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‘Young seniors’ are vital human capital to be utilized

LI LONG | 2023-03-23 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A volunteer group, consisting of retired adults in their early 60s, helps advocate for fire safety through community work. Photo: CNSphoto

As the 20th CPC National Congress report stated, China will “pursue a proactive national strategy in response to population aging and develop elderly care programs and services.” In China, developing the human resource of “young seniors,” or those who are within the range of 60-69 years old, is a necessary requirement for integrating “active aging” and “healthy aging” into the whole process of economic and social development.

Great potential

From the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) period to 2035, the size of China’s elderly population will grow rapidly, and population aging will continue to intensify. According to China’s seventh national population census in 2020, the total number of elderly people is expected to exceed 300 million during the 14th Five-Year Plan period, with an average annual net increase of more than 11 million between 2022 and 2025. China will always have the largest elderly population in the world. The proportion of the population which qualifies as elderly is expected to reach 22%, with a cumulative increase of about 3.2 percentage points between 2022 and 2025, which marks China’s transition from a mildly aging society to moderately aging. 

During the 14th Five-Year Plan period, China will witness the fastest population aging in history, which will also be the longest rapid population aging in history. It means that up to 2035, the pace of population aging is unlikely to slow down significantly. 

According to relevant estimates, by 2035, the total elderly population in China will exceed 400 million, accounting for 30% of the total population, and China’s population will also shift from moderate aging to severe aging. The time between implementation of the 14th Five-Year Plan to the realization of modernization, scheduled to occur by 2035, is a critical period for both Chinese modernization and China’s population aging.

From the 14th Five-Year Plan period to 2035, most of the elderly population will consist of young seniors, and the problem of severe aging (those above 80) will not yet be prominent. The rapid growth of China’s young senior population is driving rapid population aging. Within the age range of 60 to 69 years old, the number of elderly people is expected to increase by nearly 13 million, reaching more than 160 million during the 14th Five-Year Plan period, and by 2035 it is expected to increase by about 50 million, rising to a number exceeding 210 million. This group will always account for more than half of the total elderly population and will only fall below half after 2035, with the aging rate slowing down during the same period. 

In contrast, although the size of the elderly population aged 80 and above continues to grow, the corresponding proportion of this group basically stays at the level—no more than 15%—with little change. In particular, during the 14th Five-Year Plan period, the percentage hovered around 12%, and even fell slightly due to the rapid growth of the total number of young seniors. During the 14th Five-Year Plan period, and until 2035, when modernization is basically realized, the integration of aging and severely aging populations will not fully take place, as young seniors will hold the majority, thus making this period an important window for the development of human resources for the young senior age group.

Most young seniors have received a good education, and illiteracy is no longer an obstacle. Thanks to the continuous and vigorous development of education since the founding of the PRC, especially since the reform and opening up, the educational status of the elderly population is consistent, and this momentum will continue for many years in the future. 

According to statistics from the 14th Five-Year Plan period, more than half of the elderly population will have a junior high school diploma or above. Over the same period, the elderly population’s basic illiteracy rate will fall to about 10%, while the proportion with a high school education or above is expected to rise to more than 17%. By 2035, the basic illiteracy rate among the elderly population will shrink to miniscule levels, while the proportion of people with higher education begins to rise sharply. At the end of the 14th Five-Year Plan period, the basic illiteracy rate of the population aged 60 to 69 will be less than 5%, the average length of schooling is expected to exceed 9 years, and the overall level of education will reach junior high school. Therefore, we can say that from the 14th Five-Year Plan period to 2035, the rapidly aging population structure will be accompanied by a rapid education level improvement within the elderly population, thus making this age group a potential human resource asset.

Going forward

The development and utilization of young seniors as a human resource will help balance the relationship between supply and demand in the job market, reduce pressure on social security expenditures, and strengthen the economic foundation as it actively responds to the aging population. A decrease in the size and structure of the working-age population is a typical feature of population aging. During the 14th Five-Year Plan period, the total working age population between 16 and 59 is expected to decrease by about 25.6 million, while the average age of the working population will rise by about 0.5 years to about 40 years. By 2035, the working population’s increased average age will not be evident, although the size of the working-age population is expected to further decrease by 63.4 million to less than 800 million. 

In the future, the population cohort formed by the “post-60s” group, the second birth peak, will gradually reach old age, which will lead to a “retirement tide” corresponding to the historic “baby boom,” and create friction between supply and demand in the labor market for an extended period of time. With the decrease of the total working-age population and the increase of the total elderly population, China’s old-age dependency ratio will increase by 6 percentage points in the 14th Five-Year Plan period and another 16 percentage points by 2035. Pressure on social security expenditures will increase sharply, and the “retirement tide” will be superimposed on top of the “pension tide.” 

At present, there is a large population of young seniors, and there is no significant difference between this age group and the older working-age population in terms of cultural quality, health level, and other aspects. The development of human resources within this age group will help fill the employment demand gap, optimize the relationship between supply and demand in the market, strengthen the wealth reserve foundation, and relieve pressure on social security, ultimately enhancing the market’s economic capacity to actively respond to the aging population.

The development and utilization of the human resource of young seniors will not only help to realize the labor value of the elderly population, but also help to improve the mental health of the elderly population and enhance their cognitive ability. 

At present, the mental health status of the elderly population in our country is far from optimistic, and mental health problems such as depression are rising. Studies have found that about 6% of China’s elderly population, or more than 15 million people, suffer from depressive disorders, while more than 18% show depressive symptoms. Dementia, another typical mental health disorder, is also a growing problem among the elderly. The scale of the elderly population with dementia is about 15 million, with an incidence of mild cognitive impairment at more than 15%. 

These illnesses will not only reduce the quality of life for the elderly population and increase dysfunction, but also add a heavy burden to our whole society. Numerous studies have shown that re-entering the labor market can expand the elderly population’s social network, improve their social participation, significantly reduce the risk of mental health diseases, in particular, help the elderly population maintain a high cognitive level, and thus strengthen their own ability to support their health. It is safe to say that developing the human resource of young seniors is not only an effective measure to carry out the positive aging concept, but also a beneficial measure to practically promote healthy aging.

Favorable conditions

To start with, we should clarify which institutional barriers prevent the development of young seniors as a human resource and create a supportive employment environment. At present, social security and fiscal tax policy are typical institutional restrictions for human resource development of young seniors, and policy incentives are also significantly insufficient. To this end, we should speed up the construction of a system where “whoever is willing to work has the opportunity to do so,” thus effectively enhancing the elderly population’s participation in building a modern country in the new era. 

A comprehensive review of China’s policies on human resources, social security, finance, and taxation should be carried out, with a focus on all links that may adversely affect or even hinder the elderly from re-entering the labor market, so as to form a list of further reforms. We must put into place a framework that is adapted to the development of our aging society and matches the needs of the elderly in our country. At the same time, while delaying the legal retirement age, we could further break through the restrictions of the retirement reemployment policy in social security, finance, and taxation, forming an incentive for a post-retirement reemployment policy in a clear manner and with strong operability. The goal is to create an open labor market for all ages.

Second, we need a systematic evaluation system to test the capacity of young seniors for further human resource development, and we should create a better environment for seniors by investing in continued education. At present, taking the “elderly university” as a typical example, senior education in our country has a more recreational focus than skill training, failing to serve as a strong support for human resource development of young seniors. 

Therefore, efforts are being made to make sure “whoever has the ability to work has the opportunity to do so,” with more refined and comprehensive continuing education services. Namely, the concept of lifelong education will be incorporated into all policies, the legislative process of lifelong learning will be promoted, a system of lifelong skills training is being put in place, community-based development of lifelong education will be enhanced, and the informatization level of lifelong education will be strengthened. 

Moreover, dynamic monitoring and investigation of human resources in the young senior group will be the key to optimizing continuing education for the elderly. New models such as “credit banks” and “smart classrooms,” and new concepts such as the “learning city” and “learning community” could be explored to encourage seniors to pursue lifelong learning. The exemplary and leading role of some elderly individuals within their peer group should be enhanced to encourage the elderly population’s participation in continuing education.

Finally, it is crucial to comprehensively understand the multi-dimensional implications of human resource development of the young senior group, and create a friendly environment for this age group. For many years, traditional social norms dictated that the elderly should act as family caregivers after they successfully retired and that if the elderly can take care of themselves, no more could be asked. Such concepts have hindered the human resource development of this age group to a considerable extent. 

To this end, we should actively change our way of thinking while striving to promote the human resource development of young seniors in multiple fields and levels. On top of respecting the value of the elderly population in family care, housework, and domestic spheres, they should also have the opportunity to work outside of the family if they want to. For example, many voluntary services are carried out by the elderly, such as community security services and neighborhood dispute mediation, which falls under the purview of the basic forms of human resources development for the elderly population. An important dimension of respecting the elderly on a higher level, which we should cultivate in all society, is that the elderly population can spend their spare energy wherever they want to.

Li Long is from the Population Development Studies Center at Renmin University of China.

Edited by YANG XUE