A Graying China May Have to Put Off Retirement. Workers Aren’t Happy.

on Apr27
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For Meng Shan, a 48-year-old urban management worker in the Chinese city of Nanchang, retirement can’t come soon enough.

Mr. Meng, who is the equivalent of a low-level, unarmed law-enforcement official, often has to chase down unlicensed street vendors, a task he finds physically and emotionally taxing. Pay is low. Retirement, even on a meager government pension, would finally offer a break.

So Mr. Meng was dismayed when the Chinese government said it would raise the mandatory retirement age, which is currently 60 for men. He wondered how much longer his body could handle the work, and whether his employer would dump him before he became eligible for a pension.

“To tell the truth,” he said of the government’s announcement, “this is extremely unfriendly to us low-level workers.”

China said last month that it would “gradually delay the legal retirement age” over the next five years, in an attempt to address one of the country’s most pressing issues. Its rapidly aging population means a shrinking labor force. State pension funds are at risk of running out. And China has some of the lowest retirement ages in the world: 50 for blue-collar female workers, 55 for white-collar female workers, and 60 for most men.

The idea, though, is deeply unpopular. The government has yet to release details of its plan, but older workers have already decried being cheated of their promised timelines, while young people worry that competition for jobs, already fierce, will intensify.

And workers with blue-collar or physically demanding jobs like Mr. Meng’s, who still make up the majority of China’s labor force, say they’ll be worn down, left unemployed or both.

The announcement was made during the annual meeting of the national legislature, and afterward retirement-related topics trended for days on Chinese social media, racking up hundreds of millions of views and critical comments.

Around the world, raising the retirement age has emerged as one of the thorniest challenges a government can take on. Russia’s attempt to do so in 2018 led to President Vladimir V. Putin’s lowest approval ratings in years. Mr. Putin eventually pushed the plan through but granted concessions, a rare move for him.

The result is what experts call a serious threat to China’s continued economic growth and ability to compete. In Japan and many European nations, residents become eligible for pensions at 65 or later. At a recent news conference, You Jun, the deputy minister of human resources and social security, said China risked a “waste of human resources.”

The backlash has underscored a host of other anxieties in Chinese society about issues such as job security, the social safety net and income inequality.

The hypercompetitive environment that defines many white-collar workplaces in China is already grinding on Naomi Chen, a 29-year-old financial analyst in Shanghai. She has often discussed with friends her wish to retire early to escape the pressure, even if it means living more modestly.

The government’s announcement only confirmed that desire. China already struggles to provide enough well-paid white-collar jobs for its ballooning ranks of university graduates. With fewer retirees, Ms. Chen worries, she would be left working just as hard but with less prospect of a payoff.

“Getting promoted will definitely be slower, because the people above me won’t retire,” she said.

In reality, older workers may suffer more. China has modernized so quickly that they tend to be much less skilled or educated than their younger counterparts, making some employers reluctant to retain them, Professor Park said. In several industries, including tech, 35 is seen as the age ceiling for being hired.

He acknowledged that it was barely enough to live on. But he said he could make it work — even if he was now increasingly unsure when the date would come.

“All I can do is hold on,” Mr. Meng said. “Keep holding on until I’ve reached the right age.”

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