Janice Chen used to be a mid-level employee at a multinational company in Shanghai until she was laid off in the summer of 2020 due to an economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Searching for work for over a year, she could not find a job until a few months ago, at a much smaller domestic company.
Chen is 40 years old, and she said her age was one of the biggest obstacles she had to overcome during the hiring process.
“I was prepared that it could be hard, but since I am not having any more kids and have good work experience, I thought job seeking for me might not be so difficult. But I was wrong,” said the woman.
“In several interviews, I was asked the same question, ‘why don’t you choose to be a housewife at this age?’”
The country kicked off its push for delayed retirement with an experimental scheme in Jiangsu province from the start of the month, allowing employees to postpone retirement by at least one year if they volunteer and obtain the employers’ consent.
The official retirement age is 60 for most men, 55 for white-collar women and 50 for blue-collar women, relatively younger than most major economies.
While more older people are encouraged to remain in the workforce, many job advertisements in the private and public sectors say they will not hire anyone older than 35.
Applications for civil servant positions, which are sought-after jobs, are only open for people under the age of 35, according to official government recruitment policies.
Jennifer Feng, chief human resources officer at leading job-hunting company 51job.com, said, overall, older workers are facing growing challenges in finding work, especially in the post-pandemic era.
“We have to acknowledge that, amid the pandemic, talent requirements from employers include more online skills, which is favourable to younger workers,” she said.
“In the past year we saw that most of the people laid off in major IT companies were older employees. Employers are more willing to hire young people who are more tech-savvy, cost less, and have more potential,” she said.
Jiang Shengnan, a delegate to the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislative body that began its annual session in Beijing on March 5, said the first step to rectifying ageism is to ban the maximum age cap for government staff recruitment.
“Being 35 is to be in the golden age for employment. To cancel the age limit in civil servant exams will send a message to businesses and individuals that age discrimination should not exist in the workplace,” she wrote in her proposal to the NPC.
“It will also have a significant influence on people’s mentality and choices of marriage, childbirth and retirement.”
Professor Zheng Bingwen, who directs the Centre for International Social Security Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, echoed Jiang’s call, saying:
“This age cap should not be imposed, especially in government agencies. They are established for the public interest, and they use taxpayers’ money. The government should take the lead in changing society’s perceptions,” he said.
China’s population up less than half a million in 2021, births plunge again as crisis deepens
Chen, the laid-off employee in Shanghai, believes the best way to get around the prejudices may be to prepare another way to make money as early as possible.
“Maybe get ready for ‘flexible employment’, as the authorities put it, such as video-making and ride-hailing,” she said.
While age discrimination is a global contentious issue, it is not illegal in China, despite a looming demographic crisis as more people reach retirement age and the country’s birth rate has fallen off a cliff.
The average age of a Chinese worker, defined as someone between the ages of 15 and 59, was 38.8 years old in 2019, which was more than six years older than it was in 1985, according to a 2021 report by the Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing.
The trend does not appear as if it will reverse soon, as the Chinese government reported 10.62 million births in 2021, continuing a years-long decline in birth rate, a trend that compounds the problem of the rapidly ageing population.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.