Left behind in a booming country


Prof. PHILLIPS David Rosser 


It is now over 40 years since the process of opening up China to international trade and investment began. The economic and social changes that ensued have been transformative, and it is claimed that, as a result of the new policies, over 700 million people have been lifted out of poverty.


However, there have also been some significant losers. The disruptions to communities, and to traditional patterns of family life have come quickly and, in many instances, the effects have been profound. Economic migration to urban and industrial centres, and the effects of the One-child policy, have left many of the nation’s older people living in isolated or precarious circumstances.


Along with his interests in global health and health care, social epidemiology, and environment and health, David R Phillips, Lingnan’s Lam Woo & Co Chair Professor of Social Policy since 1997, has long been a keen researcher in the field of social gerontology and, over two decades ago, he established Lingnan’s Asia-Pacific Institute of Ageing Studies. Among his current research projects is one looking at the way in which the rapidly-expanding new urban areas in Beijing are coping with their elderly populations.


Another, which Professor Phillips’ is conducting with colleagues from the University of Southampton and the University of Bristol in the UK, is examining a range of issues surrounding ageing in China - particularly those to do with social exclusion. Of special interest are the “empty nesters”, older people whose children have left the family home. In the past, on the Mainland, as well as in Hong Kong, family members felt an obligation to look after elderly relatives. Today, though, the situation is becoming drastically different.


The dataset Professor Phillips and his colleagues has been using in some research projects is drawn from the Renmin University of China’s China Longitudinal Aging Social Survey. While Professor Phillips specialises in analysing data gathered through fieldwork, he and his collaborators decided to use some fairly sophisticated multi-level models in order to tackle such a huge array of information. One of his colleagues is also working with structural equation modelling, which they hope may give a more nuanced understanding of the interrelationships between variables.


On the Mainland, modernisation has been a key driver of the shift in domestic arrangements. The last four decades have seen huge population movements within the country, as people have sought to seize the new employment opportunities which have opened up. What’s more, as this process began, the One-child policy was also launched. Grandparents have often been left behind to look after young children, while the middle generation are away working.


This isolation issue also extends across the border into Hong Kong, however, with very few young Hongkongers now living with their ageing relatives. Primary reasons for this change include the shrinking size of flats, which makes multi-generational living much more difficult, social trends, especially the rise of the ‘nuclear’ family, and employment factors.


To know more about Prof. PHILLIPS David Rosser research projects, please click Lingnan Scholars.