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The ‘new sandwich generation’ in urban China

alex.clegg14 February 2022

Author: Xinyuan Wang

The recently released seventh national census in China shows that today’s China not only has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world (on average Chinese women are expected to have 1.3 children each throughout their lives, compared to the UK  where in 2020 it was 1.58), but also is facing ageing crisis where 149 Chinese cities are now classed as ‘deep ageing’. What do these figures mean to ordinary Chinese households? What does that mean to the very experience of ageing among older people in China?

As observed during my field work in Shanghai, a striking feature of this older generation in China is, what I call, a ‘new sandwich generation’. The concept of a sandwich generation used to refer to middle-aged people who are burdened by taking care of their young children and parents. But what is the new sandwich generation? To show what this means for ordinary Chinese people, I would like to introduce one of my key research participants Fangfang and her four-generation family.

Fangfang’s four generation household. Infographic by Xinyuan Wang

As shown on the chart, Fangfang is the second generation compared to her 89-year old mother, represented by the top bar. Fangfang’s daughter, the third bar from the top is 36, and has two young children, aged 9 and 2, who were born just after the thirty yearlong one-child policy was abolished in 2015.

Fangfang’s mother Hui was born in 1929 and belongs to the generation that suffered long periods of war and poverty. Hui fled into the former French concession in the city centre with her family to avoid shelling when Japan invaded Shanghai in 1937. During this period of time (from 1937 to 1949) the Sino-Japan war and civil war took place in China. For a brief period, life for Hui seemed to be less constrained as she married into a relatively well-off family, however, soon after the establishment of communist New China, the family business started to decline. All private businesses were cracked down on becoming state or collective owned and whole households were persecuted during various political struggles.

The second daughter in her family, Fangfang was born in 1949, just after the revolution. In the 1950s, the Party encouraged high fertility rates, as the population was regarded as the essential force of revolution and production, and women with many children were officially rewarded as ‘honourable mothers’ (guangrong mama). Despite limited life resources, Hui gave birth to seven children (from 1948 to 1965) and six of them survived to adulthood. During her childhood, Fangfang witnessed how her mother struggled to raise young children during a time of pervasive scarcity and uncertainty, and how her young brother, who suffered from congenital heart disease, only survived seven days due to the lack of medical treatment in 1950s.

Fangfang’s own life changed drastically when the Cultural Revolution started. All the schools closed, and urban youth nationwide were sent to the countryside to receive education from farmers. In 1966, when 17-year-old Fangfang said goodbye to her family in Shanghai, she did not expect she would be ‘stuck’ in the countryside for 12 years. In 1978, when Fangfang finally got transferred back to Shanghai, working in the factory where her father used to work, she was already 29 years old, she then married one of her former neighbours, and their daughter Lan was born in 1982.

Lan was the only child in the family, since the one-child policy had been enforced since 1979 in urban areas. Lan was born in a rather different era, when the egalitarianism that characterised the period of the planned economy had started to collapse because of the market-orientated economic reforms, which started in 1978. Fangfang clearly remembered how things were getting more competitive both at work and at Lan’s school.

When Fangfang’s granddaughter Joy was born in 2009, Lan only took half of her maternity leave and went back to work straight away to keep her promotion at work. At that time, Fangfang had just retired and in her words quite ‘naturally’ stepped into the role of being the mother of little Joy. In 2014, ‘only-child’ couples (meaning both the wife and the husband were the only children in their family) were allowed to have a second child in Shanghai and Lan gave birth to a boy in 2016. This time, Joy’s paternal grandmother (nai nai) had to come to help with raising the baby as Fangfang was too busy with taking care of the girl and her own mother.

According to ‘filial piety’ (xiao) principles found in Confucian ethics, adult children are supposed to take care of their old parents in order to pay back the ‘care debt’ they owe to their parents. Previously, in Chinese agricultural society, children were regarded as the ‘pension’ of the family. As the old Chinese saying goes ‘children are reared to provide support in old age’ (yang er fang lao). When Fangfang’s mother fell ill and needed intensive care, she made it clear that she did not want to be taken care of by non-kin so as not to ‘lose-face’, as that would suggest she raised ungrateful, or ‘unfilial’ (buxiao), children.

Therefore, Fangfang and her siblings, who are in their 60s and 70s have to take care of their mother in turns. Fangfang’s 70-year-old older brother fell ill himself because of the taxing labour of caregiving. He sighed,

‘You know in old days; I am already in the age of enjoying ‘filial piety’ from my children…but now I am still fulfilling ‘filial piety’ towards my mother. My mother is very fragile, but given medical treatments nowadays, she can easily live for another five years or longer…but I don’t know how long I can hold on…I am just emotionally and physically tired.’ 

According to Fangfang, all her siblings, including herself and her husband, can imagine themselves spending the last stages of their lives in a care home, being taken care of by care workers, so that their own children will be free of the ‘unbearable burden’ of elderly care.  They are pretty sure they will be the last generation in China to practice the traditional ‘in the way of providing actual elderly care labour. Another background fact is that, In China, the national pension scheme was first introduced in 1950s. In a way, retirement is an unprecedented life experience for the generations who lived in urban China.

‘We are struggling to take care of our mum, but at least we have siblings that we can share this burden with…it is 6 households with 12 people altogether, all taking care of one old person…our children are unlucky because they are part of the only-child generation…that is to say that at some stage, a couple with an only child will need to take care of old parents from both sides, which is four old persons. Can you imagine what kind of burden our generation will become to our children?’ Fangfang asked, rhetorically.

Furthermore, Fangfang thinks her daughter’s family could not even take care of their children without her support, not to mention their ability to support her in the future.

As Fangfang’s story shows, the new sandwich generation refers to retired people in their 50s to 70s who are simultaneously burdened with heavy care commitments for both their elderly parents and their grandchildren. This is partly a consequence of the extended life expectancy, the decades-long one-child policy, relatively early retirement, and the significantly improved health situation of older people. It is also an outcome of a multi-generational household strategy to deal with the intense social competition inherent in contemporary China. The situation of older people actively engaging with grandparenting is not unusual across the world as observed by the ASSA project, however, the heavy labour of care weighed on the shoulders of the older generation in urban China is rather pronounced. This is a vastly different situation from the connotations of ‘retirement’, which literally means ‘step back and rest’ in Chinese. In practice the experience is closer to the phrase ‘lean-in and be busy’, especially when taking care of both elderly parents and young grandchildren.

Coronavirus and social isolation: 16 insights from Digital Anthropology

Georgiana Murariu20 March 2020

Source: Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/tDtwC11XjuU

Blog post by ASSA (Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing) team

We recently conducted nine 16 month studies on the use of smartphones by older people, which is the main source of insights here. You can read more about the project here.

This is a summary of insights from our previous research intended to be on benefit for individuals or institutions considering  digital health initiatives for older people. It is a preliminary list and we hope to deepen our contribution through subsequent blog posts.

Additional insights are also drawn from Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of People (Polity, 2017), a book about the social universe of hospice patients, which includes recommendations for how to use new media to assist isolated older people to maintain social relationships.

1) USE EXISTING APPS

Our research found that older people are often very reluctant to use a new app. When trying to assist older people in using online resources it is best, if possible, not to suggest new apps. Find a way of achieving your aims through an app they already regularly use, such as WhatsApp.

2) EMPATHY

Social isolation has been a common experience for older people, especially those who have lost a partner. Isolation is particularly common in the UK. One result of this virus is that people of all ages are now experiencing isolation. They may thereby gain greater empathy with the lived experience of older people living alone or in isolation.

3) POLYMEDIA

Our research shows that today each individual has particular preferences for how they prefer to communicate. For example, a person might be fine with the webcam, but only if you text first so that they are prepared. It is important to learn about an individual’s media preferences and then respect these.

4) FORUMS

The hospice research found that people who are struggling (in that case it was mainly cancer patients) find forums of considerable value. But they divided into two equal groups. One group only wished to exchange such intimate problems when the forum was entirely anonymous; the other was only comfortable communicating with identifiable others. We need to develop and proliferate both kinds of forums.

5) FREQUENCY, NOT CONTENT

For many older people what matters is not what is contained in communication, but its frequency. Knowing that people are interested enough to make some kind of contact is far more important than anything those people actually say.

6) THE FINE LINE BETWEEN CARE AND SURVEILLANCE

This point applies to personal relationships, where older people may appreciate being in constant contact, but care greatly about autonomy and dignity. It also applies to the macro level, as where some people regard China’s response to the virus as unacceptable authoritarianism, and others see it as an entirely justified expression of how a state cares for its citizens.

7) SMART FROM BELOW

Most policy suggestions are implemented by policy experts in a ‘top-down’ manner, thereby affecting the bulk of the population, but the widespread use of digital technologies produce a democratising of creativity and ingenuity. Anthropologists seek to learn from the creative responses of ordinary people, accumulate examples (e.g. https://covidmutualaid.org/) and use these to educate others.

ASSA will soon be publishing a 150-page manual of protocols on how to use WhatsApp for health, created by Marilia Duque, who is a researcher on our team. These are not her own ideas, but best practice examples gathered from 16 months of observing how older people in Brazil used smartphones for health purposes. We need to establish platforms where people can share what they are learning from the creative response of ordinary people.

8) CARE AT A DISTANCE

Digital technologies have made the practice of care at a distance commonplace. This occurs in different ways. For example, working with older people in China and Japan, we found they have shifted to much greater use of visual communication, such as stickers and short videos, as a way of expressing care. These people found it easier to convey affection through these means, rather than through more conservative traditions of face-to-face encounters.

9) WHATSAPP SUPPORT

Today many people form WhatsApp groups with family and friends to support isolated people or patients. This is highly effective. So we need to ensure that everyone is aware of its benefits. Marilia Duque is advocating a system of `WhatsApp Angels’ in Brazil in response to the virus. As it happens, Whatsapp has already created a ‘Coronavirus Information Hub’ which includes examples of how to use the app to stay in touch with loved ones or seek up-to-date health information on the virus. The Information Hub can be accessed here.

10) WEBCAM

In a phone call, older English people traditionally tend to say they are fine, even if they are at death’s door. There are many advantages to connecting via webcam, which allows one to see how a person is actually doing. Many might find it helpful to have their webcam switched on even when people are not actually talking, since this is more akin to co-present living together.

11) NON-TECH-SAVVY ELDERLY PEOPLE

Coronavirus is about to cause a crisis for those elderly people who may never learn to use smartphones, as access is stopped for visitors to care homes. A helpful device is the Amazon Echo Show, since it can conduct webcam conversation through simple voice commands such as ‘Echo, videocall Mary’. Set-up requires another person using an Alexa App and is quite complex but the technology does work.

12) FACEBOOK

Facebook has shifted from a young person’s platform to use more by older people and community groups. At this point, the main advice is for young people to remain on Facebook where they will be able to share more family information, jokes, and other material with those older people.

13) CONFIDENTIALITY IS LESS IMPORTANT

The hospice research mentioned above suggested that, so far from protecting people, an obsession by institutions with privacy and confidentiality has become a major source of harm. People who are ill were more concerned to ensure that relevant people were informed about their condition, rather than that strangers might also know about their condition. Privacy is important, but tight controls over data because of concerns over litigation can cause considerable harm to patients.

14) PATIENCE AND PATIENTS

Older people may want and need to learn about how to use smartphones and similar skills, but they mainly reported that young people do not help teach them. They become irritable and impatient and take the phone away to make changes. With social isolation it will become even more important to help people learn to do things for themselves.

15) KITEMARKING

Googling for health information is now a ubiquitous part of how people respond to illness or the fear of illness. Users, influenced by commercial sites or scare stories, can end up more anxious and misinformed. Kitemarking has improved with the foregrounding of more authoritative sources and is promising to do more. Google have already implemented this, prompting UK-based internet users to consult the WHO and NHS pages when the term ‘covid 19’ is entered into Google. However, Google health enquiries are still often headed by commercial and sponsored sites.

16) A GLOBAL EXPERIMENT

Right now, the world is embarking upon a vast global experiment, by default: a massive shift of education, work and sociality to online. This is an important time for digital anthropology to try to help assess any associated problems that arise from these strategies, as well as any long-term benefits.