Hong Kong should copy US and simply do away with mandatory retirement

Amy Wu says Hong Kong people, who include some of the world's longest-living, stop work far too young. Many would relish the chance to continue

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 December, 2012, 3:48am

My baby-boomer friends back in the US often sigh when they discuss retirement. The fantasies of playing golf and going on cruises in their sunset years have been dashed by the reality of their extended work life. They rant about the realities of having to work into their 70s and even 80s. I take their complaints with a grain of salt since a good number of them also get joy and satisfaction from their prolonged work life.

Some of them chose to continue to work because they love what they do; others do so because they have bills to pay. In the US, the number of people 65 and above who are part of the workforce jumped from 13 per cent in 2001 to 18 per cent today.

The key here is choice. Baby boomers aren't being shown the door after they turn a birthday. The US doesn't have a mandatory retirement age - unless one works for Uncle Sam. Many companies welcome what some consultants call a "multi-generational workforce" as part of their diversity effort.

On the most recent trip to the US, I observed that there was a robust greying workforce at the supermarkets, pharmacies and shopping malls. They may not be as swift as workmates in their 20s or 30s, but they get the job done. Indeed, having the choice and opportunity to continue working is a gift that many take for granted back in my homeland.

Here in Hong Kong, I am often surprised by the relatively young age at which many are forced or expected to retire. For women this can be as early as the mid-50s. Some men are forced to retire or accept heavily watered-down workloads.

There is nothing wrong with this lifestyle if it makes one happy, but there are an equal number of my friends in that age group who wished that they could continue to work.

Most universities here have a mandatory retirement age of 60. In the US, academics are employable so long as they continue their good work. There are certain professions such as farmers and football players who have a clear shelf life, but most professions would benefit having more mature staff who bring with them wisdom and experience.

Hong Kong is still behind the curve when it comes to a fresh way of thinking about work and retirement.

The reality is that with science, technology and advances and better awareness of health and fitness, people are living longer. To be sure, Hong Kong has one of the world's longest life expectancies at 80 years and 87 years, for men and women respectively.

Rather than discussing an ageing population in the context of retirement schemes and government stipends, why not encourage people to work longer and put aside the social norms of a retirement age. These conversations are necessary as the current 65-plus population of 13 per cent will be a whopping 30 per cent by 2041.

There should be no limit or boundaries placed around work and hiring practices so long as the person can fulfil the requirements. After all, work offers more benefits than simply salary; it provides identity, camaraderie and it keeps the mind moving.

Even my near-90-year-old grandmother gets it. "Even if you don't need to work you should continue to work, to keep learning and be exposed to the world," she said. "I wish I'd been given the chance."

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator now living in Hong Kong