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Oh no, I’ll be 30 soon! Ageing anxiety in China

Young adults face intense social pressure in China as they grow older

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By Siqi Liang

I am a 26-year-old woman from China. After I turned 25, I started to feel afraid of reaching the age of 30. 

When peers have decent jobs or happy marriages, I get upset. I feel as if I have lost the marathon of life. When people around me ask when I will get married, I get irritated. 

But when I see lots of people on social media who are just like me, I know I am not alone. They complain about the rigid social expectations and wonder about their future.

Here’s a sample of their comments:

“We do not have gap year. We always are busy without rest.”

“I used to be able to stay up until 2am, but after I turned 25, I’m sleepy by 11pm.”

“I am 30 years old. I can’t wear a pink dress anymore.”

“Is it too old for me to start graduate school at 28?”

” At the age of 25, I have achieved nothing and I feel confused about the future.”

“After I reached the age of 25, my parents and other relatives have been urging me to get married, saying that 30 is the best age to get married.”

Sagging muscles, wrinkles, grey hair… When people perceive their own signs of ageing, they feel upset, nervous and anxious. Some even struggle with insomnia.

In China, many suffer from ageing anxiety – the concerns and fears about getting older. In 2020 a survey conducted by the Social Survey Center of China Youth Daily showed that 40.5% of the 2,005 respondents said they often experienced aging anxiety, while 52.2% felt it occasionally.

READ MORE:  Youth voters: Disillusioned and anti-establishment

Ageing is inevitable for everyone. But it is also annoying, and many resist it. In a youth-oriented culture, an increase in age means some negative changes, such as a decline in health and physical functioning, worries about one’s economic situation, loss of cognitive ability, changes in physical appearance, and social loss.

To reduce or relieve ageing anxiety, some people may exhibit ‘anti-ageing’ behaviour, such as opting for cosmetic surgery, using anti-ageing products, dyeing their hair and dressing as ‘youthfully’ as possible. They seem unwilling to acknowledge their age in their daily lives.

Within Chinese society, people’s ageing anxiety could be related to the unique socio-cultural context.

The first cultural factor is the emphasis on the ‘best time’ in traditional culture. A typical agricultural civilisation in the past, China has paid intense attention to the seasons. This has reinforced the concept of doing the right thing at the right age or right time.

Confucius even said that by 30, people should be independent. Not surprisingly, elders often urge the young to have a job and get married by 30. Thus, many young people panic and feel pressured about missing the ‘best time’.

As one person complained, “After I am 25 years old, people around me always ask me when I will get married and graduate and find a job. It is too late after the age of 30.”

Many companies even prefer employees below 35 and some may even dismiss employees over that age.

In China, individuals aged between 18 and 35 are eligible to apply for civil service positions. These age limits are typically intended to ensure that candidates have the qualifications and potential for long-term service within the civil service sector.

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Another factor is group consciousness in the Chinese mentality; it dominates the sense of happiness and accomplishment in people’s lives and leads to peer pressure. Parents or other relatives may compare a young adult without a job to other people’s children who are already employed.

Meanwhile, the media narrative results in dissatisfaction with adults’ physical bodies and ageing anxiety. The media prefer young and beautiful women around 20. They showcase youth, beauty and agelessness – which worsens women’s worries about growing old and being unable to face up to their advancing years.

“When I see young, beautiful, fit women in social media, I feel pressured,” one woman said.

Anti-ageing products for women in their 20s are everywhere in shopping malls. Many women even in their 20s are already trying to maintain their youthful appearance or to look younger.

The transformation in the social landscape is another key reason for this state of affairs. People these days have to pursue education over a longer period.

Twenty years ago, college students had an advantage in vying for jobs. But now, because of a large number of qualified people, the competition for jobs is so fierce that many people have to pursue a master’s degree or higher qualifications to get better jobs.

Yes, growing older may bring with it problems in many aspects, such as employment, health, marriage and physical appearance. As they grow older, young adults face intense social pressure in China.

The situation is quite different in Malaysia. In fact, during my six months in Malaysia, when I talked to my supervisors, my classmates and others about my age, they would say, “It [your age] is a nice age” or “You are very young”.

READ MORE:  Youth voters: Disillusioned and anti-establishment

However, in China, I hardly ever heard such words. Instead, what I heard a lot was “You are not young anymore” and “You have to accomplish something before you are thirty”.

Hopefully, more people will realise that ageing should bring with it more experience and courage rather than more anxiety.

Siqi Liang is an international postgraduate student from China currently living in Malaysia.

She wrote this piece at a writers’ workshop “Writing for Change” organised by the Department of International and Strategic Studies of the University of Malaya, the university’s International Relations Society, and Aliran

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Wong Soak Koon
28 Jun 2023 8.39pm

There must be a start to a braver, saner sttitude towrds ageing among China’s young people. Dont let that pressure of physical changes take away from the inner gains of age. Beauty, after all, is only skin deep. Dont let the metanarratives, the HUGE behemoth of social exoectations lumber into your own hopes and dreams. Honour your own TIMING about when to make life choices. This is a well- written piece.

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