Sixty became the new 40 in the west a while ago — but I never thought I’d see that day in China.
The mainland’s sixtysomethings have led a more harrowing life than the average Botoxed Baby Boomer. When they were little, Mao Zedong gave them the Great Leap Forward and a famine that killed millions; when they were teens, there was the Cultural Revolution. Famine, revolution and political pogroms do tend to age one so.
But 30 years of prosperity later, China’s elders seem to be ready to relive the youth they never had — and to spend money on it. They aren’t all sitting around hoarding their renminbi and meddling in the lives of their children, as the conventional wisdom has it. Urban middle-class seniors are taking up sports such as hiking, biking and “square dancing”, in addition to more traditional pursuits such as taichi, mah-jong and minding other people’s business.
Paradoxically, it is the same Communist party that took away their youth that is giving them the time, the money and the financial freedom to enjoy their dotage. City-dwelling mainlanders retire frightfully young (as early as 55 for men and 45 for women), enjoy an ample pension (unlike rural contemporaries) and own valuable homes that were practically given to them when Beijing privatised the urban housing stock at the end of the last century.
It’s been described as the biggest ever one-off transfer of wealth, and it fell right into the lap of today’s 60-plus hikers, bikers and square dancers — people such as the sprightly old geezers in Shanghai’s Ruijin Sub-district Cycling Club. They dress up in skin-tight neon and Lycra for weekend cycling excursions that are rarely shorter than 100km a day.
Five years ago, the club rode all the way to Inner Mongolia, a 29-day trip towards the northern border. The oldest cyclist was 74: he bought his septuagenarian wife a Rmb4,000 ($670) model for the trip, but himself rode a one-speed push bike — a maicaiche, or “buying-vegetables bike” — for the whole 1,700km journey.
I fit right into the club’s demographic, and I also ride a maicaiche, but there all similarity ends: when I and a Financial Times colleague in her 20s joined the old birds for an outing one recent spring weekend, they had to cut the distance to a measly 15km just so we didn’t drop dead on them en route.
It was 7am on a Sunday, and everyone we rode past on our way to a suburban park seemed elderly and irritatingly vigorous: there were old people doing taichi; old people working out on the outdoor cross trainers one sees in every Shanghai neighbourhood; even old people taking their caged birds for a walk. By comparison, youngsters are couch potatoes (not having had decades of deprivation, economic and social dislocation to toughen them up).
The elders are maddeningly cheerful to boot: it seems they have spent a lifetime “eating bitterness”, as the Chinese saying goes, and are now ready to spit it out.
Yang Jianhua, 71, is a pint-sized former factory worker bursting with a rather exhausting amount of joie de vivre: gesticulating wildly and leaping about, she lists all the things Chinese old people can do to keep busy, from singing to dancing to art to piano. Lin Xuejun, 66, is one of her cycling mates: he was previously a senior executive at a state-owned enterprise and, when he retired five years ago, he felt the weight of time on his hands. But now he cycles every weekend, swims for an hour every day and takes two long walks every day. With his neon cycling shirt, Lycra trousers and wraparound shades, he should consider a second career as a geriatric sports model. “We prefer to spend money on biking equipment than on medicine,” he says.
And these days, the senior buck is a powerful force in the Chinese economy, says Matthew Crabbe, retail analyst at Mintel, who points out that there are enough over-60s to populate the UK, Italy, France and Germany combined. They have disposable income, they like to try new things — and they don’t just want nappies and baby food, he says.
There’s a whole generation of Mao-toughened elders just getting into the swing of spending on themselves. And with the start they had in life — they could live for decades.