China is facing a growing threat. A report by the United Nations estimated that China’s working-age population would fall by 60% over the next eight decades. Meanwhile, China’s aging population is accelerating. The National Health Commission projected that people over 60 will reach 400 million in 2035. This is also when China runs out of urban state pension funds. Broadly speaking, the demographic time bomb will affect China’s ambitious economic targets.

Under this circumstance, many retirees are seeking their way back to work. Chinese recruitment platform Zhaopin’s statistics showed that more middle-aged and elderly job seekers had entered the job market. From February to September 2020, the number of job seekers aged 35-49 increased year-on-year by 13.5%. While for the elderly over 50 years old, the number increased by 32.4% year-on-year, which is 4 times higher than that of job seekers under 35 years old.

As for why these elderly want to go to work again, the reasons may vary. But to Zhao Yanfang, a 52-year-old retired woman, it was for the sake of her son and his family. The South China Morning Post reported that Zhao used to be a worker in a canteen of a state-owned enterprise. After her retirement, her son lost his job due to the pandemic, or more precisely, due to China’s disruptive zero-COVID policy. 

Now, Zhao finds herself learning the complicated order system in a noodle restaurant in Beijing. She told SCMP, “I thought my three decades of work experience would be enough for waitressing. I didn’t expect it would be so challenging.”

Many suffered the same fate during the pandemic, just with different twists. Li Xiangyang is 63 years old and now working as a road construction worker. He told Jieman news that his son’s business went bankrupt when the pandemic broke out. Seeing his son working day and night to pay the debt, Li and his wife wanted to help. Li found his job at a construction site in a neighboring city while his wife works as a nanny. Despite the heavy workload for his age, Li is satisfied with the situation, as the couple could earn up to ten thousand yuan per month. Although he knows that such an amount is just a drop in the bucket, he still feels hopeful for the future.

In October, SCMP reported that over 30% of Chinese elderly wanted to support household income. The other 18.3% want to relieve pressure on their families’ next generation. 46% of the surveyed elderly said they wanted to fulfill their responsibilities.

But will there be enough jobs for them when the job market is already strained, and the economy has been hit hard by the pandemic? Professor Amy Y.M. Chow of the University of Hong Kong said, “it’s actually very difficult to put them back to work,” when the global economy is in bad shape.

Helen Wu, a founding partner of a Beijing-based headhunting service, said it’s very rare to see someone over 50 get a high-end position. She added, “While China is emphasizing ‘high-quality’ development and has reduced the importance attached to GDP growth, the job prospects for most elderly will not be very rosy in the next decade, given that competition in China’s job market is already so intense.”

In addition, job opportunities are limited to this age group due to age, physical strength, and skills restrictions. Many firms, both private and state-owned, only admit young people under 35. Due to this reason, many seniors might end up doing heavy labor jobs, which is dangerous and too much for their health.

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