By Stella Chang
Despite its reverence for filial piety, China has all but neglected its aging population. Traditionally, parents could look forward to living with family during retirement. Today, this is no longer feasible. Growing internal migration and China’s family planning policy have significantly diminished social support for both rural and urban elderly. There is nowhere and no one to help.
A recent article in China Daily expresses the growing need for the government and families to work together and find a solution. While adult children may be able to cover their parents’ cost of living, these subsidies are not enough to account for daily challenges.
Although filial piety is still valued, socio-economic development ad migrant labor have changed the way it is demonstrated. In the past, “elderly needs [were] backed up by a comprehensive range of home and community services”. But today, elderly needs seem secondary to the economic needs of families in China. For instance, rather than staying home in the countryside, young couples are leaving for work in the cities today. This only increases the burden on the elderly. In addition to taking care of themselves, they must also run the family farm and serve as primary care-takers of grandchildren. Monetary remittances during Chinese New Year may ease these stressors, but it isn’t the same as having personal help from their children. In some ways, the young are relying on their aging parents more than ever.
This is not their fault though. Even when children want to assist their parents at home, they are constrained. Taking care of one or two sets of grandparents may be manageable, but “the country’s family planning policy means many couples have to care for four parents and eight grandparents as well as raise their own child.” There is simply not enough time, energy, or money to go around. The aging baby boomer population is a social challenge that crosses class divides, and is especially difficult for the migrant workers who don’t have the time or energy to take care of even their own children, who often live thousands of miles away. Youth in China have to take care of a population even greater in number than themselves. Both urban and rural communities face a difficult decision: put granny on an ice floe or sacrifice for her needs.
Filial piety is not dead, it just no longer accords with the realities of contemporary China. With government intervention, burdens on both children and parents would be eased. Helping granny doesn’t necessarily have to come at a cost to the country either because “providing the services senior residents need could create millions of jobs and considerably promote consumption”. In short, economic development should be reconciled with social needs. Just as it is impious to leave one’s parents without food and shelter, it is also impious of the government to ignore the needs of the baby boomer population, who should have access to social security benefits.
If there are socio-economic benefits to be had, why does is there still hesitation? When governments and families combine efforts to provide granny with a better quality of life, traditional constructs are preserved, making them as prevalent as they were in the past. This is beneficial for future generations too because young children are given opportunities to see filial piety truly valued. Taking care of one’s parents when they become too old to do so themselves should not be seen as a duty to be dreaded, but a way to learn about the past, pass on core principles, and reinforce family cohesion during a time of development and its complementing instabilities. By not instituting assistance for its elders today, China is stranding everyone on an ice floe to insecurity.