Ceaseless Toil? Health and Labor Supply of the Elderly in Rural China
Deborah Davis-Friedmann (1991) described the “retirement” pattern of the Chinese elderly in the prereform era as “ceaseless toil”: lacking sufficient means of support, the elderly had to work their entire lives. In this paper we re-cast the metaphor of ceaseless toil in a labor supply model, where we highlight the role of age and deteriorating health. The empirical focus of our paper is (1) Documenting the labor supply patterns of elderly Chinese; and (2) Estimating the extent to which failing health drives retirement. We exploit the panel dimension of the 1991-93-97 waves of the China Health and Nutrition Survey, confronting a number of econometric issues, especially the possible contamination of age by cohort effects, and the measurement error of health. In the end, it appears that “ceaseless toil” is also an accurate depiction of elderly Chinese work patterns since economic reform, but failing health only plays a small observable role in explaining declining labor supply over the life-cycle.
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