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Getting old in a changing world : Sons, pension, and the wellbeing of the elderly in contemporary China

Publishing year: 2018-11-09
Language: English
Document type: Dissertation
Publisher: Department of Economic History, Lund University


The Chinese population is rapidly aging, which has brought challenges for the elderly support system. Until very recently, only urban employees were eligible to receive a pension, while the rural elderly were forced to rely on income from their own labor and support from their family. In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that the rural elderly were most likely to fall into poverty. The recent introduction of the New Rural Social Pension represents a fundamental change, as it offer a comprehensive pension to rural Chinese for the first time in its history. The initiative may reduce the need for family support. Son preference is well-established in China as, traditionally, sons are expected to be mainly responsible for taking care of their elderly parents. As the new pension relieves the elderly’s economic dependency on their children, it becomes relevant to ask whether it has mediated the implications of son preference, notably whether having a son still results in a better later life.

This dissertation explores how changes in intergenerational support have affected the elderly’s wellbeing. The results show that the new pension has made it possible for the rural elderly to retire and improved their relative bargaining power within the household – allowing them to spend more on healthcare. The treatment effect of the pension is remarkably strong given the small amount of benefit (9 USD per month). This indicates that the rural elderly had been living in very poor conditions, and suggests that the family support system cannot adequately provide for them. It appears that better public support is required.

Another finding concerns the situation within the family. My results show that having a son does not improve either material support or subjective wellbeing. It therefore appears that young parents’ son preference does not turn out to be a rational choice in later life. Moreover, the expansion of social welfare has weakened the economic rational of favoring sons, and increased the importance of daughters, as parents’ needs shift from day-to-day care to emotional support. Once basic material needs are met, daughters’ have the advantage of providing emotional support, and they become essential to their parents.


Holger Crafoord Centre EC3:207
  • Yong Cai (Professor)


  • Economic History
  • ageing
  • health
  • retirement
  • pension
  • son preference
  • happiness
  • China


  • Albert Park
  • Tommy Bengtsson
  • Jonas Helgertz
  • ISBN: 978-91-87793-55-4
  • ISBN: 978-91-87793-54-7