The Challenges from the Chinese “421 Family”

Entering the era of the first generation (those born in the 1980s) of the “one-child policy” parents, “421” has become the typical family structure and challenge for Chinese society.

What is a “421” family structure? It is an inverted pyramid family structure, composed of 4 grandparents, 2 parents, and 1 kid in a closely bonded Chinese family.19300000312288133370361297173

Those who were born in the 1980s were once seen as the happiest generation since they were the only kids in the family and were raised and perhaps spoiled as princes and princesses in the family by parents. It was easier for these children to enter colleges than their parents’ generation since the expansion of universities across the county occurred during that time. However, these “princes” or “princesses” also felt an increasingly unprecedented pressure by the time they grew up. The universities did expand and allowed more students than before, while job openings didn’t increase accordingly by the time they graduated. In recent years, when these children started to build up their own families, they found it even more difficult to get an economical apartment, raise a kid, or support their parents who were getting old. Most of the children of the 80s thus came to call themselves “slaves to housing, kids, credit cards, and elderly parents.” This was due to the national situation as well, as housing is extremely expensive in the most populous cities such as Shanghai or Beijing. Education for kids is costly. When the “grandparents” would get old enough, the “parents” would have to be ready to take care of the elderly both financially and in terms of physical and mental health — due to the Chinese culture, as well as limited pension funds from the government.

Elderly homes are not welcomed by the elderly in China. One of the main reasons for this is due to their unsatisfying service and high prices. In addition, according to the traditional Chinese culture (bringing up children for the purpose of being looked after in old age), being delivered to the elderly home has made the elderly people feel they are left out or ditched by the family. On the other hand, the “empty nest elderly” has reached over 30% on average in big cities, or even more than 50% in some individual cities.

As the most populous country in the world, the number of elderly people has reached over 141 million, which makes it the country with the most elderly people in the world as well. It accounts for ⅕th of the global elderly population, and half of the Asian elderly population. Generally, the reasons of the trend of elderly society are: the extension of life expectancy, the decrease of the birth rate, and the decrease of the mortality rate. However, for China, the three main causes are happening all together and on extreme levels. The “one child policy” since 1978 was a sudden change for China after the populous number of births during Mao’s era.  Together with the decrease of mortality which was brought by the development of the economy, it took only 18 years for China to change into an “elderly country” from an “adult country,” which was an extremely fast transition when compared with high-income countries. China is facing a severe challenge with the aging society.

In most high-income countries, urbanization and industrialization come together with the aging situation. When the seniors (people aged over 60) reached 10% of the total population, their GDP per capita generally reached 10,000 USD or more. They became rich before they grew old. Unfortunately, for China, it is the other way around.

As recognized in international standards, an aging society is defined as the following: over 7% of the total population having reached the age of 65, or over 10% of the total population having reached the age of 60. In this case, China has become an aging society since 2000. However, there are only around 40,000 elderly homes with 1.6 million beds, which means there are only less than 9 beds for every 1,000 elderly people who are aged 60 or above.

As for the support from the next generation, as mentioned earlier, there will be a very long time for the country to move forward when “two young people are taking care of four old people.” In addition to young people’s pressure to survive, and the family separation in different cities or countries due to urbanization, traditional family support would be very difficult to implement.

The change of the economic level, population structure, and the traditional concept of family support or traditional elderly life have brought people to start thinking. Nowadays topics like the methods of generating or expending the pension, the extension of the retirement age, etc. were hotly debated in China. People are all aware of the changes. But how much can they accept the changes, especially for the elderly people? Can they be emotionally independent enough from their kids like the westerners? Even if they can, would the society be able to provide the facilities or benefits for the elderly after they’ve contributed to the society for several decades?

Of course, effort from only one side would never be enough for a country like China especially when it comes to such a big change. In the “421” family, the “2” are still trying to support the “4” in every way they can while taking care of the “1.” The “4” are also doing best they can for themselves to be independent and to try to accept all the changes they never thought would happen. There are some 50-60 people initiating online that they could build up a small elderly home to live together and take care of each other. From the society, there are also proposals that “flexible retirement” might work instead of compulsory early/late retirement. People or companies could choose the best for themselves, since each industry is different after all. There is no rule that applies to all.


About Rongrong Zhang

I was born and raised in Shanghai, China. I have a solid pharmaceutical background from professional education as well as from working as a pharmacist for 5 years. Combined with my Masters degree of Bioentrepreneurship in Karolinska Institutet (Sweden), I am equipped with knowledge, skills and experience to excel in the life sciences industry. I am currently based in Sweden working with marketing due to my great interest in the Chinese health care market and elderly care. I continuously seek to sharpen my skills and improve my experience in the life sciences field.

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