From Mandatory Savings to Silver Economy: China’s Plans for its Elderly Population

China is home to the world’s largest ageing population. In 2023, there were 216.76 million people over 65 years old: more than 15.4 percent of the total population and much higher than the global average of 10 percent.[1] China is on track to be a ‘super-aged’ society in 2030, when at least 20 percent of the population will be older than 65.[2] This demographic shift will have a profound influence on the nature of China’s economy and society.

Government policy towards its ageing population has undergone significant changes in the last three decades. Starting from the 1990s, the central government largely viewed population ageing as a social issue and introduced such policies as mandatory pension system and accessible aged-care services. Following the slowdown in the Chinese economy since COVID-19, the central government started to view population ageing through the lens of economic development. While older people can be important contributors to society and the economy, this article shows that treating them only as consumers overlooks other potential and fails to address some important challenges presented by the ageing population.

Elderly people in a rural village in Zhejiang. (Source: Bingqin Li)

Social policy changes towards elder care

In 1991, the State Council released its ‘Decision Regarding Reform of the Basic Pension Insurance System for Enterprise Employees’ 国务院关于企业职工基本养老保险制度改革的决定 and initiated a pension system, which encouraged individuals and their employers to contribute to pension provident funds.[3] To this day, the system is still being modified to reduce regional discrepancies and to enhance equity between rural and urban areas and to allow for easier transfer of pension accounts between regions. Operating on a pay-as-you-go social insurance model, the pension system works on the assumption that the current working-age population will finance the pensions of the elderly.[4] However, having a rapidly ageing population means that a shrinking proportion of younger workers are responsible for funding the pensions of a growing proportion of retired people. If no corrective action is taken, the pension system will eventually collapse.[5]

Pensions alone cannot answer all the needs of the elderly in the absence of accessible aged-care services such as affordable nursing homes or domestic assistance. In 2000, private aged-care providers, which emerged in the late 1990s, were incentivised to work with district and street-level governments and community authorities 居委会 to expand the capacity of aged-care services. As demand continued to grow, the central government decided to allow the market to pay a bigger role. In 2016, the General Office of the State Council published a document titled ‘Several Suggestions on Fully Liberalising the Elderly Care Service Market and Improving the Quality of Elderly Care Services’ 关于全面放开养老服务市场提升养老服务质量的若干意见.[6] As a result of this policy, the private market for aged care thrived. However, private providers tend to focus on high-end users, and costs are often prohibitive for ordinary pensioners. Moreover, private providers proved more interested in providing services primarily for the healthy elderly.[7]

Some promising market solutions did emerge. Due to the restrictions on official spending imposed by ‘Eight Central Regulations’ 中央八项规定 in 2012,[8] the hospitality sector, such as spas, hotels or restaurants, built during China’s fast economic growth era, became sluggish. Many buildings were left unused, mostly in peri-urban areas. Business owners were reluctant to give up and hoped that the restrictive policy could be relaxed soon and the market would revive.[9] As they were waiting, some business owners started to notice that the shortage of pensioners’ homes could be their new business opportunities and started to convert their business venues to aged-care facilities or age-friendly properties. In this way, they can earn rent or service fees.[10] With no signs of relaxing restrictions on official consumption, city governments, such as Nanjing and Beijing, began to implement favourable policies, including land tenure, business licensing or direct subsidies to support the conversion of unused buildings (such as factory buildings, community service rooms, urban hostels and rural collective land and facilities) into aged-care facilities or age-friendly homes.[11] Due to this policy support, care home operators in renovated facilities are able to charge less than those in newly built care homes so their homes therefore more affordable.[12] However, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, older individuals have become reluctant to reside in care homes. A 2020 survey by the Ministry of Civil Affairs showed that around 50 percent of the 4.29 million beds in aged-care homes were empty.[13]

Canteen for the elderly in Zhejiang. (Source: Bingqin Li)

Even with affordable agedcare institutions and the passing of the worst of the pandemic, most older people prefer to live independently at home. This means there need to be such services as basic health checks, food delivery or assistance in domestic chores that the elderly can access conveniently near their own home. In the 1990s, the central government began to experiment with the idea of ‘community building’ 社区建设 : making residential communities a centre for service delivery and mutual support. It was a shift from employer-provision (also known as work unit provision单位提供) instituted during the central planning era. With services provided in urban communities, older people’s needs can be addressed through socialised services delivered by private providers or NGOs. Since its inception, the service provision system has been restructured several times. The newest official target is for 97 percent of seniors (defined as 60 or older) to receive basic support and primary healthcare at home and/or in the residential community they live in, while the remaining 3 percent, who were unable to live independently, could live in private aged-care institutions.

This system faces two challenges: the lack of guaranteed consistent funding support and a qualified workforce. To support the funding of care services, a long-term care insurance system was introduced in 2016 with 15 cities as pilots, and 49 cities currently participate in pilot programs.[14] To increase labour supply, a professional standard for aged-care workers was introduced in 2019, and many city authorities set up geriatric nursing schools to train more aged-care workers.[15]

Government to the elderly: wallets over work

In 2024, the Chinese government formally announced the policy ‘Opinions on Developing the Silver Economy to Enhance the Well-being of the Elderly’ 关于发展银发经济增进老年人福祉的意见. A decade ago, the government had begun piloting ‘silver economy’ programs in cities including Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Xiamen and Taicang while some other cities have taken the initiative to carry out such programs themselves.[16] Now, more cities follow suit in response to the central government’s effort to address demographic and economic issues in the post COVID-19 era.[17] This is a significant policy shift, from treating the ageing population primarily as a social issue to leveraging it as an economic driver.

This consumer-oriented approach is promising in several ways. First, some of the older population have good savings, and their strong consumption power can be used to spur economic growth. Second, it targets the specific needs of older people, thereby enhancing their quality of life, supporting their lifestyles and ultimately improving their well-being. An array of tailored services and products are included in the government’s plan: meal assistance (including community dining halls), home-based elder care and public health services (including home visits by community doctors to carry out regular health checks for chronic diseases such as senior health check-up, advices or referral services), community-based cultural and sports activities (with dedicated rooms and facilities). There are also services including day care centres and game rooms for the rural population. Third, meeting the needs of the older population has the potential to stimulate innovation in new products, services and entrepreneurship.[18] This new plan will stimulate more private investment in the relevant industries and services.[19]

The policy shifts indicate that the government values the wallets of older people more than their work. Continuous industrial upgrading over the decades of economic reform have made many of the skills of older employees obsolete.[20] Second, China’s economy is struggling to absorb its labour force. Before the pandemic, it was hoped that the increasingly prosperous internet economy and international trade would drive employment.[21] However, the economy has been struggling since the pandemic, with many small and medium-sized businesses closing due to a decline in trade.[22] Meanwhile, the last statistics released on youth unemployment showed it at more than 20 percent, and there are ever more university graduates, with the number expected to exceed 11.79 million in 2024.[23]

What does active ageing look like in China?

In China, the mandatory retirement age is unusually low: 60 for male and 55 for female in managerial positions; 60 for male and 50 female for manual workers; and 55 for male and 45 for female in heavy labour workers who have at least ten consecutive years of work experience.[24] Early retirement has brought further challenges as the younger retired cohort want to be active and socially engaged. ‘Public square dancing’ 广场舞 in which participants – mostly women – dance to loud music in public squares and parks has been a popular phenomenon for years. There have been frequent conflicts between the dancers and local residents because of the noise and disruption to traffic, which working-age families fear could affect the value of their property.[25] Some local governments have introduced regulations concerning the use of public spaces and noise levels. In the past two years, building more public sports facilities has been written into the annual Central Government Work Report 政府工作报告.[26] According to the ‘National Fitness Facilities Improvement Action Plan (2023–2025)’ 全民健身场地设施提升行动工作方案 (2023–2025年), in community centres, parks and other public spaces where new fitness equipment is installed, the number of age-friendly fitness equipment (including those for older people and children) should not be less than 50 percent of all equipment. All public sports venues will provide fitness activity spaces for the elderly. Financially better-off areas can build and equip age-friendly fitness equipment and provide services such as Senior Exercise and Health Homes offering chronic disease exercise intervention, exercise health management and dissemination of health knowledge.

Elderly people doing their morning exercises. (Source: Bingqin Li)

According to the China Association of the Universities for the Aged 中国老年大学协会, as of the end of 2019, there were approximately 76,000 Universities for the Aged in China (老年大学; like the University of the Third Age in Australia). About 10.9 million students enrolled, and more than 80 percent of the enrolled students were younger than 70, with half of the students aged 60 to 69. Pre-pandemic, the demand for such education was so high that vacancies were allocated by lottery. During pandemic, however, most of these universities curtailed their courses due to concerns about virus transmission. Post-lockdown, there was a lag in reopening the courses, so about 10 million older people could not go to the university as before. Online teaching started to enter the third age education sector, and the Online University for the Aged 网上老年大学 was founded and more than a thousand teachers and 700 universities across the country joined the platform.[27] However, digital learning cannot replace face-to-face learning for the students as many of them participated in learning activities to avoid being socially inactive and overcome loneliness.[28] These days, online services are upgraded to provide teaching materials and public lectures that can be attended by students across the country. By April 2023, there are more than 20 million students attending the University of the Aged. About 40 percent of older people participated in learning activities, both online and offline. The university system has developed into a five-level educational network consisting of provinces, cities, counties, townships (streets) and villages (communities).[29]

University for the elderly in China. (Source: Bingqin Li)

Seniors themselves, without official support, have formed groups for social outings, consumer activities and travel. According to a report released by the China Tourism Academy in July 2023, 67.50 million older people travelled for tourism in 2020. Seniors (aged 65 and above) residing in urban areas on average spent CNY1209.2 (US$167) per trip while their rural counterparts spent CNY847.5 (US$117). The report further showed that older people expressed dissatisfaction with the traditional senior tourism market, which offered only a narrow range of products and experiences. They longed for a more culturally enriching experience, emphasising personal growth and opportunities for social engagement.[30] Given that the older population will continue to grow in numbers, there may be a higher proportion of older people travelling and, with higher costs for the more desirable tourist experiences, the report estimated that by the end of 2025, the revenues of domestic senior tourism could reach 1.14 trillion yuan (US$160 billion).[31]

It may be easy to infer that China’s seniors have responded positively to ‘silver economy’ policies that support active ageing. The reality is less straightforward.

Elderly to government: I want to contribute, but not on your terms

Since 2012, every time the central government proposed the idea of postponing the legal retirement age due to the sustainability of pension funds, the response was a strong backlash from the public on social media.[32] Many internet-based surveys were conducted over the years, all of which found that the majority were against postponing retirement. In one survey, some 90 percent rejected the idea.[33]

An obvious concern is that working extra years means people have to contribute to the pension fund for a longer period and enjoy a shorter retirement life. People have calculated that if the monthly pension amount that retirees receive does not change, they would ultimately pay more and receive less. A survey conducted by Economic Daily, a state-owned newspaper, showed that workers who endured years of low pay during China’s central planning era (1950–80) were particularly against delaying retirement age, having accepted reduced pay in return for a state-funded old age pension at the established age.[34] In contrast, those employed by government departments and public institutions with better welfare coverage voted most favourably in postponing retirement.[35] Currently, China’s retirement age is set uniformly across most occupations and all regions, offering no flexibility for individual circumstances. For instance, even though blue-collar workers find it harder to do manual labour after a certain age,[36] the lack of reliable universal social protection for them after retirement means that many people, especially migrant workers, simply cannot afford to retire.[37]

Given the mounting pressure of population ageing, in 2021, the central government introduced a gradual postponement plan with small-step adjustments; that is, delaying retirement by a few months each year.[38] Despite the fact that it is an unavoidable change, the official expression of policy in this area, as in others, tends to focus on the economy or society rather than individuals. Telling people to work more years because the pension funds need more contributors to be sustainable sounds much like the discourse around shifting from the One-Child Policy to the Three-Child Policy. Women and employees are perceived as mere instruments for sustaining an ailing economy.

Beyond employment, older people contribute to society in other ways. Previously, in the One-Child Policy era, older people played an important role as caregivers, not just in the case of looking after migrant workers’ ‘left-behind children’ 留守儿童 but also where there is absence of affordable and good-quality childcare.[39] In 2021, the government published ‘The Implementation Plan for the 14th Five-Year Plan: Ageing Population Project and Childcare Infrastructure Construction 十四五老龄化工程和托育建设实施方案 designed to ensure that families have access to affordable, high-quality childcare options that support the well-being and development of children.[40] Following this policy, the number of registered childcare enterprises increased from 1892 in 2020 to 5561 in 2021 and then to 14,191 in 2022.[41] These enterprises operated 75,000 childcare institutions offering services to 3.5 million children across the country.[42] Such exponential growth in the availability of childcare facilities helped to ease pressure on middle-class families – and grandparents who otherwise were being asked to babysit as well.[43]

During COVID-19, community volunteering activities, such as maintaining environmental hygiene, community patrolling, food sorting and delivery, have become more active in urban China, including among seniors.[44] It was good for the mental health of residents, in particular for the seniors.[45] The government saw this as an opportunity to push for greater civic engagement and supplement the shortage of care labour force.[46] However, on the whole, Chinese seniors are not yet very active in volunteering, probably because of the traditional thinking that older people should receive care from others instead of giving care themselves. This mentality had been reported even before COVID-19.[47] However, it has been observed that the younger senior cohort are more likely to participate in time-banking whereby they can accumulate credits for helping others.[48] These credits can be used for buying goods and services. Obviously, this is not as altruistic as volunteering without compensation. But as long as older people could benefit from time-banking by leading an active life and supporting others in need, there is no reason why they have to engage with society out of pure altruism.

The Chinese government’s silver economy plan is meant to use one stone to hit several birds: meeting the specific needs of older people, propelling economic growth and boosting innovation in new products, services and entrepreneurship. It represents a step forward in recognising the importance of the ageing population not just as a social issue but also as an economic issue. However, the policy falls short of realising the full potential of this demographic. It focuses too much on the wallet rather than the human resources of older people, overlooking the rich tapestry of experience, wisdom and capability they offer. The way ahead is to recognise that the real value of the silver economy is not just in how much the elderly can spend but also what they can do. The challenge, however, lies in winning the trust of older people. Rather than making them all eat in community canteens, policy-makers should probably need first to ask people how they define a happy and constructive old age.


[1] Xiuli Liu, Mun S. Ho, Geoffrey J.D. Hewings, Yuxing Dou, Shouyang Wang, Guangzhou Wang, Dabo Guan and Shantong Li, ‘Ageing population, balanced diet and China’s grain demand’, Nutrients, vol. 15, no. 13, 2023, p. 2877.

[2] Rong Chen, Ping Xu, Peipei Song, Meifeng Wang and Jiangjiang He, ‘China has faster pace than Japan in population ageing in next 25 years’, Bioscience Trends, vol. 13, no. 4, 2019, pp. 287–91.

[3] State Council, ‘The State Council’s decision on the reform of the basic pension insurance system for enterprise employees’ 国务院关于企业职工基本养老保险制度改革的决定, Guofa (1991), No. 33.

[4] Hsuan-Chih Lin, Atsuko Tanaka and Po-Shyan Wu, ‘Shifting from pay-as-you-go to individual retirement accounts: A path to a sustainable pension system’, Journal of Macroeconomics, vol. 69, 2021, 103329.

[5] Junqiang Han and Yingying Meng, ‘Decreased contribution rates increase public pension fund revenue: Evidence from China’, Journal of Ageing and Social Policy, vol. 33, no. 2, 2021, pp. 120–37.

[6] General Office of the State Council, ‘Several suggestions on fully liberalising the elderly care service market and improving the quality of elderly care services’ 关于全面放开养老服务市场提升养老服务质量的若干意见, Guobanfa (2016), No. 91.

[7] Bingqin Li, ‘Population ageing and community-based old age care supply in China’, in Housing and Ageing Policies in Chinese and Global Contexts: Trends, Development and Policy Issues, ed. Terence Shum and Charles Kwong, Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore, 2023, pp. 79–95.

[8] Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, ‘The eight regulations of the 18th Central Political Bureau on improving work style and strengthening contact with the masses’ (十八届中央政治局关于改进工作作风、密切联系群众的八项规定), December 2012, Central Government Portal, online at:

[9] Lifei Huang and Fang Xiao, ‘Hunan and Hubei-themed restaurants suffer losses and rush to close down, while Hunan catering enterprises display various strategies to get through the winter’, China Daily, 18 July 2013, online at:

[10] Hui Cheng and Lipeng Lin, ‘Nursing homes, hard to find (Special Report: New growth points around us? Elderly care services)’, 26 January 2015, online at:

[11] General Office of the People’s Government of Nanjing, ‘Measures for the planning, construction and management of elderly care service facilities in nanjing (trial)’, online at: 南京市养老服务设施规划建设管理办法(试行), [2017] No. 125.

[12] Bingqin Li, ‘Creating a service system from scratch: Community old age care services in China’, Dilemmas in Public Management in Greater China and Australia, ed. Kaifeng Yang, John Wanna, Tsai-Tsu Su and Andrew Podger, ANU Press, Canberra, 2023, pp. 473–96.

[13] Chenwei Du and Yue Wu, ‘Many vacant beds in nursing homes, will it trigger an industry wide reshuffle?’, Jiefang Daily, 26 June 2023, online at:

[14] Zhanlian Feng, Elena Glinskaya, Hongtu Chen, Sen Gong, Yue Qiu, Jianming Xu and Winnie Yip, ‘Long-term care system for older adults in China: Policy landscape, challenges and future prospects’, Lancet, vol. 396, no. 10259, 2020, pp. 1362–72.

[15] Li Bingqin, Jiwei Qian and Sisi Yang, ‘The mindset: Tackling the challenges of old age care in communities in China’, China: An International Journal, vol. 19, no. 3, 2021, pp. 148–67.

[16] Lijie Fang and Bingqin Li, ‘The entrepreneurial welfare mix: The case of community-based old age services in China’, Social Policy and Society, 2023, pp. 1–10, online at: doi:10.1017/S1474746423000234

[17] General Office of State Council, ‘The State Council General Office’s opinion on developing the silver economy to enhance the well-being of the elderly’ 国务院办公厅关于展银发经济增进年人福祉的意见, Guobanfa (2024) No. 1.

[18] Interesse G, ‘Unlocking China’s elderly market: Tapping into the power of the “silver economy”’, China Briefing, 3 July 2023, online at:

[19] Chad De Guzman and Koh Ewe, ‘China unveils extensive “silver economy” plan to adapt to ageing population’, Time, 15 January 2024, online at:

[20] Bo Liu, ‘Age discrimination in Chinese internet workplace’, Journal of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 27, 2024, pp. 172–80. Huiping Zhang, ‘Workplace victimization and discrimination in China: A nationwide survey’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 36, no. 1–2, 2021, pp. 957–75.

[21] Edmund Li Sheng, A Tale of Three Cities: Urban Governance of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore During COVID-19, Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore, 2024, pp. 69–87.

[22] Cheng Huang, Gordon G. Liu and Zhejin Zhao, ‘Coming out of the pandemic: What have we learned and what should we learn?’, China Economic Review, vol. 79, 2023: 101934.

[23] State Council Information Office PRC, ‘China to have 11.79m university graduates in 2024’, Xinhua News Agency, 6 December 2024, online at:

[24] John Giles, Xiaoyan Lei, Gewei Wang, Yafeng Wang and Yaohui Zhao, ‘One country, two systems: Evidence on retirement patterns in China’, Journal of Pension Economics and Finance, vol. 22, no. 2, 2023, pp. 188–210.

[25] Yue Xiao, Eddie C.M. Hui and Haizhen Wen, ‘The housing market impacts of human activities in public spaces: The case of the square dancing’, Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, vol. 54, 2020: 126769.

[26] State Council, ‘Report on the Work of the Government 2024’ 年政府工作报告, 14 March 2024, online at:

[27] Wangshang Laonian Daxue, 网上老年大学, ‘About us’, 2024, online at:

[28] Yuruo Lei, Jie Lao and Jiawei Liu, ‘Participation in community seniors’ organizations and mental health among retired adults in urban China: The mediating role of interpersonal needs’, Frontiers in Public Health, vol. 10, 2022: 1045948.

[29] Insight and Info, ‘Analysis of the current development status and investment prospects of China’s Elderly Education Industry Report (2023–2030)’, 中国老年教育行业发展现状分析与投资前景研究报告(2023–2030年), 2023, online at:

[30] Keju Wang, ‘Great potential seen in senior tourism market’, China Daily, 8 February 2024, online at:,inclusive%20environment%20for%20older%20adults.

[31] Jing Zhang, ‘China’s report on the development of elderly health and wellness tourism: The demand for elderly tourism continues to increase and upgrade’, 4 July 2023, online at:

[32] Joy Dong, ‘A greying China may have to put off retirement: Workers aren’t happy’, New York Times, 27 April 2021, online at:

[33] Nan Xiang, ‘Survey of 10,000 people: 94.5% of respondents oppose delaying retirement’, 29 August 2013, online at: China Youth Daily,

[34] Li Bingqin, ‘Social pension unification in an urbanising China: Paths and constraints’, Public Administration and Development, vol. 34, no. 4, 2014, pp. 281–93.

[35] Lijuan Wang and Jingjing Wang, ‘Media survey: How to balance the interests of all parties in the steady implementation of delayed retirement’, 29 March 2021, online at:

[36] Marina Schmitz, ‘Change in China? Taking stock of blue collars’ work values’, Journal of Chinese Human Resource Management, vol. 10, no. 1/2, 2019, pp. 49–68.

[37] Vaishali Singh, ‘Ageing society and labour policy in China: Analysing policy challenges and options’, Chinese Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, 2018, pp. 242–50.

[38] Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security of PRC, ‘The Five-Year Plan for the Development of Human Resources and Social Security Affairs’, 人力资源和社会保障事业发展’十四五’规划’, 30 June 2021, online at:

[39] Yantao Ling, Zhe Song, Yang Yu and Tangyang Jiang, ‘Dealing with an ageing China – Delaying retirement or the second child policy?’, Plos one 16, no. 1, 2021: e0242252.

[40] National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Civil Affairs, National Health Commission, ‘14th Five-Year Plan for Actively Responding to the Aging Population Project and Childcare Construction Implementation Scheme’ 十四五’ 积极应对人口老龄化工程和托育建设实施方案, 17 June 2021, NDRC Social [2021] No. 895 (updated 11 March 2024),

[41] National Health Commission Childcare Institution Information Public Disclosure Platform, ‘National Childcare Institutions Filing Data Observation Report (As of July 31, 2023)’, 全国托育机构备案数据观察报告(截至2023年7月31日) 7 August 2023, online at:

[42] Yanfan Yang, ‘Inclusive childcare, supporting a happy childhood (big data observation)’ 普惠托育,托举幸福童年(大数据观察), People’s Daily, 31 May 2023, online at:

[43] Xiaohui Zhong and Minggang Peng, ‘The grandmothers’ farewell to childcare provision under China’s two-child policy: Evidence from Guangzhou middle-class families’, Social Inclusion, vol. 8, no. 2, 2020, pp. 36–46.

[44] Lin Chen, Minzhi Ye and Yilin Wu, ‘Shaping identity: Older adults’ perceived community volunteering experiences in Shanghai’, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 6, 2020, pp. 1259–75.

[45] Wai Chan, Cheryl Hiu Kwan Chui, Johnson Chun Sing Cheung, Terry Yat Sang Lum and Shiyu Lu, ‘Associations between volunteering and mental health during COVID-19 among Chinese older adults’, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, vol. 64, no. 6, 2021, pp. 599–612.

[46] Peizhi Li, ‘Promoting the high-quality development of volunteer services’ 推动志愿服务事业高质量发展, Guangming Daily, 17 January 2022, online at:

[47] Hua-lei Yang, Shuo Zhang, Wen-chao Zhang et al., ‘Volunteer service and well-being of older people in China’, Frontiers in Public Health, vol. 10, 2022: 777178.

[48] Shiyu Lu, Cheryl Chui and Terry Lum, ‘Facilitating volunteer engagement among older adults in social services: A case study of an innovative timebank program in a Chinese society’, Gerontologist, vol. 64, no. 1, 2024: gnad010.

See all General, News-watch posts.
Tagged: , , , .