate support for those who need care and assistance.
The Chinese government introduced its localized interpretation of the term “age-friendly society” a long time ago. Its connotations can even be found in macro-governance concepts like “harmonious society,” “inclusive growth,” and “a social governance model based on collaboration, participation, and common interests.” As population aging becomes our new fundamental national condition, the importance of governance in this arena continues to improve.
In 2019, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the State Council issued the “The Medium-and Long-term Plan for Responding Proactively to Population Aging,” which specifically proposes to “build an age-friendly society.”
In 2020, the Outline of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035, which was adopted at the Fifth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee, explicitly calls for implementing a national strategy for actively coping with aging, reflecting the highest-level national will and development needs, and has become a core focus of national governance modernization.
Aging governance with Chinese characteristics
In essence, life’s different age stages are interrelated and overlapping. Individual abilities develop unevenly across life cycles, with no age group having equally strong or weak abilities, and no ability continues to rise or fall over the course of a person’s life. Aging is a gradual and individualized process, with significant heterogeneity among older individuals and among different groups of older people at different points of time.
This era’s older population already exhibits a number of very different characteristics from past generations, and these differences are likely to become even more pronounced when the “baby boomers” of the 1950s become older. Only by considering all stages of individual development, and all levels of the demographic structure, can the basis for effective governance of an aging society be strengthened. When our public policies no longer mechanically equate “the elderly” with the “dependent,” people’s sense of self-reliance and self-improvement may increase, poor lifestyles may change, average health levels may improve, and the cost of running society may decrease, thus creating a positive environment for aging. Aging does not necessarily mean decline and illness. There is a huge and expanding pool of human and social capital within the elderly population, but current institutional arrangements limit the use of it.
It is important to note that not all older people are suitable for delayed retirement and that the pathways for older people to participate in social development are more inclusive than simply employment. It is undeniable that employment is the best way for people to participate in the development of society, but it is also important to include, in the context of social governance innovation, jobs where older people can be flexibly employed, some voluntary work, and even some domestic work. Older citizens are not only consumers, but also producers and creators of history.
While emphasizing that people can fulfil their potential and participate in social development throughout their lives, it is also important to ensure that they are adequately protected and cared for. Despite the elderly population’s rising health level, their policy value remains unexplored in terms of effectively quantifying social costs. In 2010, the remaining life expectancy of the male and female elderly population, aged 60 years and above, was 20.04 years and 23.14 years respectively, with 17.22 years of capable of self-care and an average survival time with disability of about 2.53 years, both steadily increasing compared to data from 2000. The benefits of increased longevity are accompanied by costs and pressures, or the cost of success and even the failure of success.
The existing model of social governance, however, has yet to effectively tap into the reality of our elderly population’s increased health and to respond in a timely manner to the pressures it may bring. This reflects, in particular, the lagging development of social security systems and geriatric science and technology and may lead to problem of “longevity risks.” These uncertainties will accompany the governance process of an aging society for a considerable period of time.
Opportunities and challenges coexist. If we take an innovative and open-minded approach to the extension of lifespans and the governance of aging populations, then the priority is not to be overly concerned with costs of old-age care, but to inspire all sectors of society to take action and rethink their perceptions of older people and aging societies, using this as a starting point for social governance.
The UN adopted “Towards a Society for All Ages” as the theme for the International Year of Older Persons 1999. It advocates for social inclusion, equality, and opportunities for all. The “age-friendly society” of the new era is being upgraded to emphasize “collaboration, participation, and common interests among all ages.” This is not only the purpose of China’s governance of an aging society, but also a necessary step on the road to modernizing our national and social governance. It will provide an innovative example of “well-rounded human development.”
Hu Zhan is a professor from Fudan Institute on Ageing.
Edited by WENG RONG