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”
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 Ele.me, 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.”
The bottom line As many as 83 million adult Chinese live alone, and the number is growing as the population ages.