Meet China’s 80 mil­lion Eleanor Rig­bys

▶▶More of the young and el­derly live by them­selves ▶▶“I just need some­one to be nearby, to be with me”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - Xiao­qing Pi, with Kevin Ham­lin

In her Bei­jing stu­dio, 26-year-old Sum­mer Liu, a man­age­ment trainee at a multi­na­tional, re­laxes on a sofa, ad­mir­ing the pink vase she keeps full of fresh flow­ers. And in her onebed­room apart­ment in the eastern city of Jin­ing, Hu Jiy­ing, 81, sits on an old bed heaped with clothes, tow­els, and half a bag of snacks, wor­ry­ing about the cost of her medicine.

Liu and Hu both live alone, two ends of a fast-grow­ing de­mo­graphic. The shifts threaten China’s tra­di­tional fam­ily struc­ture and the rev­er­ence for the el­derly en­cour­aged by Con­fu­cian thought.

In­stead of spend­ing their fi­nal years with sons, daugh­ters, and grand­chil­dren, many Chi­nese el­derly now eke out a mea­ger ex­is­tence alone. Their chil­dren are far away, and their only re­course for as­sis­tance is a heav­ily bur­dened gov­ern­ment so­cial safety net. Soli­tary young Chi­nese, while a rich tar­get for con­sumer-goods com­pa­nies and real es­tate de­vel­op­ers, also post­pone hav­ing chil­dren, un­der­min­ing the tra­di­tional fam­ily struc­ture fur­ther. The rise of the sin­gle-per­son house­hold is a big change for China: The ero­sion of the old so­cial or­der could in just a gen­er­a­tion re­order so­ci­ety.

China had 66 mil­lion reg­is­tered oneper­son homes in 2014, or 15 per­cent of all house­holds, up from 6 per­cent in 1990, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment data. (In the U.S., the num­ber is 27 per­cent, the United Na­tions re­ports.) The ac­tual num­ber of soli­tary house­holds in China may be as high as 83 mil­lion, says Jean Ye­ung, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Fam­ily and Pop­u­la­tion Re­search at the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore. That could rise to 132 mil­lion by 2050, she says. “Some choose to live alone be­cause they have more eco­nomic re­sources and pre­fer more time and space for them­selves. Oth­ers have no choice.” Ye­ung and her col­leagues es­ti­mate that 53.2 mil­lion Chi­nese age 15 to 54 live alone. Some 30 mil­lion over age 54 also keep one-per­son homes.

Th­ese shifts are eat­ing away at an eco­nomic sys­tem based on ex­tended fam­i­lies that goes back cen­turies, part of the twin Con­fu­cian val­ues of loy­alty to the em­peror and fil­ial obe­di­ence known as zhongx­iao. “This rapid in­crease in sin­gle-per­son house­holds rep­re­sents a fun­da­men­tal shift at the very bot­tom of the Chi­nese so­cial struc­ture,” says Wang Feng, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Irvine. “House­holds, of­ten with many mem­bers co-re­sid­ing, have been the most ba­sic units to or­ga­nize pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, so­cial­ize in­di­vid­u­als, and to main­tain net­works of po­lit­i­cal power and so­cial sup­port.”

The break­down of the tra­di­tional fam­ily be­gan with the one-child pol­icy in cities, while ru­ral cou­ples could have two chil­dren with­out in­cur­ring penal­ties. The new rules had a shrink­ing ef­fect on the big fam­i­lies of old. When mil­lions of mi­grants be­gan leav­ing ru­ral China to work in the cities, many left par­ents be­hind with­out any child to sup­port them. As spouses died, those par­ents of­ten found them­selves alone. The num­ber of Chi­nese 65 or older liv­ing alone will reach 46 mil­lion by

2050, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­tre for Fam­ily and Pop­u­la­tion Re­search.

Hu’s daugh­ter, who lives two hours away, is a para­plegic and can no longer

visit. Hu’s own ail­ments limit travel, and she hasn’t seen her daugh­ter since last sum­mer. Her son lives in a dis­tant city and vis­its once a year but is too poor to help out, she says. “How can I not be lonely?” asks Hu, who has dif­fi­culty breath­ing and spends much of her time watch­ing TV. “I want some­one to live here with me. She doesn’t need to pay rent. I just need some­one to be nearby, to be with me.” Hu spends half her monthly state stipend of 600 yuan ($91) on medicine. Many el­derly, es­pe­cially in ru­ral ar­eas, don’t have full health in­sur­ance or a pen­sion. In that case, the soli­tary old are more at

risk be­cause they lack fam­ily sup­port. The gov­ern­ment says it’s ex­panded ru­ral health care, en­cour­aged pri­vate busi­nesses to in­vest in re­tire­ment homes, and more than tripled the num­ber of beds in nurs­ing homes to 6.7 mil­lion. For the adult chil­dren of the af­flu­ent, their ca­reers and the plea­sures of ur­ban life make it easy to de­fer set­ting up house with a part­ner. In the 2010 cen­sus, 36 per­cent of men and 22 per­cent of women age 25 to 29 weren’t mar­ried, twice the level it was in 2000. In cities, the per­cent­age of un­mar­ried women is as high as 30 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the

Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia’s Wang.

“I’m think­ing about wait­ing one or two years be­fore I meet some­one and get mar­ried,” says Liu. “I can do what­ever I want liv­ing alone.” New ser­vices are spring­ing up to cater to th­ese sin­gles. There’s the gym where Liu works out and smart­phone app, which de­liv­ers sin­gle­por­tion din­ners. The Alibaba-backed com­pany is val­ued at $4.5 bil­lion and em­ploys more than 6,000 in over 260 cities. “The rise of one-per­son homes makes in­creas­ing de­mand for hous­ing. It makes in­creas­ing de­mand for au­to­mo­biles. It makes in­creas­ing de­mand for en­ergy,” says Ni­cholas Eber­stadt, a de­mog­ra­pher at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton. “This is part of China’s tran­si­tion into a more con­sump­tion-driven econ­omy.”

Divorces are swelling the ranks of the soli­tary. The divorce rate al­most tripled from 2003 to 2014, to 2.7 divorces per 1,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Civil Af­fairs. Com­men­ta­tors blame the in­crease on so­cial media and dat­ing sites, the greater fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence of women, and reg­u­la­tions that al­low quick and cheap divorces.

The ag­ing of China is one of the na­tion’s big­gest chal­lenges. The el­derly will make up the largest share of sin­gle-oc­cu­pant house­holds, in­creas­ing

the stress on so­cial ser­vices.

It takes Ni Yue­hua, 82, of Bei­jing more than an hour to go to and from her su­per­mar­ket 260 feet away. She must fig­ure out the weight of the yogurt and veg­eta­bles be­cause she can’t carry more than 11 pounds.

Ni’s hus­band passed away in 2002, and her older daugh­ter died in 2006. She lived in the U.S. with her son, a com­puter sci­en­tist, un­til 2010, when he was killed in a rob­bery. A daugh­ter lives in Sydney but is al­most blind. So Ni lives alone, af­flicted by arthri­tis, di­a­betes, and heart dis­ease.

“Early morn­ing is the most dif­fi­cult time,” she says, wip­ing tears from be­hind her read­ing glasses. “I have to turn on the ra­dio so I can dis­tract my­self from those sad things.”

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