On the Scrapheap - By Order

It's a good job Alex Ferguson is not manager of the Hong Kong Government's football team. Or he would have been forced to retire nine years ago when he reached his 60th birthday.

Instead he has been free during the last decade to help Manchester United go on winning trophies including the Champions League and three consecutive premiership titles, with his team fighting hard this season for what would be an unprecedented fourth.

Why does our society insist on consigning fit and well performers at the top of their game to the scrapheap?

And should we continue to do so when the evidence all around us is that this is unnecessary and indeed socially and economically counterproductive?

The argument for raising the retirement age to 65, or even scrapping it altogether, is overwhelming. So why are we stuck in our present situation?

The answer is a combination of history and inertia.

Not so long ago, the standard retirement age for civil servants was 55, applications to retire early at 50 were readily granted and even retirement at 45 was possible if there were special circumstances. These numbers came from an era when terms and conditions were largely geared to serving the interests of expatriates who dominated the senior ranks of the civil service. Before air conditioning became widespread, and while shorts and long socks (or safari suits) were standard dress, it was felt life in the tropics was especially energy-sapping and hence worthy of generous retirement arrangements.

Even the increase of the retirement age to 60 when it came needs to be compared to average life expectancy which now stands at about 79 for men and well over 80 for women. So our society is planning for the average person to spend 20 or more years being economically inactive.

From the perspective of the individual, the consequences of spending decades without income can be devastating. Gradually, savings accumulated over a working career of 40 years or so disappear which could leave the retiree in poverty or as a serious burden on his family, (or the community at large, of which more later). While the financial implications are serious enough, the effect on the morale of the person can be even grimmer. For most people, their job is an integral part of who they are. It helps define them, gives them a sense of purpose. The prospect of an enforced early retirement with inactivity stretching over the horizon often results in a collapse of their spirit and can even result in early death (the so-called "gold watch" syndrome). Of course some of the effects of this can be softened by courses preparing people for retirement and at some point everyone does have to stop work so in a sense raising the retirement age only postpones the problem rather than removing it altogether. But it is surely easier to slip into graceful retirement - preferably with an interim stage involving part time work - when one's mind and body are sending unmistakeable signals that enough is enough.

From society's point of view, early retirement is an extraordinary waste of expertise. Persons educated at great expense and sharpened by years of hard-won experience are shoved aside when they still have much to offer. Moreover, with the deterioration of family values that seems to be an inevitable part of the switch from rural to urban living, the community now has a tendency to look to the government to provide support for the elderly. Where once it was common for three or even four generations to live under one roof, now this is exceptional and the nuclear family has become the norm.

Governments everywhere are struggling to cope with the financial consequences of people hammering on the door for old age pensions set high enough to support independent living. At this point it is worth pointing out that when old age pensions were first introduced with 65 set at the qualifying age in the UK, the average life expectancy was considerably lower than this - somewhere in the mid-50s. It has just been reported that Shanghai is on the verge of raising the retirement age. An increase is an inevitable part of any package to rescue the American social security system.

In addition to the direct consequences, there are also indirect ones. Already there are concessionary fares on public transport for those aged 65 (or 60 on Citybus). How long before there is pressure to lower the qualifying limit? In other words by setting the benchmark at 60 for retirement, we lend subtle support to the idea of dependency and subsidies. We should instead be encouraging self sufficiency for as long as possible.

There are many other aspects of this subject that there is no room to cover here. But suffice to say the conclusion is clear: the Hong Kong government should take the lead and announce immediately that in principle it has decided to move the normal retirement age to 65 and will be making arrangements for early implementation.

Does it have the courage to do so, or is this another one for the overflowing "too difficult" basket?