Young Chinese Embrace Budget-Friendly Elderly Universities
Keen to relieve stress, 27-year-old Shiqi returned to a university campus to start learning yoga and ballet last month. Despite having graduated from university six years ago, she is still the youngest student in both her classes this time around.
The classes at the Open University for the Elderly in Beijing’s eastern Dongcheng District are aimed at elderly people. However, young Chinese like Shiqi, who only gave her nickname for privacy reasons, are increasingly signing up for these classes due to the diversity of their offerings as well as their relative cheapness.
The trend can be seen on Chinese lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu, where there are more than 70,000 posts about taking classes at universities for the elderly. The hashtag “studying at universities for the elderly” has so far garnered over 7.7 million views.
Compared to around 200-350 yuan ($27-$48) for a single yoga class in a commercial studio in Beijing, Shiqi’s university charges only 450 yuan for 15 one-hour classes. Apart from ballet and yoga, it also holds classes teaching oil painting, Chinese dancing, and singing.
Given the low price, Shiqi did not have high expectations going into her first class, but later found her yoga instructor to be professional and her elderly classmates very friendly. They did not seem bothered by the handful of young people like her attending the classes.
“Maybe it’s because … the classmates are basically local elderly aunties, and they all have very good personalities and are easy to get along with,” she said. The classes are only offered during the daytime on weekdays, but the timings work for Shiqi, a freelancer with no fixed working hours.
“Life after retirement is richer and more interesting than I originally imagined,” she said.
According to the latest report from the China Association of the Universities for the Aged, there were more than 76,000 universities for the elderly in China as of 2019, with over 10 million registered students.
As China’s population continues to age, with those above 60 years old set to exceed 400 million by around 2035, the State Council has set a goal of establishing at least one university for the elderly in every county-level region by 2025.
In early October, the admissions officer of the university in Dongcheng District told domestic media that many young people in their 20s had been signing up for classes this year, whereas previously the youngest students were around 40 years old.
“There have been quite a few young people asking about signing up for classes recently,” an admissions officer of the Harbin University for the Aged told Sixth Tone. Classes like tai chi, dancing, and piano are the most popular, the officer said.
Impressed by her classes, Shiqi began sharing her experience on her Xiaohongshu account, which sparked a flood of inquiries from curious netizens. Zhang, a 23-year-old designer in Beijing, saw Shiqi’s posts and signed up for oil painting and yoga classes at the same university.
“I want to move or stretch a little bit by doing yoga, because sitting in front of the computer every day makes me feel very stiff,” Zhang told Sixth Tone, who only gave her surname as she does not want her boss to know that she is taking classes during work hours. Like Shiqi, Zhang also finds the classes a great way to relieve stress.
Having studied art at university, Zhang is familiar with painting classes. However, she finds painting with the elderly even more relaxing and comforting.
“It doesn’t matter whether the uncles and aunties are extroverted or introverted — they are very patient with you and the overall atmosphere is very warm,” she said.
While such classes aimed at the elderly are becoming popular among young Chinese, there has also been criticism that they are taking up valuable educational resources meant for the elderly. “The places should be left for the elderly who need them,” a user on microblogging platform Weibo wrote.
While universities for the elderly usually have strict age requirements of over 50 years old, some universities like the one Shiqi attends are open to younger adults. One reason for that could be that they need young people signing up in order to meet quotas for starting their classes, according to Liu Ying, 32, who has been taking traditional Chinese painting classes at the Open University College of Elderly Education in Huai’an in eastern Jiangsu province since March 2022.
Her university only allows men over 55 and women over 50 to sign up for classes, but opens up enrollment to younger students if there are not enough students. “The course requires at least 30 people for the class to go ahead. This year’s guqin class wasn’t held because there weren’t enough registrations,” said Liu.
The trend of taking classes meant for the elderly is just one example of young people taking up resources targeting the older demographics, with the practice being called “elderly consumption freeloading.”
A commentary by state-run China Youth News says that the trend is a result of the younger generations’ changing consumption habits, and their greater price sensitivity and focus on convenience.
“What society should do more is to further innovate business models and better rely on communities, universities, and other forces to provide more inclusive and affordable consumption options for young people,” the commentary said.
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: Oil painting class at an Open University for the elderly in Dongcheng District, Beijing, 2023. Zhang for Sixth Tone)