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China's population of adults over 65 tops 100 million. This number is steadily growing, putting China at the forefront of a global demographic shift that includes the United States and other developed nations.
"While a common tendency is to focus on the burdens an aging population will place on a country's economic and social welfare, an aging society represents an opportunity, not just a crisis," says Nancy Morrow-Howell, Ph.D., productive aging expert and professor at the Brown School at Washington University.
"Expanding opportunities for productive engagement, including paid employment, formal volunteering, and mutual aid, may reduce social costs by reducing health care expenses and need for post-retirement income supports. Older adults are a valuable source of growth in volunteerism and civic service. Evidence suggests that older employees benefit their workplace, increasing experience, stability, and reliability. There is also evidence that productive engagement in later life increases health and well-being."
Morrow-Howell and colleagues from the Brown School’s Center for Social Development (CSD) recently launched an important research and policy discussion about the opportunities presented by China’s aging society at a conference in Shandong, China. The conference, which was conceived and co-sponsored by the CSD with support from Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, represented China's first national conversation about productive aging. At the conference, approximately 200 scholars from Mainland China and overseas looked at effectively harnessing the human capital of older adults to perform important and meaningful roles.
"Scholars on the productive engagement of the older population point to the wealth of knowledge, skills and experience that older adults can contribute to society, and recommend policies that support older adults in productive roles," says Morrow-Howell.
Li Zou, international director at CSD, says that China is dealing with the unique "Four-Two-One" problem. China's one-child policy has led to one child being responsible for taking care of two parents and four grandparents.
Zou says that China is beginning to look at policy changes to support older adults including possibly raising the mandatory retirement age for all employees.
Many older Chinese adults are already engaged in productive activity, including caregiving, lifelong learning, volunteering, and employment. However, both Morrow-Howell and Zou note that older adults—in China and elsewhere—often face significant barriers and dis-incentives to their on-going participation in productive roles.
Ageism, as well as policies and programs that result in older adults leaving the workforce, prevent countries from fully benefitting from the human capital of their aging population.
Zou says that China faces an additional cultural barrier to productive aging.
"Chinese people may be reluctant to retire at a later age for fear that it would reflect poorly on their families," she says. "Traditionally, families are expected to take care of their elders after retirement."
China’s response to its aging population will be instructive for policy in the United States. The older population in the U.S. follows the global growth pattern. By 2050, older adults are projected to account for 25.5% of the U.S. population. Older adults in the U.S. are increasingly seeking out opportunities to remain productive, with volunteering rates for adults aged 65 and older reaching 23.5% in 2008.
As the aging population grows, it will be important to develop social and policy supports that foster productive activity in later life.
"The imperative to change policies and expectations about ageing in America is based on evidence that on-going productive engagement produces positive outcomes for older adults, their families, communities, and society as a whole," notes Morrow-Howell.
She points to the recent Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act as a productive aging policy. The act encourages volunteer work among older adults by offering an educational award that could be transferred to a child or grandchild.
Morrow-Howell says there also is a need for policies that support older people serving in a caregiving role or transitioning to a new career, such as Social Security credits or fellowships.
No matter the geographic location, barriers to participation in productive roles also have consequences for the health and well-being of older adults. Research has demonstrated associations between physical health, mental health, life satisfaction and longevity and sustained engagement in employment or volunteer activities.
Read more in Social Impact