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Then & now: work, rest and pay

Age-of-retirement issues are still contentious as sweet civil service deals contrast with the predicament of our elderly poor, writes Jason Wordie

 

Retirement ages have been in the news lately. Civil servants leaving office once they reach 60 are now viewed as a waste of valuable skills, training and experience.

Whisper it, but retirement for people with many active years remaining offers a compelling incentive for corruption. Entrepreneurial officials will - naturally - be considering post-retirement opportunities and perhaps make favourable decisions while in office with one eye on the future. Many of us will have favourite examples of ex-officials who enjoyed comfortable private-sector wheezes for years after they left office. Post-employment vetting authorities may have believed the stories retiring civil servants told them about their future intentions, but outside observers may have been sceptical.

The retirement age for Europeans in the Far East was originally 55 - much later raised to 60 - and calculated for reasons that are largely forgotten. For those accustomed to a temperate climate, the Far East was a health hazard in the days before air-conditioning, and decades spent in the tropics were a statistically proven life-shortener. General debilitation caused by malaria, dengue fever, dysentery and other diseases significantly increased mortality rates.

At the start of a career, early retirement prospects looked like an incentive - go East and enjoy a comfortable retirement years before those at home - but the reasoning behind the "perk" was hard-headed. Retirement at 55 was not a privilege, but an actuary-based decision. Those who had spent 35 years in the tropics were statistically unlikely to draw a pension for more than a few years. The Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley has numerous graves of European residents who retired in Hong Kong and then died in their late 50s or early 60s.

Home leave was infrequent until air travel became common, in the 1950s. Depending on individual conditions of service, these long breaks might only come around every three to five years. Short "local" periods of leave were possible, to Japan, coastal resorts in north China such as Qingdao and Weihaiwei (modern Weihai), or to the mountain towns in Dutch-ruled Java such as Malang and Bandung. These hill stations were popular, as it was possible to combine golf, walking and other outdoor pursuits in a temperate climate. A few nights each way on comfortable ships such as those of the Java-China-Japan Line or the Nippon Yusen Kaisha, and a fortnight or so in the mountains, allowed heat-jaded expatriates a chance to recover - or at least hold the line in terms of health and well-being - until the next long temperate leave was possible.

Of course, for most people, then as now, actual retirement ages were dictated by the wear and tear on their own bodies, and how long they were physically able to work. Public housing estate areas all have legions of people scavenging for cardboard, scrap paper and so on - mostly elderly all long past employment age.

Hong Kong's social welfare system is far better than it was even a few decades ago, but still only allows the elderly poor to just scrape by; an enduring, everyday reproach to a very wealthy society. Something is very wrong when senior government officials retire on pensions at 60 - and move on to comfortable post-retirement jobs - and others, decades older, still struggle to survive.

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