At 5.30am on a recent weekday, Li Cungui, a 54-year-old migrant worker, joined hundreds of older jobseekers in Majuqiao, a town on the Beijing outskirts known for its day-labour market where recruiters advertise tasks from bricklaying to parts assembly.
Li, who is originally from a village in China’s northern Hebei province, said he had no choice but to find a temporary job as full-time roles went to younger applicants.
“We are the most vulnerable group in the labour market because we are old and unskilled,” said Li, who ended up taking a job sorting parcels that paid Rmb250 ($36) for 10 hours, slightly less than the city’s minimum wage.
Li is among a large and fast-growing population of older migrant workers in China who are being left behind by the economic recovery after three years of pandemic restrictions.
A lack of professional skills has compounded their difficulties. Employers are prioritising younger workers for the few low-skill manufacturing jobs on offer, while higher-paying positions remain out of reach for most migrants. China’s unequal social safety net, with a large gap between rural and urban pensions, has forced retirement-age migrants to keep working, with many taking on menial jobs to make ends meet.
“China is paying a significant social and economic price by leaving older migrant workers unattended for,” said Dan Wang, chief economist at Hang Seng Bank China.
Li is emblematic of a growing trend that could have sweeping ramifications: migrant workers, the driving force behind the country’s emergence as the world’s workshop, are getting older. Official data shows that the number of migrants aged over 50 more than doubled in the decade ending 2021 to 80mn, compared with a 16 per cent drop in workers in other age groups.
Their plight represents a challenge to President Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” drive to reduce economic inequality, raising the prospect of social unrest.
Employers, however, are loath to take on ageing staff. Job openings have fallen faster than China’s working-age population as zero-Covid restrictions and a crisis in the property sector have stifled economic activity. Meanwhile, the gloomy global economic outlook has diminished demand for China’s exports, prompting many companies to cut back staffing.
Factories across the country have set age limits for job applicants at 40 years old or even lower. Staffing agencies in Majuqiao said low-skilled workers aged above 45 had “zero” chance of landing a full-time role.
“Why should anyone hire a 50-year-old to fill the factory floor when there are plenty of 30-year-olds who can do the job more quickly and at a similar cost?” said an official at Fuhuiya Human Resources, a labour agency in Majuqiao.
Locked out of full-time manufacturing jobs, many older workers have turned to industries known for harsh conditions, notably construction. A survey last June by the National Bureau of Statistics of migrant workers in Inner Mongolia found almost half of respondents aged above 50 worked in construction, compared with 15 per cent for those under the age of 30.
“I work for whoever is willing to pay me,” said Wang Ligang, a 55-year-old migrant worker in Majuqiao who last week took a bricklaying job for Rmb300 per day.
Older workers also disproportionately lack advanced education and skills that would allow them to transition into higher-paid or lower-intensity work as they age.
More than two-thirds of migrant workers born in the 1960s only finished middle school, according to official data, while just one-fifth have received professional training. That compares with two-thirds of those born in the 1980s and 1990s who have attained at least a high school education.
“I haven’t had a chance to pick up any tradable skills since I began working at 18,” said Meng Yuhong, a 56-year-old day labourer.
Beijing has in recent years launched a campaign to provide free job training for migrant workers to address the skills shortfall. But the initiative is targeted at younger workers.
Michael Chen, who owns a vocational training centre in south-western Sichuan province, said he was reluctant to admit students over the age of 50, whom he said struggled to pass a state-run written exam necessary for his company to receive government subsidies.
“I have no problem teaching a 50-year-old middle school dropout to operate a machine tool,” said Chen. “It would be much harder for him to pass a written exam about how the equipment works.”
For many migrant workers, the challenges last well into their 60s and even 70s. Insufficient social security coverage — coupled with minimal savings — has kept many retirement-age labourers in the workforce, often in casual, low-paying jobs.
Official data shows less than a quarter of migrant workers, many of whom work informal jobs, have ever paid social security tax. Even fewer have made the 15 years of payments necessary to qualify for an urban pension worth several thousand renminbi per month.
Instead, most receive a rural pension of less than Rmb200 per month, a fraction of factory or construction wages, due to the difficulty of transferring social security benefits to the smaller cities where many migrants settle after decades of working in big cities.
“I am going to keep working until I die,” said a 61-year-old cementer surnamed Wang. “I don’t want to be a burden to the country or my family.”