HONG KONG—Beijing has begun testing a higher retirement age for women that could eventually apply throughout China, but critics fear this could limit jobs for younger workers as the population ages and the economy slows.
On Jan. 1 the Beijing municipal government raised women’s mandatory retirement age to 60 for cadres, employees at nonprofit organizations, and civil servants, regardless of sex—up from 55 and consistent with that of men.
In the private sector, men must retire at 55 and women at 50.
The National People’s Congress could soon decide whether to enact the high retirement age across the country.
But Chinese women are divided over the plan.
Zhang Haoqing, 63 and a former rocket expert with the Ministry of Aerospace Industry in Beijing, stopped working eight years ago and said she enjoys the benefits retirement has brought her.
“Why not retire? People like me can easily make money after retirement,” she said.
“My retirement pension is 90 percent of my previous salary and if I land another job, I will definitely make as much as my previous salary,” Zhang said.
“I can double my earnings now. The government allows us retirees to work,” she said.
But she acknowledged that there are downsides.
“[Retirees] can no longer receive monthly bonuses, which are almost as high as our salaries. But I like the free time so I don’t care,” Zhang said.
Some women who have to pay for their children’s college tuition or enjoy light work in an office setting with good pay might prefer several more years of work wages, she added.
The move has already sparked an intense debate among city residents, with the official Beijing News reporting that more than half of the 500 Web posts it received on the topic called for its reversal.
The Beijing News said supporters agreed the new policy would bring about greater gender equality in society, but detractors fear young entrants to the workforce would be left with fewer opportunities.
One woman who declined to be named but said she was 20 agreed with the idea of increasing the age of retirement for women but added that it wouldn’t guarantee gender equality.
“Even in big cities people prefer boys rather than girls at home. By raising the retirement age for women only we cannot solve the problem of gender inequality,” the woman, who works in a Beijing hotel, said.
She also worried that the move would limit job opportunities for younger workers.
According to the official Xinhua news agency, 6.1 million Chinese graduated from universities in June last year but 1.5 million of them failed to find jobs in 2008—nearly 500,000 more than the previous year.
But Zhang Haoqing disagreed.
“In China, college students looking for jobs are counted in the thousands annually, but each year the number of retirees is very limited. Unemployment for the young is a result of the government’s efforts to turn colleges into a profitable industry that churns out too many graduates. It has nothing to do with retirement age,” Zhang said.
Zhang said that by making the retirement age of women equal to that of men, China’s workplace would gain several advantages including a better sense of gender equality, and more efficient use of experience.
“China is a country emphasizing gender equality, but if we let female professionals retire earlier it will seem awkward, because there is no difference in performing their duties between female and male [professionals],” Zhang said.
“Working units want to keep experienced professionals and don’t like [to hire] new apprentices,” Zhang said.
“Most new recruits today are the only child of their family, spoiled by their parents, and bad at working. If a company hired them, it would have to provide training for a long time. It’s cheaper to pay a high salary to keep the older workers. This is why the Beijing government initiated the new policy to increase the retirement age for women,” she said.
Women in the workforce
Women now make up 45.4 percent of China’s total workforce, according to Xinhua, surpassing the 2010 target of 40 percent set through the country’s 10-year Program for the Development of Chinese Women.
They also make up 39 percent of cadres, Xinhua reported in October.
But according to the official People’s Daily, as of March 2007 there were nearly 144 million women in China over 60, accounting for more than 10 percent of the total population.
Within three decades, according to official media, women over 60 could accounts for 25 percent of the population.
The People’s Daily also reported that the average life expectancy of Chinese women recently reached 74.1 years, representing an increase of 0.8 years from 2000.
China’s population is rapidly aging as a whole, largely as a result of the country’s one-child policy, enacted in 1979 to keep the country’s burgeoning population under control.
According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), the proportion of people 60 years of age and older is growing faster in China than in any other major country, with the number of retirees expected to double to 200 million in 2015 from that of 2005.
The United Nations Program on Aging projects that China’s over-60 population will reach 20 percent by 2025.
And by 2050 around 430 million Chinese, or one-third of the population, will be retirees, UNDESA said.
Without siblings to share the responsibility of caring for elderly parents, married couples of the one-child policy generation will find themselves supporting four parents unless the elderly are prepared to work longer to provide for themselves.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Han Qing. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.