Hong Kong civil service opens the door wider for older workers – but not before time

Stephen Vines applauds the move by the Hong Kong government to raise the retirement age for more civil servants, but says a far bigger change in policy measures and work practices is needed if Hong Kong is to cope with its ageing population

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 10:28pm

Has the Hong Kong government really decided to embrace the 21st century with new retirement policies for its staff? If so, it is just about managing to catch up with the private sector, which recognised the contributions made by older employees many years ago.

Yet even outside government, Hong Kong employers are lagging behind in recognising the need to make better use of older employees. This is a somewhat urgent matter, given the projected shortage of labour.

Last week, the Executive Council decided that the age of mandatory retirement for more civil servants would be raised from 60 to 65, while disciplined services staff will be shoved out at 60, as opposed to 55. This is the second time in three years the government is making such adjustments; the higher retirement ages already apply to those who join the civil service from June 1, 2015.

Clearly, the bureaucrats have finally woken up to the fact that their employment policies are out of line with current realities. Yet fixing the age at 65 seems to be unnecessarily timid in current conditions.

As matters stand, those above the age of 65 account for about 3.2 per cent of the total Hong Kong workforce. This is way below countries like Singapore, with 6.5 per cent, which have proactive policies for encouraging older employees to stay at work.

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They do so because, as in Hong Kong, they are faced with a growing elderly population and a shrinking labour force. In 2017, 16.5 per cent of the Hong Kong population was 65 and above and it is predicted that this percentage will more than double, to 36.6 per cent by 2066.

Hong Kong also has a significant level of poverty among the elderly, with almost 45 per cent of those over 65 classified as poor (before policy intervention) by the Commission on Poverty. Even those still working are, again according to official figures, likely to be more poorly paid than their younger colleagues.

Financial pressure keeps many older people at work but others are also likely to prefer to stay active. The absence of a mandatory retirement age provides choice and flexibility.

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Meanwhile, the historic image of Hong Kong’s elderly workers being both poorly educated and unskilled is changing and, in line with other developed economies, the elderly are likely to be better educated, live longer and enjoy better health.

Older workers bring qualities of experience and commitment that are often less evident among younger employees. This is certainly recognised in my own company, which has no mandatory retirement policy and indeed actively seeks older staff, not for reasons of social conscience but because our experience with them has been very good indeed. We are not alone; I know many other companies that share this view.

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The age profile of the leaders of a great many Hong Kong companies also suggests that old age works for them at this elevated level. Of course, it helps that most of these “old geezers” also own the companies.

The retention of older staff is, however, not without problems, particularly in very hierarchical and inflexible organisations, of which the civil service is a prime example. Promotion is often equated with longevity, which has the impact of denying a step up to more talented and hardworking younger staff. Where such a situation prevails, it is down to bad management and has nothing to do with an enlightened policy of staff retention and promotion on the basis of merit.

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I should declare that I most definitely fall into the ex-young category. I remember my excitement getting a first job on a national newspaper in London, and thinking then that the person who interviewed me – an editor in his 40s – was old. As ever, one’s perspective changes over the years.

What I have also discovered in looking back over a career in journalism is how much I learned from the mentoring by older and more experienced colleagues. This aspect of employing older people is often overlooked but it makes a difference. Employers sometimes fail to recognise this contribution to improving the quality of their workforce without having to pay extra for the privilege.

Let’s hear it for the oldies.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster