Bloomberg recently ran a story about the lonely elderly in China and the rise in that country of the one-person household, a relatively new phenomenom there but prevalent in other parts of the world. In 2014, 66 million or 15 percent of all Chinese households were single-person homes according to government data. This figure is up from 6 percent in 1990 and may in fact be higher than that. Jean Yeung, the director of the centre for the family and population research at the National University of Singapore thinks that the actual figure of one-person households is probably about the population of Germany (83 million) and could rise to 132 million by 2050. According to Yeung the prevalence of singleton households in China will only increase due to “continued ageing, migration and divorce”.

The single-person household in China is made up mainly of elderly people living alone and far away from family. 19 million people 65 years old and older live alone in China and that number will climb to 46 million by 2050. Many of these lonely elderly live far away from their one child who moved for work in cities. Many elderly in rural areas don’t have full health insurance or a pension and the government is straining to fill the gap. In the past five years the number of nursing home beds has tripled and the nation’s top economic planning body alloted 10.8 billion yuan (1.6 billion dollars) in that period to support the elderly. This government support is needed: only 9 percent of China’s private nursing homes made a profit in 2015. 

At the other end of the age spectrum is the increasing number of younger Chinese who are middle-class and moving out of their parents’ house without getting married. At the last census in 2010, 36 percent of men and 22 percent of women aged 25 to 29 weren’t married – twice the rate as that in 2000. In between the edlerly and the not yet married are a growing group: divorcess. Between 2002 and 2014 China’s divorce rate nearly tripled to 2.7 divorces per 1,000 people. In 1985 the rate was only 0.4 divorces per 1,000 people. 

All of these different factors are undermining the traditional Chinese economic structure based upon family units that has been around for centuries. The Confucian values of loyalty to the Emperor and filial obedience (Zhongxiao) were targeted for destruction by Mao in the Cultural Revolution. Now economic growth, the one-child policy and an ageing population are certainly weakening the family unit in a profound way.

‘This rapid increase in single-person households represents a fundamental shift at the very bottom of the Chinese social structure,’ said Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. ‘Households, often with many members co-residing, have long been the most basic units to organize production and consumption, to socialize individuals, and to maintain networks of political power and social support.’” 

But it should be noted that despite the one-child policy, China is far from the nation with the most number of one-child households. In Japan, over 30 percent of households have only one occupant, while the ratio in Norway and Finland is as high as 40 percent. That’s a staggering amount! Not only does that denote many many lonely people (man was not meant to be alone) but there is also the environmental aspect to consider. It increases the demand for housing, for cars and transport and for energy. It’s funny but I’ve never heard of this mentioned in environmental debates or questions of over consumption in the west. Surely this is a factor to consider? 

But really it’s the immense tragedy of people living alone who do not wish to do so that these numbers do not convey. Let me leave you with this heartbreaking story from Bloomberg: 

In the eastern city of Jining, Hu Jiying, 81, sits on an old bed that’s scattered with clothes, towels and half a bag of snacks, worrying about the cost of her medicine…Hu’s 56-year-old daughter lives two hours away in another part of Shandong province and is a paraplegic, so can no longer visit. Her own poor health means she can’t travel often and she hasn’t seen her daughter since last summer. Her son also lives away and visits once a year, but is too poor to help out, Hu said. 

‘How can I not be lonely?’ said Hu, who has difficulty breathing and spends much of her time watching television in her dingy flat. ‘I want someone to live here with me. She doesn’t need to pay rent. I just need someone to be nearby, to be with me.’ 

Hu gets 600 yuan a month ($91) from the government agency of her late husband, who died ‘maybe 17 years, maybe 18 years ago,’ and spends half of it on medicine.”

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...