Don't waste our talent

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 July, 2006, 12:00am

Belatedly, the Hong Kong government has woken up to the fact that our population is ageing and that something needs to be done about it. The Council for Sustainable Development is now consulting the public on how to address the declining fertility rate, the ageing of the population and the longer life expectancy.

Up to now, Hong Kong has had no comprehensive population policy. For years, it has taken a mistaken approach.

For example, in the 1970s, the policy was to limit couples to having only two children. If more babies had been born in the 1970s, they would today be in their thirties - the prime of life - and our ageing-population problem wouldn't be looming so large.

While he was still chief secretary last year, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen called on couples to have at least three children. This was totally unrealistic, coming at a time when the birth rate for the average Hong Kong woman is less than one child.

Little can be done about the declining fertility rate. However, the ageing of the population and the longer life expectancy are not necessarily negative factors. In fact, as long as older people are in good health - and the longer life expectancy indicates that they are - there is no reason why they cannot be productive.

Expecting people to stop working at the age of 60 does not reflect current realities. Men and women are usually in good health and capable of being economically active at that age.

The thing to do is turn what look like stumbling blocks into stepping stones: we must see an ageing population as one in which many people are mature, experienced, skilled, in good health and still productive.

The civil service retires people at the age of 60. The government should set an example by postponing the retirement age - or, better yet, abolishing it.

There is no reason to have mandatory retirement: people should be encouraged to work as long as they are able and willing to do so.

If the government takes the lead, the private sector is likely to follow suit. This is what happened after the chief executive announced a five-day working week for the civil service.

Not only is it leading to a shorter working week in the private sector; it is also resulting in the creation of jobs and better services in such areas as banking.

The present situation, where able-bodied men and women are not part of the work force, is simply a waste of talent. Almost 70 per cent of those in the 60-64 age bracket are not economically active. For those aged 65 to 69, almost 89 per cent do not work.

Life expectancy has increased substantially in just the past couple of decades. Last year, it stood at 78.8 years for Hong Kong men and 84.4 years for women. This is at least six years longer than in 1983, when life expectancy was 72.3 years for men and 78.4 years for women. Advancements in medical technology will no doubt allow this trend to continue.

Other countries have taken action in recognition of not just greater longevity, but also the resulting increase in productive years.

Thus, Japan has raised the entitlement age for pensions from 60 to 65, while the United States has raised it from 65 to 67. Hong Kong should be taking similar action.

The productivity of women in the population should be similarly harnessed. According to the Census and Statistics Department, only 52.1 per cent of women capable of work are in the workforce, compared with 71.1 per cent of men - even though women today are at a comparable level of education to men.

Hong Kong simply cannot afford to see this talent go to waste. Instead of bemoaning the declining birth rate and the ageing population, the city would be much better off putting its more mature residents and its women to work.

The individuals concerned would no doubt be happier, and the overall health of the economy would benefit.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator