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As China's migrant workforce ages, how will the country support them?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This week, NPR is bringing you a series that looks at the challenges China is facing. Today NPR's China correspondent Emily Feng introduces us to the country's migrant workers, those who propelled China's growth in the past three decades. But now they are approaching retirement age, and China must deal with an aging workforce.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Liu Zhongxian has spent the better part of 30 years away from home, working on construction sites like this one all over the Chinese capital, Beijing.

LIU ZHONGXIAN: (Through interpreter) I followed another villager who had gone out for work in the 1990s. It was like that, one person bringing the next into the cities.

FENG: He's from a beltway of small villages, about three hours' drive from Beijing, still full of dirt roads. And it's the people from villages like these that have built China's cities and its economy. These workers mostly filled low-pay jobs, and they worked hard. Starting in the 1980s, more than 300 million migrant workers flocked to big cities. Lu Zhang, a sociology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, says these workers were mostly young men in their late teens and early 20s, and later their families came.

LU ZHANG: And so began what is often described as one of the greatest human migrations of all time as hundreds of millions of young men and women from the countryside poured into the factories and construction sites of China's coastal boom cities.

FENG: But fast-forward three decades, and Chinese government statistics show nearly 30% of migrant workers are 50 years old or above. That's almost 90 million workers. Keep in mind, the official retirement age for men in China is 60, and as young as 50 for women. This mirrors the rest of China. It's aging much faster than babies are being born, and that means fewer new workers. And an older population is stretching China's state pension funds and will pressure its health care system. But most migrant workers don't have any benefits, and when asked about his retirement plans, Mr. Liu sighs. He has no pension.

LIU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "Of course I think about retirement," he says, then lights a cigarette and takes a drag before continuing.

LIU: (Through interpreter) I've got to think of ways to make money first. If you go to the cities, you can make more money. In these days, you cannot survive without money.

FENG: Mr. Liu is just one of the many millions in this situation in today's China. The country's most recent migrant worker demographic survey shows just under one-fourth have some kind of pension or medical insurance. One of the major reasons for this is that rural migrant workers and their children were long denied social benefits. China has been trying to loosen rigid migration controls for the last decade, but as Lu Zhang explains, employers don't always follow the rules.

ZHANG: The problem is, in reality, many employers simply ignore their legal obligations to pay social insurance for employees.

FENG: So as China ages, its migrant workers become most vulnerable. They helped China achieve its dream of becoming a global economy, even if their own dreams have been unfulfilled. Adding to their woes - a real-estate slowdown in China. The government has been forcing developers and local governments to pay back debts. That means way fewer projects and way less work for construction workers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Outside Beijing, another construction worker who would only give NPR his last name, Mr. Wang, is doing odd jobs. He's now 68 years old, too old for most construction companies, but a state pension plan gives him only about $20 a month.

WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And so he's still doing odd jobs around the village, living out of a modest brick hut he built himself. He says his China dream, the wild ambitions of making it big, or at least making it into the middle class, is over.

WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says he will continue working, working until he cannot move anymore.

Emily Feng, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: In our continuing series on China, tomorrow, we'll take a look at Germany's growing dependence on Chinese imports and why that's got some economists and politicians worried. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.