Chinese women: linking PP and TH

“China’s female professionals are fighting the world’s lowest retirement age.”

The item in the FT caught my attention because it links my past and my present: the struggle for greater recognition for women’s competences, across the full life course (Paula Principle, book done); and the changing definitions of where people stand in that life course (Triple Helix, book still very much to be done).

I couldn’t find trends on Chinese women’s educational achievement in the OECD’s comparative statistics. Gathering these will be a huge task. But I’d be willing to bet that in the metropolitan regions at least young Chinese women over outdoing their male contemporaries. However older women will have missed out badly on education – it will take another generation for this age group to catch up.

So those older women now suing their employers for making them leave work at 50 may have little in the way of formal qualifications. Nevertheless the report refers to professionals, and so they must have accumulated significant levels of competence over their working lives. So this is not just age but also gender discrimination.

China’s retirement system, like many others, is showing significant signs of age. It was designed in the 1950s ‘for a country where people rarely lived past the age of 50, and women had six children on average’. Now life expectancy has risen to almost 80, and we are all aware of what has happened to the Chinese birthrate following the dictatorial one-child law.

So we have another outdated line dividing one stage in the life course from the next. The Chinese pension system, however parsimonious, will not be able to bear the weight of a hugely expanded pensioner population. And there will be many frustrated as well as poor older people. It’s a case study in the need to reconsider the markers that are used to define the life course. This is true not only for China and not only for older people: we need new models for how we think about ages and stages. (This is what I hope to do in The Triple Helix.)

Apparently the Chinese authorities believe that removing older people from the labour force will help their youth unemployment, currently running at over 13%. This is the old lump of labour fallacy. In the 1980s crisis of youth unemployment we heard a lot about the need for older people to move aside and make way for young people to take the jobs that they vacated. This was rapidly shown to be at best naive; its effect was to permanently exclude many people who still had many years of work in them, and desperately wanted to contribute, without doing much to help younger generations. (Michael Young and I wrote about some of them in Life After Work). I hope the Chinese are learning from our mistakes….

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