Work Till You Drop

The Economist magazine reported last week that for the first time in history the Earth has more people over the age of 65 than under the age of five. This situation, which the world has been moving towards for a number of years, has profound implications for public policy everywhere. Needless to say, politicians globally have tended to address the consequences on an incremental basis rather then comprehensively. Such is life.

Here in Hong Kong, we had an example of this recently when the government made some routine amendments to eligibility to be treated as “elderly” for the purposes of certain social welfare payments. In simple terms, the age moved from 60 to 65. In effect, the assumption now is that below that age a person is deemed to be fit to work unless the contrary can be established, and should be actively looking for work. From that age onwards, the default assumption is that the individual should not be required to work to qualify for a higher level of public support.

As a backdrop, behind the allowances that were subject to the age adjustment, there is a Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme with various means tests and so on.

Those most affected by the change -- unemployed persons in their late 50’s who had been receiving a lower level of support and looking forward to the enhanced rate – objected to the change and garnered some support (inevitably) from local politicians.

The most valid reason for having some sympathy for the affected parties is that it is at present extremely difficult for those in their late 50s/early 60s to find a new job after being made redundant. The government does bear a measure of responsibility because, until relatively recently, it forced civil servants to retire at 60 thus setting an unfortunate example. Monkey see, monkey do, the private sector naturally followed.

Even though the government has now shifted the normal retirement age for new recruits to 65, the private sector has been slow to adjust. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngoh did not help matters very much in justifying the policy change by pointing out that she herself was now 60 and still working. This was true, but not helpful because the well educated and well connected do not suffer to the same extent as those who are neither. Naturally a political squall quickly erupted – a sudden period of strong adverse winds and heavy rain – in the almost unique way these things are wont to do in Hong Kong. The storm was quickly quieted in the usual way – by throwing money at the problem – but as a community we do need to address the larger issues lurking behind the minor episode.

The fact is most people now live much longer than they used to, average life expectancy for both men and women being well over 80. Purely on narrow economic grounds we should be doing everything possible, with a mixture of carrots and sticks, to encourage everyone to work for as long as possible. As Lam correctly, if rather clumsily, pointed out she is still working in a very demanding job past the age of 60. I am still working at 70. The taxi driver who took me home the other night proudly announced he was over 80. There are many such individuals in our community.

It is correct that faculties do deteriorate with the passage of time and for most people energy levels drop with age. So we may not all be able to stay on in our prevailing positions forever. But that is no excuse for writing everyone off as being economically useless. A fireman may not be the best person to rescue people from a burning building much past the age of 40, but he is certainly capable of examining building plans and inspecting means of escape well past 60.

Even the less skilled, who are most commonly held up as examples of those who cannot find work, are surely capable of washing dishes in restaurants or participating in recycling activities. After all, someone has to collect the waste cardboard and sort the empty bottles. Keeping our beaches clean is also a worthwhile endeavour.

I guess the main message here is that the old idea that people can just put their feet up and not contribute to the community for decades after a working life of 30 or 40 years is dead. While it may have been the ideal for a generation or two after the second world war, we are now in a different era. We can look back on those times if we wish as a kind of golden era.