Hong Kong needs job retraining, more foreign labour and to scrap its retirement age before the silver tsunami swamps us

  • Mike Rowse says the elderly live longer and are healthier now, but still need more support as they get older and Hong Kong can’t provide it with its current birth rate
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2018, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2018, 7:06pm

Perhaps because this is the month I became eligible for Hong Kong’s “fruit money” (payable on a non-means-tested basis at age 70), I have been taking a closer look at ageing. The picture doesn’t look good, and I don’t just mean the wrinkles and stubborn paunch.

Minister for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong has spoken of an ageing “tsunami”. For once, such a striking expression is not hyperbole.

Hong Kong people now enjoy the longest life expectancy in the world at over 84 (87 for women, 81 for men). By one estimate, by mid-century, more than one-third of the population (excluding foreign domestic helpers) could be over 65.

But, as quickly as the number of seniors is rising, low fertility means the size of our workforce is levelling off, forecast to peak at nearly 3.7 million in about two years. By mid-century, we could have a workforce of only 3.2 million supporting an army of 2.6 million over 65s.

Slightly better news is that improving general health means most of us can now expect to be reasonably fit into our 70s. But during their 70s and early 80s, the majority start to become more frail and fragile. By 85, only a minority can expect a full independent life without a degree of support. If we want to help those who cannot survive without it, we must boost the productive capacity of the remainder.

So what lessons should we learn? The first is that all reference to 65 as representing the normal retirement age should be abandoned. The administration needs to take the lead here, rather than drift along passively. When I joined the government in 1980, the normal retirement age was 55, and it was possible to opt out fairly easily at 50. How absurd those numbers seem now. With time, an option was introduced to extend to the age of 60, and new recruits are now expected to soldier on to 65. But why are we kicking people out at that age if they can still contribute?

It is time for more creative thinking: staff can step aside into less-physically-demanding lines of work in the same field. If my house is on fire, I want you to send firefighters in their 20s or 30s to carry me to safety. But someone in their 60s or even older could just as well check building plans for means of escape, or inspect premises to ensure staircases are not blocked.

As retirement gets harder, Hong Kong has to hold on to its older workers

Former secretary for land and works Chan Nai-keung once suggested that engineers and architects should only be allowed to design and build new projects up to the age of 50, then should be made responsible for maintenance. That would ensure all new bridges, tunnels and buildings were easy to maintain, and experienced professionals could still make a contribution to society.

Nor do we need to stop there. We must get much more serious about retraining. With the fast-changing work environment, those leaving school now must be prepared to have four or five different careers during their lifetimes.

There can still be a role for unskilled older workers too, perhaps in less glamorous jobs. I, for one, would have no objection to senior citizens sorting refuse, provided it was part of a systematic public recycling programme and they were properly paid. What grates is the sight of “cardboard grannies” scavenging because they have to make ends meet.

The labour secretary says that, based on the current demand for subsidised nursing homes, there is a current shortfall of 300 (each of 100 places) and demand for a further 1,200 over the next 40 years. The good thing about these numbers is that they are so crazy – there would never be enough land, money or trained staff – that we need to consider radically different options. The vast majority of seniors, in any event, prefer to “age in place”; in their own homes. So, how can we achieve this, and defer for as long as possible the need for intensive long-term care in institutions?

Migrants are a help to Hong Kong’s ageing society, not a hindrance

Family support will be essential, of course but, as time passes, this will need to be buttressed by hired care which can be call-in or live-in, according to individual circumstances. Local hires can take some of the burden, particularly if there is no live-in requirement, but in the latter case we can only realistically look to imported labour, perhaps with support from a more comprehensive district nurse outreach scheme. The numbers are staggering – probably demand for an additional 200,000-plus on top of the 380,000 foreign domestic helpers already here. Have we plumbed the well of the Philippines and Indonesia to its maximum? Is it time, perhaps, to reconsider our long-standing policy to bar mainlanders from the scheme? I rather think it is.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. [email protected]