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A Tradition Under Stress

Who will care for the nation's elders?

Wang Yingyao has a lot on her mind. At 26, Wang lives in Beijing, works for an international energy company and is preparing to leave for the United States this fall to begin her Ph.D. in sociology at Yale University. In planning for her future, Wang sometimes thinks about her parents, who, in their 50s, live 14 hours away in the city of Haining.

For Wang and millions of other young Chinese, the ancient tradition of xiao shun, or filial piety—calling for them to care for their parents in old age out of duty and respect—conflicts with their modern goals of separate personal and professional lives. Once, a good Chinese daughter married early and devoted her time to her children and both sets of parents, while her husband supported the family, all usually living under one roof.

But today that tradition is strained. This country with the world’s largest and perhaps fastest-aging population has no equivalent to Medicare or Social Security. Relocation is dispersing families. Women are pursuing careers outside the home. And the birth rate has plunged. It’s no wonder that generational bonds are changing.

“I want to go to school and travel,” Wang says. “I love my parents very much, but I prefer an independent life.”

Filial piety, of course, can be found in one form or another everywhere in the world. For example, some 37 million Americans provide unpaid care for family members at an estimated economic value of $350 billion.

But for thousands of years, filial piety was China’s Medicare, Social Security and long-term care, all woven into a single family value. Today, behind the country’s rush to modernization, the tumult of the summer Olympics in Beijing and the aftermath of May’s earthquake, China’s families and government are scrambling to find new ways to provide for their elderly.

This transformation comes at a time when nearly 150 million people, or 11 percent of China’s total 1.3 billion, are older than 60, and that figure will rise to more than 400 million by 2050, a quarter of the population, according to the China National Committee on Ageing. (Older people make up 17 percent of the U.S. population and will increase to 26 percent by 2050.) The question of who will support this burgeoning older population is not lost on Wang, especially because, as one of 90 million born under China’s strict one-child policy, she has no siblings to share the responsibility of caring for her parents. While the policy has curbed China’s population by an estimated 400 million, the ratio of workers to retirees will decrease from 20 to 1 in the early 1980s to 2.5 to 1 by 2020.

This looming demographic nightmare has yet to affect the younger generation’s professional aspirations. “As I choose an academic field, money comes last,” says Wang, whose parents still care for her father’s mother, though in a different home. “As a woman, I don’t think about it too much. Maybe it’s more on the shoulders of my future husband to support the family.”

Wang is one of millions of working-age young people who have left the countryside and smaller cities and towns for booming megalopolises in search of better wages and career opportunities. Families are even more split up in big cities, with half of China’s urban population over 60 living on their own, apart from their children, a rise from 42 percent in 2000.

Wang intends to return to China after she earns her doctorate, but she’s unlikely to go back to Haining, and her parents probably wouldn’t leave. “They have friends, a community, a house there, while in Beijing I survive in a very small apartment,” Wang says.

Wang’s outlook is very different from the life of Zhu Liuqi. Since marrying four years ago, Zhu, 35, and her husband have lived with her parents in Chengdu, where the Sichuan earthquake underscored the peril of China’s one-child policy. Zhu and her husband have a 2-year-old son, and her mother, a 57-year-old retired factory administrator, often cares for him.

“I love living with my parents,” says Zhu, amusing her son during a break from shopping. “We guide and support each other like a good family, and just as they cared for us, we will care for them.”

Still, “in an era when both parents work, we understand it’s not so realistic to care for four parents in their old age and a child like it used to be,” acknowledges Zhu.

While hanging onto aspects of filial piety, many families are changing how they care for aging parents. China’s home care industry is booming. Generating $9.8 billion today, it’s expected to grow to $18.5 billion by 2010 and $71 billion by 2020. But while 2.3 million older Americans live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, most Chinese would face intense criticism if they sent their parents to a long-term care facility.

However, today many middle-aged Chinese parents are looking more to the government than to their children for support when they’re old. “If society can provide social security and medical care, we will live a good long life,” says Zhang Jianzhong, a local government bureaucrat in Dujiangyan, Sichuan.

But there is grave concern that millions won’t get the health care and financial  support they will need. Pension plans are spotty. Social security covers only a limited number of people. Fewer than half of older urban citizens have any savings; the situation for farmers, who earn an average $588 a year, is even more dire.

“A social safety net has to be established,” says Wei Li, a professor ofeconomics at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing.

Indeed, China has new initiatives, including social security coverage for employees of privately owned companies and an experimental health care insurance system that now covers nearly 40 million retirees. The government has also built more than 32,000 senior centers, which provide health care and day care for more than 30 million people.

“But the question is, is this enough?” says Wei.

Zhang, 43, is well aware of the value of government support. Since the earthquake destroyed their house in May, Zhang, his wife and their 12-year-old son have been living in a government-provided tent. While their attention is now focused on rebuilding their lives, the Zhangs are confident that they will be prepared for the future. Zhang’s wife receives insurance benefits from her job as a nurse, and the couple have been saving for their retirement.

“I want some security in my old age,” he says, “and I want to give my son the freedom to decide whether we should live with him.”

Wang’s parents have already given her that choice: Her father still runs his small textile factory, and her mother is a retired graphic designer. They live well and wouldn’t dream of asking their daughter for assistance. But even for a modern woman like Wang, filial piety tugs at her heart. If need be, Wang says, she would rearrange her life to provide and care for her parents. “It is my responsibility,” she says. “I don’t want to regret it if something should happen to them.”