What a drag it is getting old: as retirement gets harder, Hong Kong must learn how to hold on to older workers

Richard Harris says Hong Kong’s older workers offer skills, wisdom and experience but often choose to take their expertise elsewhere due to lack of support

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 June, 2018, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 June, 2018, 10:31pm

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones!” Mick pranced onto the stage through the smoke to the chords of Street Fighting Man. I ticked an item off the bucket list.

He did not disappoint, his brown hair bouncing as he skipped and flailed his way down the runway. The performance was everything in quality and quantity that the ageing rockers desired. Not bad for four pensioners in their 70s. Retirement is no longer an option; growing old disgracefully is.

Among my generation, born in the 1950s, “when are you going to stop working?” is a frequent conversation opener. It will become more so as Hong Kong’s population increasingly ages. A friend recently passed away, still going into the office in his last week. Others are cutting their hours and disappearing from Hong Kong for a month or more to “find themselves” in Tibet or Antarctica, fly south for winter, or east-west for the summer. One has done well enough to step off the wheel completely and live frugally between Hong Kong, Italy and Thailand. The next question is, “How much is enough?”

You can’t always get what you want. Many have no option to stop in their late 50s and early 60s; chased by debts and obligations, multiple marriages and maturing teenagers. Hong Kong’s rental and supermarket expenses make even senior salary packages seem ungenerous. Working hours are long and bonuses are meagre for most. It is tough to think out of the box when you are tied to the rat race.

Hong Kong businesses often see age as a limit to employment and this discrimination overshadows the fact the silver-haired generation are street smart, technically experienced and can perform to a high level.

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The government, too, is captivated by the “employers union” of fat cats who are stuck in a 1980s time warp of thinking that you can get away with youthful inexperience because it is cheap. They have continued to neuter the Mandatory Provident Fund and bury the idea of any kind of universal pension scheme or increased minimum wage. Hong Kong is becoming less attractive to older workers who can vote with their feet. Losing our most experienced human talent is bad for the city.

A long-time Hong Kong friend in his late 50s who was a senior professional moved to Australia with no job and drained his savings trying to set up a business. After a year, he picked a role for which he was perfectly suited – training people to work across cultures. It gives him half his time back to follow his particular dream of walking long distances across Europe, Asia and soon South America. Changing direction is a gamble and takes time but, as we age, we work to live rather than live to work.

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The days when an employee could properly retire are gone, for few of us now work for a big company with a generous pension. Indeed these days, careers usually stop well before the working life finishes, with more people involved in the gig economy after their company job. The loss of raw energy can be overcome with the wisdom of age – using your experience to reinvent oneself. Full-time jobs are often replaced with charitable work (paid or unpaid), part-time work, non-executive directorships, consulting, entrepreneurial ideas – or any or all of them.

Having more freedom over your time beats swiping an access card to get you through the office door, being under the thumb of a 30-year-old human resources manager, or working all weekend on a useless project that folds on Monday. If your gigs work out, it is tough to stop – wild horses will not drag you into retirement.

Hong Kong faces challenge in how to manage its ageing population

Hong Kong’s size, variability and dynamism suits the gig economy, where seasoned professionals can choose to do things they want to do. Hong Kong employers should appreciate that they can win, too, by getting top-class personnel relatively cheaply. But they must realise they have to pay something for it – otherwise that talent will find an outlet elsewhere.

Even Sir Michael Jagger will reach a time when he will get no satisfaction. For now, despite his age, he has adapted his key skills. He doesn’t hit the high notes, he doesn’t even sing all the lines – the crowd do. His key skill is in staying fit – the crowd want to see him bouncing about as Jumpin’ Jack Flash. It’s only rock 'n' roll but we all like it.

Richard Harris does too much as a veteran investment manager, banker, writer and broadcaster and financial expert witness. www.portshelter.com