A Graying China May Have to Put Off Retirement. Workers Aren’t Happy.

Retirement cannot come soon enough for Meng Shan, a 48-year-old city administrator in the Chinese city of Nanchang.

Mr. Meng, who equates to a lowly, unarmed law enforcement officer, is often forced to hunt down unlicensed street vendors, a job he finds physically and emotionally demanding. The pay is low. Retirement, even with a meager state pension, would finally be a break.

As a result, Mr. Meng was dismayed when the Chinese government said it would raise the mandatory retirement age, which is currently 60 for men. He wondered how much longer his body could handle the job and whether his employer would fire him before he was eligible for a pension.

“To tell the truth,” he said of the government’s announcement, “this is extremely unfriendly to us low-ranking workers.”

China said last month that it will “gradually delay” the statutory retirement age over the next five years to address one of the country’s most pressing problems. The rapidly aging population means a decline in the workforce. State pension funds run the risk of becoming scarce. And China has some of the lowest retirement ages in the world: 50 for women workers, 55 for white-collar workers, and 60 for most men.

However, the idea is deeply unpopular. The government has not yet released details of its plan, but older workers have already stated that they have been cheated of their promised deadlines, while young people fear the already fierce competition for jobs will intensify.

And workers with manual labor or physically demanding jobs like Mr. Meng’s, who still make up the majority of the Chinese workforce, say they will be worn out, unemployed, or both.

The announcement came during the national legislature’s annual session, and afterwards, retirement-related topics were covered for days on Chinese social media, generating hundreds of millions of views and critical comments.

Around the world, raising the retirement age has proven to be one of the toughest challenges a government can face. Russia’s attempt to do so in 2018 resulted in the lowest approval ratings for President Vladimir V. Putin in years. Mr Putin finally pushed the plan through but made concessions, a rare move for him.

A pension reform plan in France sparked a lengthy transport strike last year and forced the government to postpone the proposal.

The Chinese government itself, in the face of a similar outcry, abandoned previous efforts to raise the retirement age in 2015.

This time it seems determined to hold on. But it also recognized the game. Officials seem cautious, leaving the details vague for now, but suggest that the threshold be raised by just a few months each year.

“They talked about it a long time,” said Albert Francis Park, an economics professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studied China’s pension system. “You really need to exercise some determination to get it through.”

China has been plunging into a retirement age crisis for years. The current standards were set in the 1950s when the average person was expected to only live in their early 40s.

However, with the country’s rapid modernization, life expectancy has reached almost 77 years, according to the World Bank. The birth rates have also fallen, so that China’s population is clearly top-heavy. According to the government, more than 300 million people, roughly a fifth of the population, are expected to be over 60 years old by 2025.

The result is what experts call a serious threat to continued economic growth and competitiveness in China. In Japan and many European countries, residents aged 65 and over are entitled to a pension. At a recent press conference, You Jun, Deputy Minister for Human Resources and Social Security, said that China is risking “a waste of human resources.”

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April 26, 2021, 6:10 p.m. ET

The backlash has highlighted a number of other concerns in Chinese society on issues such as job security, social safety net and income inequality.

The hypercompetitive environment that defines many employees in China is already weighing on Naomi Chen, a 29-year-old financial analyst in Shanghai. She has often spoken to friends about her desire to retire early to escape the pressures, even if it means living more modestly.

The government’s announcement only confirmed this wish. China is already struggling to create enough well-paid employees for its emerging ranks of university graduates. With fewer retirees, Ms. Chen feared, she would work just as hard, but with less prospect of a payoff.

“Getting promoted is definitely going to be slower because people above me don’t retire,” she said.

In reality, older workers can suffer more. China has modernized so rapidly that they tend to be much less skilled or educated than their younger counterparts, which some employers are reluctant to keep, Professor Park said. In several industries, including the technology industry, 35 is considered the age limit to be hired.

Delaying retirement can also undermine another important government priority: encouraging couples to have more children in order to slow the aging of the population.

Partly due to insufficient childcare resources, the vast majority of Chinese depend on grandparents to be the primary caregivers of their children. Now social media users are wondering what will happen if the older generation is still working.

Lu Xia, 26, said the prospect of retiring later made it impossible to consider a second child. After all, having more children would mean having more grandchildren to look after, even if she was expected to keep working.

“Given our late retirement, it’s hard to imagine what we can expect as grandparents,” said Ms. Lu, who lives in Yangquan City, southwest of Beijing.

If China doesn’t increase childcare support, new parents can leave the workforce or postpone childbirth until their parents retire, exacerbating labor shortages, said Feng Jin, an economist at Fudan University, a government-sponsored labor magazine .

However, experts claim that the cost of inaction would be too high. A 2019 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicted that the country’s main pension fund would expire by 2035, in part due to the dwindling workforce.

This has alarmed some young people who are wondering where their own pensions are coming from if nothing changes.

“I think that’s pretty fair,” said Wang Guohua, a 29-year-old blogger in Hebei Province, of the retirement age postponement. “If people are still alive but there is no more money, this has an impact on social stability.”

Mr. Wang added that he hadn’t seen the excitement of retiring at 60 given the increase in life expectancy: “You will have nothing to do.”

In fact, Bian Jianfu, who recently resigned from his job as a manager at a state-owned company in Sichuan Province, said he would not have minded working a few more years. His pension would also have increased.

Mr. Bian receives about $ 1,000 a month, more than double the average for urban retirees. He praised the government for consistently increasing pension payments over the past decade, although some experts have recognized the burden it has put on the system. “The Chinese government treats retirees very well,” he said.

However, this security is unevenly distributed and is likely to remain so even if the government backs up its pension funds.

Mr. Meng, the city administrator, receives approximately $ 460 a month, one-tenth of which is paid for retirement and basic insurance funds. When he finally retires, he expects to be pulling out $ 120 to $ 150 a month.

He admitted it was barely enough to make a living from. But he said he could do it – even if he was now increasingly unsure of when the date would come.

“I can only hold on,” said Meng. “Hold on until I’m the right age.”

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