China’s seniors are lining up to go back to college

Never too late.
Never too late.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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China has senioritis. The country is home to 230 million people over the age of 60. Longer life expectancy, coupled with three decades of the one-child policy, means that number only stands to grow. By some estimates, China’s worker-to-retiree ratio could shift to 1.6:1 by 2040, compared with 5:1 now. 

China’s aging population has led to reduced productivity and shrinking tax coffers, as well as societal shifts, like the introduction of Western-style retirement homes for the aging parents of children working in faraway cities. Now, the Chinese government is investing in a major resource for the country’s elderly: state-funded education. 

First established in the 1980s, China’s universities for senior citizens now number 60,000. State news agency Xinhua says there are currently 7 million elderly students enrolled. By 2020, the government says it hopes to have one such university in every city, as well as 50% of towns and 30% of villages.  

Classes at these schools cover a variety of subjects, including everything from spoken English to smartphone use to yoga. At the Dezhou College for the Aged in Shandong, one-term classes cost about 80 yuan ($12) each, and classes are timed in such a way that students are still able to take their grandchildren to school.

“The universities for seniors are in higher demand now because many newly retired are better educated,” Xiong Fangjie vice president of Shanghai University for the Elderly told The Sixth Tone. “They are not satisfied with just playing mahjong or gossiping with their friends.”

In fact, demand for these universities is so high that prospective students often form long lines overnight outside admissions offices. At Hebei University for the Aged in Tianjin, applicants are even chosen through a lottery system

The Chinese government sees elder education as a way to keep the aging population healthy, mentally active, socially engaged, and out of old-age homes.

“Attending classes gets them out of the house,” Yu Ning, elder education expert at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences told The Financial Times (paywall). “It’s a kind of physical exercise; it can keep them in a good mood and in good physical condition, improve life expectancy, and the quality of life after retirement.”  

Improving seniors’ wellbeing can also be an urgent need. Suicide is becoming common in rural China, where elderly citizens of deteriorating health are often left alone while their children work in the city. 

China is hardly alone in facing an aging population. By 2050, people aged 65 and over are projected to make up nearly 17% of the world’s population. That’s roughly 1.6 billion seniors. Initiatives geared at keeping the elderly healthy and active will become increasingly crucial. 

“Society is changing,” Peng Xizhe, a professor of population and development at Fudan University in Shanghai, told The Christian Science Monitor.  “On the one hand, it’s important to maintain the… traditional arrangement for elderly support. But on the other hand, we have to find new ways of dealing with this.”