Zhang Zhixia is sitting in a black metal chair, flipping through handouts about telecom fraud prevention with her reading glasses on. She is back in class after leaving school almost five decades ago.
The 62-year-old former Beijing kindergarten teacher is all ears. She is determined not to be left behind by China’s technology revolution.
In Zhang’s lifetime, China has gone from an economic backwater to one of the world’s largest economies, with a population that has, for a large part, embraced the rapid pace of technological change.
There are already 890 million users of mobile phone payment apps across China, for example. In urban China, many people have gone almost completely cashless, at a faster pace than many more advanced economies.
Everything from coffees to cars can be purchased with a simple tap on the mobile screen. But that has left some elderly people feeling left behind.
Every week, Zhang attends “cell phone classes” run by a volunteer group, See Young, in Panzhuang, an area of Soviet-style residential compounds in northwestern Beijing.
“I’m so eager to learn,” Zhang says. “I signed up to the class immediately and came with my phone charged to its fullest to be prepared.”
While Zhang has made big progress in mastering her Xiaomi phone, she says she still pays her hospital bills with a big wad of bank notes.
“I’m so jealous of other people. They pay with a simple scan but I need to count my notes by hand one by one,” she says. “Sometimes several times for fear of a miscount.”
As urban Chinese increasingly embrace digital life, the way of living Zhang and her peers knew for decades – shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, queuing in banks, hailing a cab – is fading fast.
“The popularity of new digital tools has a great impact on the life of the elderly,” says Lu Jiehua, professor of social demography at Peking University.
This change comes as the number of senior citizens in China is growing – a demographic concern of the ruling Communist Party. One fourth of the population is due to be aged over 60 by 2030.
Lu says that group is sometimes referred to as “digital refugees.”
Fang Huisheng, 82, likes to be known as a “hip granny,” impressing the volunteers at See Young’s classes as a long-time user of digital payments.
But she says she still fears being left behind. “Technology advances so fast. What is supposed to make life easier is instead creating problems to us old people,” Fang says.
“The only place that allows us to pay utility bills in cash is the post office,” says Fang, referring to the government’s effort to move more public services online.
Fang says she was inspired to take the classes by a viral Chinese social media post that highlighted the anxiety and helplessness of old people. “Sorry, as you are over 70, you’re not suitable to live further,” the post is titled.
The article lists cases of old people being shut out of modern life: Being refused by vendors who only accept digital payments, or left unable to buy tickets at a train station, for the same reasons.
“Move forward, or you’ll fall behind. Please learn by yourself and be accustomed to the society,” the article says.
Lu, the social demography expert, says that while the government is trying to make life more convenient for people through new technologies it has made things harder for some older citizens.
“A larger portion of old people visit the hospital than the young,” Lu says, noting that using mobile apps for hospital registration can be unhelpful.
Hou Yuqing, a volunteer at See Young, says helping her own grandma adapt to new technologies inspired her to assist other digitally challenged senior citizens.
“There are too many functions on a phone. It’s not only for the old, even I can’t wrap my mind around technology sometimes,” says the university student.
Experts say if more elderly citizens are helped to join the digital community, there could be tangible benefits to the Chinese economy. as well as social gains. The enormous market potential of the elderly is billed as the “silver economy” by Chinese state media.
“The elderly will represent a significant group of technology users in the future,” says Hai Ning Liang, associate professor at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou.
Liang estimates that by 2030 the number of internet users aged over 60 could almost triple to 245 million. By 2050, it could reach 350 million.
By then, the majority of senior users will be people currently in their early 50s and 60s, Liang said, a group with a higher level of education and income compared to generations who grew up prior to China’s economic boom beginning in the 1980s.
If they can get familiar with technologies, including cashless payments and online messaging, they will help boost China’s digital economy in the years to come, he says.
’I don’t want to be a doormat’
According to a study by the Tencent Research Institute and Shenzhen University, the best way for the older generation to learn about new technology is to be taught by their families.
But Zhang says her lack of technological know-how has distanced her from her son, who is reluctant to teach her how to use WeChat, a popular messaging app, and refuses to give her a newer phone.
Her son’s lack of patience left Zhang feeling lonely.
“I don’t want to be my son’s doormat. He said I only deserve a phone to make calls,” Zhang says.
China’s State Council says an estimated 118 million elderly Chinese live alone, leaving them at risk of feeling isolated after being cut off from new technologies.
After three months her class, Zhang is excited to demonstrate her progress.
Whereas once she could only send messages to her friends and family, now she can edit videos on her phone and navigate with a digital map.
She summarizes her experiences in “cell phone class” in a truly traditional way – with a poem:
“Waiting home for working children,
Phones are simply beyond our ken,
Technology develops with such speed,
It makes us feel like I can’t read.
The dear community decided to offer a class,
And here are we gray beards hoping to pass,
Learning the brave new worlds of phones,
Our spirit, our vigor, once again hones.
So raise a cheer for the kids’ cellular skill,
Letting us grandmas not feel over the hill.”