Old age has always been held in high regard in China. A special age was 60. The Chinese zodiac consists of 12 heavenly stems and five earthly branches, together forming a 60-year cycle. Once you had lived an entire cycle, you were an experienced person, to be treated with respect. The best cuts of meat were reserved for the elderly during a family dinner. There was also a downside. Old people were supposed to stay home as much as possible, because they were considered too weak to walk for more than 10 to 20 minutes, let alone to travel. Pampered by their loved ones, with the best of intentions, Chinese elderly aged more rapidly than was necessary.
This tradition continued until recently. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a pension system was installed, in which men would retire at 60 and women at 55. This is still intact, although in some professions, people can work a few years longer. The rationing of basic foods like cereals or milk, a system that was in operation until the early 1980s, included special care for the elderly in a household.
Due to a strict family planning policy introduced in 1970s, in which each couple was only allowed to have one child, the Chinese population was ageing rapidly. At the end of 2017, the official Chinese population count was approximately 1.39 billion. The age bracket of 60 years and higher was 17.3% – or 240.9 million people. That ratio had been rising consistently from 13.7% in 2011.
The State was still taking care of its elderly as it was obliged to do according to cultural tradition. Pensions increased following the increase in wages in China. Moreover, Chinese are thrifty. Most pensioners have bank deposits that in China still generate interest.
As a result, the Chinese elderly now constitute a considerable market, referred to as the Silver Hair (Yinfa) generation. Unlike the traditional elderly, the modern pensioners want to get as much out of life as their (grand)children. They want to dance, travel, dress well and eat even better. And they want food and drinks that are specially formulated for them.
Chinese consumers spend a relatively high part of their disposable income on food. In 2017 it was 29%. Overall per capita consumer spending in China in 2017 was RMB 18,322 (US$2,716). When we take 29% of that and multiply it with the country’s elderly population, we get a market value of close to RMB 1.3 trillion.
The Chinese government is supporting the development of food for senior citizens. A proposal for a National Standard for the formulation of food for the elderly was issued by the State National Health Commission (China’s former Ministry of Public Health) in September 2018. It contains information like the daily recommended intake of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients for the highest age bracket.
The food industry was one of the first to pick up this trend. A number of dairy brands started to advertise for products for elderly, like specially formulated milk and milk powder. Milk powder for middle-aged and old people by dairy giant Yili is reinforced with vitamins A, D, E, B2, B6 and C and the minerals phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, iron, and zinc. The picture shows a powder based on colostrum.
SeaMild, China’s first domestic breakfast cereal, already introduced in my post on China’s breakfast revolution, also launched a special formulation for the elderly, with added vitamins A and D and calcium.
Other manufacturers are advertising certain foods as especially suitable for senior citizens. A search with ‘elderly’ in the online shop Tmall results in a considerable number of bakery products that claim to be suitable for the older consumer. Many of these are sugar-free. This is based on the belief that elderly should eat less sugar. Sugar is still an important food ingredient in China. Most Chinese still believe those who have to work five days a week need sufficient energy and sugar is a good source of quick energy. Most milk powder produced in China is sweetened, while milk powder for the elderly is typically not.
However, there is an even larger market in which the elderly are the top consumer segment: health foods and supplements. This is rooted in the Chinese tradition. Traditional Chinese medicine refers to many medicines as ‘supplementing’ the diseased body. The modern age has changed the intended function of supplements from keeping the body healthy to making it fit to continue leading an active life after retirement.
A handful of capsules, Omega-3 to slow down ageing, gingko to enhance your cognitive faculty and calcium for stronger bones is becoming a common part of the breakfast ritual of the modern Chinese pensioner. According to e-marketplace 21Food, the turnover of the Chinese health food market (incl. supplements based on Chinese and Western medicine) was RMB 237.6 billion in 2017 and is expected to exceed RMB 20 trillion by 2023.
As I am getting older myself, I will follow these developments closely and update this post regularly.
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Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success