Retired but Not Retiring: China’s Solo Seniors Find New Grooves in Life
SHANGHAI — Yang Yanhua, 61, is one of the estimated 300,000 retirees living alone in Shanghai. She may be alone, but she is not lonely. In a sense, she is a role model for older people who are determined to find fulfillment on their own.
“What I fear the most is sitting at home doing nothing,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I don’t find retirement scary as long as I have my own hobbies.”
Yang has no shortage of “hobbies.” She is the captain of the local dance team and gives dancing lessons to senior citizens. She often goes to a nearby swimming pool in the afternoons, does landscape painting twice a week in a studio, and works part time in a downtown bookstore on weekends.
Shanghai leads Chinese cities in terms of an aging population. By the end of 2022, Shanghai had over 5.5 million residents aged 60 years or older, comprising about 37% of the registered population. The municipal government is addressing the needs of the older demographic with policies such as home services for the elderly who need special care and the establishment of community facilities for seniors.
But government assistance aside, many seniors look within themselves to put the gloss on their golden years. For Yang, it has been a learning curve.
Until her 40s, Yang worked as a manager at the state-owned Baosteel Group, one of the biggest steel companies in the world. Despite the prestige of a job with a multitude of benefits, she quit when she realized the path to promotion was blocked.
After that, she worked in human resources at a privately-owned construction company, where she also held a high-level position. Ten years after joining the company, she retired at age 57, a few years later than most female managers.
Suddenly without a career to dictate her daily schedule, Yang traded a busy career for a busy leisure lifestyle that nurtures her natural desire to widen her knowledge and keeps her out and about with a wide variety of people.
Yang is on her own. She has one child who lives abroad. Her husband died five years ago due to illness.
“For couples, there is always one person who leaves first,” she says. “For me, that may have come sooner than for others, but I decided I had to plan my life well and manage my time accordingly.”
Like many in her generation, Yang has become internet-savvy in a trend that has seen a flood of senior influencers on the Instagram-style Xiaohongshu platform, with posts about retirement life, traveling, and fitness tips. Their vigor has inspired the younger generation.
While at home, she often paints and listens to music. “It keeps my mind at ease,” she says. However, it was the world of books that proved the most resilient companion in retirement.
When a friend introduced her to the Xinchao Bookstore — a female-themed store in Shanghai — she was so intrigued that she signed up as a volunteer to assist with events at the shop.
“In addition to reading books there, I meet really interesting women and can satisfy my desire to study and learn more,” she says.
Yang proved such an invaluable volunteer that the bookstore offered her a part-time job there. Despite a long commute from home, she accepted the invitation. “It’s something to look forward to every weekend,” she says.
Yang developed a reading habit in high school, where she read classics such as “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” Her job at the bookstore has led her to novels written by Chinese female authors. She said she was “shocked” to find that so many emotions described in the books expressed her own inner feelings.
The bookshop is the home of thousands of volumes over three stories decorated in Barbie pink and flowers. “I find it quite romantic,” she says. “The combination of flowers, books, and coffee is most appealing.”
Yang says she particularly enjoys meeting people — whether young or old, staff or customers — at the bookstore. In particular, rubbing shoulders with the young gives her insights into how the younger generation thinks and lives. She says she enjoys hearing their attitudes toward marriage, family, children, and society.
“I am no longer shocked when some young people tell me they prefer to live on their own without building a relationship or getting married,” Yang says.
A close friend of Yang once told her it’s inappropriate for young women to wear yoga pants and short tops in public. Yang disagrees. She says she admires these young women who are confident and dress as they please.
“The way they dress has nothing to do with you,” she told her friend. “If you can’t stand the way young people dress, you’re behind the times. Have an open mind and keep learning.”
While in high school, Yang’s father told her that “girls should study more.” Her mother was both intelligent and independent, she says. Yang’s parents raised her to believe that outstanding women need to be gentle, wise, and aesthetic. She studied at college, which was rare for a woman her age, and has never given up the idea of striving for success.
Although Chinese retirees are becoming more enlightened and self-aware, many still cling to older traditions of pressuring their children to get married and then becoming nannies for their grandchildren.
“We can help out a little bit if we have grandchildren, but I don’t think that we should make that our whole lives,” Yang says.
Yang’s son and his wife live in New Zealand. She says she never pressured them to have children and won’t interfere in their lives if they don’t ask for her help.
Yang says she enjoys spending time with friends. She had one close friend whose husband was working in another city. However, when he moved back home, the friendship drifted apart because the husband expected his wife to cook all his meals and be around all the time to look after him.
“There is such a thing as sacrificing too much for your family,” Yang told her friend. “If you keep living like this, you will lose your independence and lose yourself.”
As far as Yang is concerned, women must strive for their independence. “Having an independent spirit is the most important thing in life,” she says. “If you don’t have that, financial independence or independent thinking means little.”
When Yang was young, she was often called a “strong woman” — a moniker she took pride in. “I think it’s pretty cool,” she explains. “It shows that I’m tough and I can do everything right.”
However, when she was in her fifties, she had a revelation. “As the oldest child in the family, I used to worry about everything and everyone in the family. But after turning 50, I found I wanted to care only about myself and my parents.”
Since her husband’s death, Yang has been advised on occasion to find another man in her life, but she dismisses the idea.
“I’m used to living on my own,” she says. “I’m fine by myself.”
Contributions: Liu Shuhuan.
(Header image: A group of elderly people enjoy the sunshine at a park in Shanghai, 2022. IC)