Although capitalism has brought prosperity and increased political power to China, it has also caused the weakening of a traditional society that had collectivism and strong family ties at its heart.
The study by Durham University and the University of Reading, published in Ageing and Society, examined in detail two surveys of Chinese people aged 60 years and over in 1992 and 2000 (1). The percentage of older people who said they were lonely has doubled from about 16% in 1992 to 30% in 2000.
While loneliness can severely impact a person’s quality of life, it can also be a triggering factor for mental health issues. The findings suggest that policy makers in China need to take urgent action to assess what is needed to improve the quality of life for its 140 million older people, who collectively amount to the largest older population in the world.
The Durham and Reading University study suggests potential causes for loneliness include a widespread move since the late1970s from highly collectivised communities, where several generations lived under one roof in close proximity to their neighbours, to communities dominated by the nuclear family, many living in impersonal city apartment blocks.
Under the collectivised system in rural areas, communes, brigades and teams were not only responsible for agricultural production but many other community affairs, meaning a high level of social interaction for all.
In today’s economic climate, sons and daughters are more likely to have moved long distances from the country to the city or from one city to another in search of work, often leaving their parents behind. They can work long hours, juggling childcare with the demands of full-time work, and although they send money home, visits can be infrequent. The single-child policy means that older people are increasingly left without a selection of offspring for company and care in their old age.
Lead study author Dr Keming Yang, a Durham University sociologist who hails from China’s third largest city, Tianjin, said: “While economic development has brought many benefits for China, such as money, increased political power and better standards of living, loneliness is one of its negative effects.
“Mao has been roundly criticised for many aspects of his leadership but - like it or not - the way the society was structured at the time effectively provided opportunities for a high level of social interaction, either good or bad.
“There was a lack of competition and a slower pace of life where people had more control over their schedule. Members of the community tended to attend long meetings where they would talk to others about not merely business but personal issues as well.”
But the study authors point out that more detailed research is needed to obtain a more accurate picture outlining the extent of the loneliness problem: Dr Yang added: “While concentrating on economic advancement it is easy to ignore the wider social effects of a richer but more competitive society.
“Experience of capitalist societies to date suggests it is very likely that many other sections of the population, especially young people who are under huge amounts of pressure at school and home, are feeling the same sense of isolation.”
Co-author Professor Christina Victor, of the University of Reading, said: “Levels of loneliness in China are now comparable, or higher than, those observed in Western Europe; therefore, this is not just a problem seen in developed countries.”
Dr Yang said a potential solution for the Chinese authorities to tackle loneliness in the old was to ensure the local community played a greater role in engaging older people in social and group activities, although this would require some financial support.