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Confucius would not be pleased. Not only are more and more Chinese children opting to live apart from their elderly parents – but more and more Chinese parents seem unaccountably delighted by the idea.

The Confucian concept of filial piety – which used to decree that several generations must live together in one big stressed out Chinese family – seems to be going the way of cheap wages: China is outgrowing it.

Each Chinese “only” child has six elders to care for (and often a boss who has never heard of work-life balance). So increasingly urban pensioners in China are, like their western counterparts, living apart from their children. Some may mourn the end of Chinese civilisation, but it appears that many elderly Chinese are happier than you’d think to escape the generation gap at home and head to a retirement home.

Fan Xiangmei, 86, was sold as a child bride in the last century. Now she lives in one of Shanghai’s most rudimentary ”eldercare centre”. She used to live with her children, but that made her ill, she says: “Here the food is good and the beds are comfortable.”

Ms Fan’s fellow inmates are obsessed with the protein content of the menu at their retirement home. They reel off a list of recent fish, fowl and hoofed menus, and everyone singles out a recent banquet of “hairy crab”. What more could a generation that survived the Great Leap Forward ask for?

Ms Fan’s neighbour, Yang Shiyong, 85, says he lived at home until his grandson married. Then the prospect of four generations living in Confucian disharmony sent him scurrying for an eldercare berth. Now he wakes about 3am, takes some light exercise, before tottering down to the public trading room at the neighbourhood stock brokerage where he joins knitting grannies and wagering grandpas who gather every afternoon to watch their stocks fall.

On the way there, Mr Yang meets a steady stream of old ladies exercising their dogs. Walking lapdogs is, of course, a staple activity of the elderly the world over, but Shanghai adds a new twist to it. Shanghai residents love to promenade in their pyjamas (albeit in the winter wearing padded ones that have probably never seen the inside of a bedroom). Their dogs, meanwhile, wear booties, a down jacket, or sometimes even a snowsuit. Retirement home operators are not the only ones looking forward to a grey-haired China: pet couturiers are happy about it too. And if Mr Yang is looking for romance rather than stock tips or canine comfort, he can nip over to Ikea, where there is a senior matchmaking corner in the cafeteria, complete with free coffee. With so much to do, who needs filial piety?

Grey hair and heirs

Three squares a day, a pallet to sleep on, and someone to flirt with: it seems China’s elderly are easier to please than the average Western senior citizen – which is lucky since China has more pensioners than any other country on earth.

One reason for that is China’s ridiculously early retirement age: in Shanghai, 60 for men, and 55 or even 50 for women. Another is that Chinese people are living longer.

But with so many old people – 177m as of last year – how is the “workshop of the world” manning the assembly lines? One government official recently predicted that by the middle of the decade, China’s “dependency ratio” (the ratio of children and elderly, to workers) would reach 50 per cent. Beijing is concerned that the shortage of workers will have a huge impact on Chinese economic growth. Sure China has plenty of people, but the country’s ageing population has already caused a labour shortage big enough to boost the prices of toys for western children this Christmas. And no one is getting any younger – except, maybe, members of the Chinese Politburo, who seem to lose their grey hair miraculously when they enter politics.

Geriatric tracking

But what about the rare people who want a four-generation household, complete with senile geriatrics? The Shanghai government has an answer for that too: 24 hour-day GPS tracking of those with dementia. Computer screens in the government’s dementia command centre can locate wandering pensioners at any time of day or night. Sometimes even Confucius needs a little help from technology.

patti.waldmeir@ft.com

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