Jake's View

It's time for our civil servants to work on being happy - not miserable

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 3:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 3:55am

Secretary for the Civil Service Paul Tang Kwok-wai said yesterday: "In the face of demographic challenges arising from an ageing population and a shrinking workforce, the government ... considers it an opportune time to examine possible options for extending the working life of civil servants."

South China Morning Post, April 4

You can see the stream of them five days a week after the bell rings, pouring out of the Tamar government offices and down the steps to the Admiralty MTR, glum-faced, worn out with the drudgery of their jobs.

Not surprisingly, many of them are in two minds about working until they are 65 instead of seeing the gates of freedom open to them at 60. It's all very well, they say, but it may not be fair to younger civil servants who want their seniors to get out of the way of promotions. Think about it for a moment and you will see that it can make no difference to promotions. The same people will still get the same promotions and hold them for the same number of years until retirement. The only difference is that this will happen later.

It's a lasting irony of public service jobs that, although the only independent professional survey ever done of them showed that they were paid three times their private sector equivalents, the abiding dream of public servants is to get out. They just don't have the challenges, rewards and enthusiasms of the private sector. They're miserably bored.

Unfortunately, they commonly project this jaded understanding of the workplace to the rest of the economy. Thus they talk of "an ageing population and a shrinking workforce" as if everyone else wants out as badly as they do and must be supported at public expense for 20 years or more of idle retirement.

It is just not so. What is happening is that people are living longer because they are healthier. This is, in part, because of a rising fitness culture, but also because back-breaking jobs and poisonous-fume-ridden workplaces are increasingly a thing of the past. As a result, people are happier to work later into life and by choice, not by compulsion.

Over the past four years the labour force has grown by more than 40,000 people over the age of 65 and their labour force participation rate has turned around to rise from 5.4 per cent to more than 8 per cent.

All the indications suggest that this figure will continue to rise.

In Japan - the trendsetter in these matters - the labour force participation rate for over 65s is now more than 20 per cent.

Yet, as the second chart shows, in order to bolster their pessimistic view of things, our government planners project that an overall turnaround in participation rates for all ages just has not happened.

Despite the fact that their 2003 long-term forecasts proved dead wrong, they just put out the same guess last year and continue to indulge in false doom and gloom talk about "demographic challenges".

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that some people are never happy unless others share their misery.