China is on the forefront of a demographic revolution. Older adults now comprise 13% of the nation’s population, and this proportion is projected to nearly double to 23% by 2050. In August, over 300 gerontology scholars from mainland China, the US, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore as well as governments officials and practitioners from the China National Committee on Aging and the Ministry of Civil Affairs will come together at Peking University to discuss strategies to address population aging. The aim of the conference, Productive Aging in China: Toward Evidence-Based Practice and Policy, is to galvanize work on the productive engagement of older adults as a strategy to strengthen families and communities in China as well as to promote the health of older adults.
“There is evidence that productive engagement in later life benefits both older adults and society at large,“ says Nancy Morrow-Howell, Ralph and Muriel Pumphrey Professor of Social Work at Washington University. “Expanding opportunities for productive engagement may increase the health and well-being of the older population. At the same time, older adults can be a valuable resource for growth in volunteering, civic service, caregiving, employment, and social entrepreneurship.”
The conference has been organized by faculty and staff at the Center for Social Development at Washington University’s Brown School, Hong Kong Polytechnic University-Peking University China Social Work Research Centre, Renmin University, China Association of Social Work Education, and Columbia University. Support is being provided by Hong Kong Tin Ka Ping Foundation; ZeShan Foundation; Taiwan University; University of Hong Kong, Department of Social Work and Social Administration; National University of Singapore, Centre for Social Development Asia; Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan; Committee of Professional Social Workers, China Association of Social Workers; and Washington University in St Louis, Chancellor’s Office. The China National Committee on Aging is making important contributions to support the program.
This work is critical not only for China but for the world. Although China is the most rapidly aging country now, the demographic shift toward larger aging populations is global. Worldwide, those aged 60 and above will comprise 13.6% of the population by 2020, and 22.1% of the population by 2050. All countries will develop policies and programs that support productive engagement during later life. Cross-national research and discussion can advance knowledge and innovations—countries will learn from each other.
“Most societies are now organized with few opportunities for older adults,” says DU Peng, Professor and Director of the Institute of Gerontology at Renmin University of China. “The goal should be to think about opportunities and supports for volunteering, working, caregiving, tutoring, and other productive engagement during the older years. Most societies—including both the United States and China—have barely begun to think about this.”
The Center for Social Development (CSD) has been conducting applied research on productive aging topics since 1998 and produced a seminal book, Productive Aging: Concepts and Challenges, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2001. In 2009, CSD and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences organized the first academic discussion on productive aging in China at Shandong University. The impact of that conference has been significant. Research papers presented at the conference were published in English in a special issue of the China Journal of Social Work in 2010 and a book is forthcoming in Chinese from the China Society Press in 2011. Productive aging is a growing topic of discussion in China and other countries, and these discussions will only increase as the world ages. The 2011 conference at Peking University extends this work by widening the involvement of Chinese scholars, professionals and government officials and by focusing on the development of a research agenda to guide program and policy development.
“Going forward, we will think and act differently about being old. There will be more emphasis on human capital and the potential of the older population to address challenges of aging societies,” says Michael Sherraden, Director of CSD and Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development at Washington University.