China has always placed a high priority on support for the job market, seeing a high level of employment as being the main ingredient in overall social stability. In addition, the working element of the country’s 1.4 billion population is crucial to driving economic growth.

A major concern for Beijing is ensuring employment for the rising number of fresh university and college graduates who enter the workforce every year, as well as the rising number of retirees who need to be supported via the pension fund by those in employment. China provides an official surveyed unemployment rate for urban workers, although it is seen by some as being unrepresentative of the overall employment situation, as it does not include most of China’s self-employed business owners and migrant workers.

China’s once-a-decade population census showed that, in 2020, there were 894.38 million people in the 15-59 age group. This represented 63.35 per cent of the population, down 6.79 percentage points from the previous census in 2010. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said in June 2021 that around 14 million people were expected to enter the urban workforce in 2021, of which 9.09 million are graduates. China has also set a full-year target to add more than 11 million urban jobs in 2021.

China’s workforce, though, will drop by 35 million over the next five years, according to the government, adding pressure on the state pension system and forcing Beijing to adopt new measures to meet the demographic challenge. Experts have long warned that Beijing must take action against a declining labour force and rapidly ageing society, which is expected to weigh on the country’s economic progress in the years ahead.

China’s “floating population”, largely migrant workers, also increased between 2010 and 2020, according to the census. Those living in places other than their household registration area rose by 375.82 million, up 69.73 per cent from 2010. Of those, 124.84 million moved to other provinces from their home towns.

The official surveyed unemployment rate for urban workers in China rose sharply in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, touching a nearly two-decade high of 6.2 per cent in February 2020. Since then, the figure has gradually retreated to near its pre-pandemic level. In May and June 2021, the surveyed jobless rate stood at 5 per cent, down slightly from 5.1 per cent in April. The official surveyed unemployment rate for urban workers, though, is seen by some as unreliable, as China’s 149 million self-employed business owners and nearly 300 million migrant workers are not included. No government data set offers a clear picture of the job market, and most economists believe official figures underestimate joblessness.

China’s mandatory retirement age has remained unchanged at 60 for men and 55 for women – or 50 for blue-collar women – for the past 40 years. But at the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March 2021, Premier Li Keqiang confirmed in the government’s work report that “the statutory retirement age will be raised in a phased manner”. The proposal sparked uproar on social media after it was announced, with critics saying it was unfair to make them work longer than expected because China’s shrinking labour force was the result of government policies.

But Jin Weigang, the head of the social security research institute under the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, later said that the retirement age would rise by a few months every year. “For example, in the first year of the implementation of this policy, women who originally would retire at the age of 50 will retire at the age of 50 plus one or more months. The retirement age will vary for different age groups. That is to say, there will be a number of years of transition,” Jin told the Xinhua News Agency.



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