Work is vital for Hong Kong's ageing

Philip Bowring says officials seem not to recognise that the way to reduce the cost of care for the very old is to ensure that those in the 60-75 group can continue to be productive

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 6:30am

This is the age of ageing - the age when, simultaneously, birth rates fell below replacement and longevity rose. So those, like myself, who were born while the second world war was raging are lucky.

We remain the beneficiaries of the demographic developments that followed - the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet perhaps we also have some newly acquired sense of how older people need to be treated if the burden of ageing is not to become the main concern of economies and, perhaps, the battleground of future politics. After all, much politics is about economic interests - and at present in Hong Kong at least, these are detrimental to the interests both of the very old and of the very young.

The Hong Kong government expresses a theoretical awareness of the issue, with dire warnings about the cost to its budget of health and welfare payments. But these are mostly couched in terms of how to keep a lid on spending and carry on accumulating surpluses at the expense of needy citizens.

At the same time, its thinking is dominated by the belief that the elderly are a charity case, to be offered some minimal help but not treated in ways that would encourage them to carry on being productive citizens. From my experience, they are treated as increasingly incompetent and a potential danger to others.

Meanwhile, the ones who really need more help, the very old, are often to be found earning a pittance collecting garbage or living in slum conditions, surviving on "fruit money" and perhaps some CSSA handouts.

Officials seem not to recognise that the way to reduce the economic cost of care for the very old in their last years is to ensure that those in the 60-75 age group are able to continue to be productive citizens. This inability to grasp the contribution of the over-60s, and the problems of the over-80s, is perhaps not surprising, given that for the government - and quasi-government bureaucracies such as the universities - retirement begins at 60, or younger, leaving the last 25 years or more of life to be looked after by others.

This absurdly low retirement age is fine with the top echelons as they can either collect a comfortable pension and play golf for the remainder of their days, or they can parlay their government connections into plum but none too arduous corporate jobs and posts as non-executive directors of real estate companies.

But it is a burden for lower- income civil servants who cannot afford to retire and at best can find work at menial salaries.

The policy is not merely out of date by at least four decades, but also socially reprehensible and economically insupportable. It is by definition discrimination and should be taken up by the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Yet like so much else in government, inertia rules, so that even as the mainland, where life expectancy is lower, is planning to raise retirement ages, able-bodied Hongkongers are being declared useless at a time when many are capable of working as they were at 50 or even 40.

In addition are the indignities inflicted on the over-60s by bureaucratic regulations.

This writer discovered that as of 60 he was deemed unsuitable to donate blood. The offer of a certificate from a doctor attesting to his health and suitability was rejected. Driving licences at 60 and above have to be renewed with increasing frequency.

And now I find that my pleasure craft operating licence has to be renewed every 12 months. This is not to test my seamanship and knowledge of the basic functions of engines but merely that I have not become colour-blind in the intervening 12 months. The requirements imposed on the so-called elderly in some cases are additional to those required of anyone else. All this is at the say-so of a Marine Department that doesn't even require licences for drivers of the most dangerous vessels in local waters - jet skis.

Other insults to the elderly include the co-called "fruit money" to which the over-70s are entitled. It is a typically bureaucrat-designed gesture, a charity payout by government, which is of only modest benefit to those in need, and meaningless to those who are not. It is an ongoing version of the mentality that led to the financial secretary giving cash handouts to all residents rather than put government revenues to work for socially desirable objectives such as cutting pollution, child benefits or support for the very old and very sick.

A score of petty so-called welfare schemes exist as much to enhance bureaucratic power as to increase welfare. Take, for example, the latest idea being put forward to force those with chronic illnesses into the arms of the private-sector insurance industry. The government proposes to put up HK$4.3 billion of subsidy but HK$2 billion would be administrative cost.

Of course, not everyone can carry on working after 65. For many who have been in hard manual work, different jobs need to be found as they age.

But keeping people in suitable, at least part-time, employment is the single most important goal in dealing with an ageing society. Housing and health issues are important, too, but removing indignities and protecting employment rights should be the first priority. Old people must be treated as normal unless shown to be otherwise.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator