Leisure Life in Later Years: Differences between Rural and Urban Elderly Residents in China

Article excerpt

Introduction

There has been increasing interest in the use of time among older persons because of the unprecedented rapid aging of the world population. In the United States, for example, the number of persons ages 55 to 64 is projected to increase by 15.9 million between 2000 and 2015, contributing 86% to the population increase of people between the ages of 25 and 64 (Godbey, in press), while the number of persons 65 years of age and older in the U.S. will amount to 64.6 million in 2030 and 110 million in 2080 (23.5% of the total population) (USBC, in Carp, 1990). Other nations such as Japan, South Korea, and many European countries see a similar trend of population shift. As home to the world's largest population, China is undergoing rapid growth both in the proportion of the total population and sheer numbers of elderly people. Accordingly, the aged Chinese population and how this population uses free time, which becomes the primary form of time in later years, have drawn increasing attention both in China and the world.

Aging Chinese Population

Over the past half-century, China has considerably slowed the country's rate of population growth through some of the world's most restrictive national birth planning policies, including the most controversial "one-child" campaign launched in late 1970s, which brought about rapid and extensive fertility declines in China in the past 30 years. However, the dramatic fertility decline has also sped up the aging of population in the country. It is reported that in 2000, the proportion of the population age 60 or older increased to more than 10% from just over 7% in 1953 (Riley, 2004). With a population of 134 million, elderly Chinese now account for 1/5 of the world's and half of the Asian older population (Yuan, 2004). On the other hand, the massive public health programs developed by the Chinese government since the 1950s have greatly decreased the mortality rate and prolonged people's life expectancies. According to official estimates, by 2001, Chinese life expectancy at birth had risen to 71.8 years from 64.0 years in the 1980s (UNESCAP, 2003, in Riley). Population aging is becoming one of the most significant demographic changes in China with the elderly share projected to reach 27% in 2050 (Riley). Such a demographic shift combined with the other two social economic changes, namely, increased living standard as the result of 1980s economic reform in general and an extended period of post-work life for older adults living in cities because of the institutionalization of retirement in particular, have made aged persons' lives, especially their leisure life, an increasingly important theme of social conversations in China.

Rural-Urban Differences

The issue of Chinese aged people's leisure life will be deceptively simple if we speak of it without taking a closer look at the country's demographic changes in relation to the changing social-economic realities. The two aspects intrinsically intertwine with each other and together complicate the topic of aged people's leisure life to a great extent.

China has seen a dramatic economic growth over the past ten years with its GDP increasing at a rate of 7-8% annually. However, many challenges have emerged along with the fast economic development. For one, rural-urban tension is becoming increasingly pronounced as the social and economic inequalities enlarge in the country.

The rural-urban gap in China has long existed as a result of the country's dichotomous societal structure since the establishment of the People's Republic, which had been imposed and enhanced by the well-developed system of household registration. Specifically, the household registration system (HRS) was meant to strictly control the movement of population, especially between rural and urban areas, in support of government's planned economy practice prior to early 1980s, including restrictive labor policies and tying distribution of food to official residence (Suyala, 2003). …