Older Hongkongers still have much to offer in the workplace
Paul Yip says measures for keeping Hong Kong’s older population active in the workforce can help prevent poverty among the elderly and partially offset the decline in the birth rate
Employment is the most robust method for keeping people out of poverty. In Hong Kong’s latest poverty situation report, for those with a job, the poverty rate is only 12.3 per cent, compared to 77.4 per cent among those not working. Among older adults with a job, it is 12.9 per cent, compared with 48.2 per cent among those without employment.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung has recently raised the possibility of promoting workforce participation for those aged 50-64 and helping those aged 65-74 re-enter the job market. Hong Kong’s workforce participation rate among older adults is 17.7 per cent, lower than in Japan (22.7 per cent), Singapore (26.8 per cent) and Seoul (31.5 per cent).
The Japanese government has been very active in promoting workforce participation among its older citizens, especially since 27 per cent of its population was aged 65 or over as of 2017. The population size has decreased, from 128 million in 2010 to 127 million in 2015, and the United Nations estimates that the number will continue to fall until 2061. The number of migrants moving to the country has not offset the population decrease, leaving no choice but to improve the labour participation and productivity rate, especially among older adults and married women with children.
Though Hong Kong’s total fertility rate is only 1.2 per woman – less than the 1.4 in Japan – we have benefited from migration from the mainland to keep our population young. Our life expectancy is also very similar to Japan’s, at 81 for men and 87 for women. It is time to explore how to make better use of our older adults. We should create the right environment for raising the retirement age and extending employment beyond that age. Some issues, like excessive health and medical insurance costs for the older workforce, and long working hours, should be re-examined.
With more elderly households and people aged above 80, can Hong Kong cope with its greying population?
The government can create a fund to protect against excessive increases in insurance costs, while introducing a more flexible working arrangement for the older workforce. The most important thing is to provide an option for older adults to be active in the job market, and give them the choice of whether to continue in a job. Those who have had enough could perhaps take on volunteer work in the community. For those who stay on with paid employment, more flexible time arrangements would better suit their needs, while their roles could be redefined so as not to stand in the way of the career advancement of younger workers. Some tangible support might be needed for the business sector, ideally through a tax-deductible arrangement rather than the proposed cash support.
For some work, such as in teaching and research, the situation depends on individual ability. As in overseas countries, participants should be allowed to work as long as they meet expectations. At present, a vigorous review process takes place to determine whether to extend beyond retirement age.
The education levels of Hong Kong’s older adults is not high and, among those with very low levels, most can only find work in low-skilled jobs such as cleaning and security duties. Nevertheless, these areas face a shortage of labour and can be a good fit. In such cases, people’s rights and pay should be better protected, to avoid companies exploiting this group of workers.
Also, sometimes, older adults are not driven by money when seeking work. For some, finding meaning in their work can be sufficient. The Japanese experience shows that some older adults continue to work to maintain their independence and fitness. Such workers, whatever they do, display high levels of professionalism. Respecting the wishes of older adults and providing a quality choice in terms of working would be a win-win situation for the whole community.
Paul Yip is chair professor (Population Health) in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong