We're behind the curve on mandatory retirement

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 September, 2010, 12:00am

Caring for the elderly is going to be a major concern for Hong Kong. The chief executive touched on it in his 2008 policy address, saying: 'The number of people aged 65 or above is expected to increase to 2.17 million by 2033' - a quarter of the population expected then.

But not enough thought is being given to allow such people to help themselves and society by continuing to work, if they want to, rather than forcing them to retire at a certain age.

Asked about the possibility of raising the retirement age, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung told Legco that Hong Kong did not have a mandatory retirement age: 'employees and employers are free to negotiate on a mutually agreed basis for a suitable retirement age', he said. That is being disingenuous. How many people are able to negotiate with their employer on a 'mutually agreed basis for a suitable retirement age'?

The government is Hong Kong's biggest employer. Does it negotiate with individual civil servants about an acceptable retirement age? Of course not.

The government not only imposes a mandatory retirement age, but it implicitly supports one for the private sector as well, by ending contributions to the Mandatory Provident Fund once an employee reaches the age of 65.

It is simply not good policy to make people who are highly educated, experienced, talented and healthy stop working - and to stop paying taxes - in order to be supported by other taxpayers.

At root, the problem is one of age discrimination. But the government is clearly unprepared to enact new legislation now, with the race discrimination ordinance only having come into effect last year.

But there are things that can be done without government action. Universities, for example, are free to change their retirement policies.

Currently there is no uniformity. Among the three top universities, the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University have a retirement age of 60, while the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology lets professors teach until 65.

But setting any age for mandatory retirement is arbitrary. In a society like Hong Kong, where the birth rate is low and longevity high, it is self-defeating.

Other jurisdictions have already moved ahead. The University of Toronto ended mandatory retirement in 2006. In fact, universities in Canada and the United States generally do not have a mandatory retirement age.

Hong Kong is behind the curve.

A professor reaching retirement age is clearly qualified for the job and may be an extremely good teacher whose publications have helped make a name for himself and the university. Why should someone like that be put out to pasture?

Some of our leading academics will receive offers from other institutions as their mandatory retirement approaches, and the exodus from Hong Kong will begin. This is not the way to strengthen our universities: we are moving from a three-year to a four-year system, meaning a 33 per cent increase in the size of the student body.

A headline in Friday's South China Morning Post about the new, four-year degree system read: 'Wanted: 1,000 professors for HK universities'. This seems like an excellent time for universities here to end mandatory retirement, keep those who want to continue working and absorb new blood at the same time.

Like other employers, universities will eventually want a system for getting rid of deadwood while keeping those who are sharp and productive. That can be done by using other criteria - not a retirement age applied blindly to one and all.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.