Old Chinese people in the park

Every morning at around 8:00am the small park we live above in Shanghai springs to life with music, dancing, Tai chi, and singing. If this post was about night-time in a park in the US, you would probably think it was a place where high school kids hang out and have parties. Not so in China. Our park is for elderly Shanghai residents, and all morning long they fill the park as they get out of their homes, socialize, and keep the rust from forming on their joints.

At about 11:00am the park starts quieting down as they all go home to have lunch, but then at around 12:30pm the senior center located at the park’s entrance springs to life with groups that sing, dance, and play instruments, usually as they recreate famous Chinese opera pieces. This boisterous activity continues until around 5pm, when the building suddenly falls silent and dumps the retirees out onto the street so they can go home to start cooking dinner. As long as it’s not raining or snowing, this is their daily routine.

While I find the senior center interesting — though, to be honest, it’s filled with a bit too much Chinese opera for my taste — I’m not writing this just to share a fun factoid. This senior center is just one of thousands throughout China that are serving this very large segment of the population. For the right kind of entrepreneurs, these retirees, along with the demographic shift they represent, are a great opportunity.

Why there are so many of them

One reason there are so many retirees is that, for decades now, the Chinese economy has been shifting from one composed mostly of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) to one that includes a mix of private enterprises and SOEs.[1] The best way to explain why there are so many old people in the park is to tell you the story of my mother-in-law, who shares much in common with our park’s daytime residents.

My mother-in-law was born in Beijing in the 1950s and spent most of her working years as an accountant at a Chinese State Owned Enterprise. As she neared the age of 45, her company started talking to her about retiring so she could make room for the younger workers then flooding the workforce. In her case, since she had more specialized skills than most, she had to wait until she was 48 before someone younger could be found to take her place. When that person was ready, my mother-in-law was forced into retirement. She now collects meagre retirement benefits from the government and spends her days at home knitting and occasionally creating beaded handicrafts, though many like her spend their days at senior centers like the one next to our apartment.

Are you ready to serve these retirees?

The Chinese government has created senior centers like this one to give these retirees something to do, but I’m sure there are many more retirees out there who spend most of their time sitting at home because they either don’t live near a senior center, or aren’t interested in the types of activities offered there. Whenever there are underserved segments of the population, there is the potential for innovative entrepreneurs to get rewarded by launching businesses to serve them.

One of the main challenges for entrepreneurs who want to serve this group is that most retirees in China have little disposable income. There are plenty of opportunities for social entrepreneurs and non-profits who are interested in serving those in this group who have a lot of time, but have very little money to spare. Additionally, entrepreneurs could offer high value products or services to target the subset of this group that has a lot of money, often because their kids are part of China’s new middle or upper classes. Indeed, the earnings from the rich retirees could even be used to supplement the poorer ones so even more of this group can benefit.

The old Chinese people in the park, and those still sitting at home because the park doesn’t offer what they want, are waiting for innovative entrepreneurs who want to serve them. This could mean something as straightforward as teaching classes to help these retirees fill their time, or could include sweeping visions to enhance their lives. If this is where your passion lies, it is time to get started.

  1. You can read more about the complex ways privatization is playing out in China in this article from The Economist.  ↩

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  • http://gravatar.com/gaojie0220 Jie Gao

    Interesting article!

  • http://startingupinchina.com Sameer Karim

    Thanks for your comment!