Ageing Hong Kong should aim to keep its elderly healthy and in a job, rather than eligible for welfare

  • Paul Yip and Asghar Zaidi say the row over the Hong Kong government’s proposal to raise the age threshold for elderly welfare payments misses the more worthy battle to avert the negative impact of workforce decline
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2019, 7:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2019, 9:38am

With improved medical science and a rising standard of living, most countries have seen a steady increase in life expectancy. Someone born in Hong Kong today, for example, could expect to live about 12 years longer than their counterpart did in 1960 and will have much better access to welfare support as well as healthcare provisions.

At present, 17 per cent of the population in Hong Kong is aged 65 or above, with more than 1.2 million people in this age group.

Although population ageing is first and foremost an achievement of our societies, it has posed challenges to systems of welfare support, health and long-term care, education and environment, all of which require adjustments to the new realities of our societies. Population ageing is particularly challenging in Hong Kong because we have an ultra-low fertility rate of 1.1 children per woman, which is considerably lower than the population-replacement rate of 2.1 and will soon lead to a shrinking of our working-age population.

However, focusing on challenges only gives rise to anxieties and runs the risk of motivating policy reforms that neglect the immense opportunities that come with population ageing. Policies focused on active ageing, by contrast, tap into the potential of older Hongkongers, by giving them opportunities in the labour market, helping them in their social engagements to live an independent, healthy and secure life. Greater employment among older workers also reduces our concerns about a shrinking population.

If you want people working past 60, ‘they need more opportunities’

Amid the recent political storm over the government’s proposal to raise the retirement age threshold from 60 to 65 years for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) recipients, it should be noted that such a move is a popular active ageing policy pursued worldwide.

By raising the age threshold, the government hopes to encourage more older adults to remain in the workforce, to halt or at least slow the decline of the labour force. Simple arithmetic makes it obvious that we need policies that encourage longer working careers for us all.

At present, 45 per cent of those who are aged 60-64 are employed, and 61 per cent of those have only low secondary school educational attainment levels. Most of them are doing low-skilled work that can be physically demanding. Another 53 per cent are economically inactive (not in employment or unemployed) and 2 per cent are unemployed. The economically inactive older workers are a potential pool of human capital and should be supported to re-enter the job market and boost the labour force.

The future may be more promising as the employment rate for the soon-to-be-old group (50-59) is about 70 per cent. However, as yet, the infrastructure to keep these older adults at work is not in place. Many barriers still stand in the way of their continued employment; expensive health insurance, ageism in recruitment practices, rigid work schedules and relatively low wages on offer are among the most serious barriers.

Various stakeholders, especially those in the business sector, must help to ease the transition to longer working careers for Hongkongers.

Hong Kong is one of the best places to live – but for how much longer?

A mindset promoting active ageing sees the potential of older people. It encourages the use of positive policies and practices to influence the lives of the older population. This approach emphasises social investment, taking the view that a proactive management of ageing is cheaper than a passive mindset where older adults are dependent on the government or family.

From an individual’s standpoint, active ageing is about growing older in good health and as a full member of society, independent in their daily life and engaged as a citizen. For society as a whole, with life expectancy on the increase, active ageing is about realising the full potential of older people by setting in place the conditions to empower people to be active and healthy throughout their remaining lives. These supporting measures should be implemented in various stages of the population, especially for the soon-to-be-old cohorts.

Sometimes, it is too late to make any changes among older adults. This is particularly true in Hong Kong where people on average live longer but many of these additional years are not spent in good health.

An active and healthy life remains one of the major aspirations in countries around the world. This is critical, not just in making public welfare systems financially sustainable, but also in improving the quality of life and well-being of people of all ages.

One of the most important ways to stay active is to remain in the workforce. Certainly, older workers need to be supported to have a choice rather than be forced into the workforce. At present, some older people cannot seek employment because of poor health. Providing more motivation for people who can still work to seek work, rather than penalising them for not having a job, is the way to go.

At the moment, policies worldwide are much too rigid and out of sync with both the pace at which people are ageing and their increased activity levels. We need to be innovative and empathetic to promote good policy practices which can help improve the quality of life and well-being of older adults.

Paul Yip is a chair professor (population health) at the University of Hong Kong. Asghar Zaidi is a professor of social gerontology at the Seoul National University