Plan ahead to enjoy your sunset years
Written by P Ramakrishnan
Former top businessman Chung Po-yang says it is essential to find purpose in life after retirement
A few years before his death at the age of 85 in 2001, noted British sociologist Peter Laslett, proposed a theory of how people should define their lives.
He posited that the first age is one of immaturity, education, dependence, as experienced by children. In time, they develop and progress to the second age, when the children mature to become adults who take up full-time jobs and parental responsibility.
After a lifetime of productive contribution to society, they reach the third age. There are no clear boundaries defining when it begins, but the term has generally been used to denote a period when people are in retirement, when their active career and parenting ends and they become free to pursue their personal fulfillment without the pressures imposed by work and family responsibilities.
It has been described as the age with the greatest freedom but ends, however, with the onset of illness and terminal decline, with a drifting into the fourth age before death.
In Hong Kong, much attention on ageing has rested on its effects on productivity which, combined with one of the world's lowest birth rates, is projected to put a squeeze on the size of its readily available workforce.
But there is also a dawning concern that some people are not ready to leave their jobs behind and enter retirement.
Speaking at an American Chamber of Commerce luncheon last year, Chung Po-yang, chairman emeritus of delivery company DHL Asia Pacific, warned that Hong Kong's baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, might find themselves unprepared as they exited the city's workforce.
When asked whether he thought that Hong Kong's generation of baby boomers was ready for that third stage, he replied: 'No, I don't think so.
'Not enough of them have gone through the experience. Baby boomers are going through the new phenomenon. The previous generation didn't have the option, they came down [to Hong Kong] after the war, they have a refugee mentality so they worked non-stop.
'They only think to make sure to continue accumulating wealth. But it gave them purpose to get out of bed.'
Bereft of their jobs, he believed that many in this group would be unable to find a purpose in life, he said. 'This is what happened to me and others too, I'm sure. I started working for my company when I was 29, I graduated when I was 27, so I've been working for 30-something years. I was really looking forward to retiring, but after 18 months of retirement, there was only so much good food I could eat, only so much good wine I could enjoy. I had to find a purpose.
'People who don't have a purpose will struggle through their last phase, go through a lot of pain and misery. That's why I encourage people to develop a hobby early on.
'People who read a lot are lucky, it's a great hobby that can only grow. The general definition for the golden age is to have a good life, live where you belong, with the people you love, doing the right thing, on purpose.
'I encourage young people to start early, to think about what they really want to do after retiring. As young as those in their 20s,' he said.
With an ageing population who live well into their 80s, and even 90s, there are a good many decades left for those of active body and sound mind past the legal age of retirement.
'In the old days, people lived up to their 60s, but nowadays I can live up to the age of 90,' Mr Chung said. 'I'm 63 now. I've retired, but what do I do? That's the question I had to ask myself, which I'm sure many others have done or will do at the age of retirement.'
Meanwhile, an increasing number of people are also looking to retire early, which means that their third age lasts longer.
A recent HSBC survey of 1,002 people in Hong Kong found that a greater proportion of younger respondents were seeking to retire early. It showed that only 26 per cent of women aged between 40 and 49 wanted to retire early, compared to 43 per cent in the 60- to 79-year-old bracket.
Meanwhile, 27 per cent of the men surveyed in the younger age bracket said they would choose early retirement, while 32 per cent in the older group said so.
Having reached this age, Mr Chung added that different people must prepare for the third age in their own ways.
'You have to work it out with your spouse on where you want to live too, it is most important that you come to an agreement. Women go through this phase at an earlier age - especially mothers who find themselves free when their children leave home, go off to university, get married and so on. But they deal with it well,' he said.
'I encouraged my wife to paint, she sings, she does yoga, she arranges flowers, she has a small what-not shop in Prince's Building, so she's fully occupied. I just have to find money to pay for all the tuition,' he chuckled.
Mr Chung, who over the course of his career has been awarded distinguished honours such as Hong Kong's Silver Bauhinia Star, an Order of the British Empire and being appointed a justice of peace, seems busier than ever.
He recalled how he first reflected upon his own stage in life after reading the book Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life by Richard Leider, the founder of a coaching and consulting company in the US, and David Shapiro, education director of a non-profit organisation in the US.
'I asked myself, what do I need to shed? Here I was sitting at the head of a huge company. I realised that all the things I wanted to do I had already done in the first 15 years of my working adult life. The last 10 years were not fun for me. Then I started looking for a successor. In the process, I also found out the things I liked to do, so I started taking lessons in painting and calligraphy.'
Since then, he has studied a master's degree in fine art in Australia, and campaigned for longer and better-rounded university terms for students in Hong Kong.
He said he was still playing a vital role in his company and was an active member of society, teaching at the University of Hong Kong and having created the Centre for Asian Entrepreneurship & Business Values.
'Ah, but the difference is, I choose to keep myself busy,' he said. 'At this stage in life, I only do what I want to do. I wanted to learn more about art, so I did. I wanted to learn some music, I did, I wanted to share my years of knowledge and experience and I get an opportunity to do that through teaching and seminars. I like to pen my thoughts so I keep a journal. I've a column in a local paper every Monday, about the choices one has and what one should do in the third act of life and it's all been great fun for me,' he said, showing that he has a busier diary than most heads of companies.
'The things I didn't enjoy, learning the piano for example, I dropped. At his stage, at this age, its about choices.'
With no worries of mastering an instrument with a goal of performing to sold-out venues, or with the perennial pressure of a deadline greying one's hair, the liberty to do only what one enjoys seems idyllic.