Why mandatory retirement age in Hong Kong should be extended

Updated: 2013-12-23 05:57

By Paul Surtees (HK Edition)

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With people these days commonly living, thankfully, much longer than earlier generations did, the question arises as to what's the most appropriate age to stop working? Generations ago, people started work much younger, with many still around who left school at 13 or 14, or even younger, often due to economic necessity. But nowadays, after an extended education, many Hongkongers only enter the workforce in their 20s. A later start should surely equate with a later finish.

This welcome extension of likely lifespan has caused governments around the world to gradually introduce later retirement ages. That will help them keep from having to pay out pensions until rather later in a lifespan, which is an economic argument for older people to remain employed much longer than hitherto. People are staying healthy longer; their work abilities are often not impaired by age when they are in their 60s or even beyond. They would thus be able to work for longer, and ought to be given the option to do so.

There is talk that in Germany, for example, the standard retirement age will be gradually increased to 69. Covering the hefty long-term pension costs with a much earlier retirement age in Greece has been one of the chief factors leading to the economic woes of that benighted country. Comparisons between the general work ethic of these two lands are also clearly reflected in their comparative retirement ages.

It may be argued that people in their 50s and 60s have reached the prime of life. They will likely have already made their way in life and, by that age, are less likely to have to give as much time to child-rearing, as younger employees need to do. Their work and life experiences have been built up over many decades, and most would have gained some wisdom and even serenity along the way. In short - they often have a lot to offer to an employer. How wasteful it is, then, when their ripe experience is put to waste by not being able to continue working after some arbitrary mandatory cut-off retirement age of 55 or 60.

Why mandatory retirement age in Hong Kong should be extended

Obviously for health, economic, social or professional reasons, some workers would welcome the opportunity to retire as early as they can. They look forward to a long, comfortable and fulfilling retirement. But that only works if they are to receive a pension commensurate with their economic needs and retirement aspirations.

Hong Kong's MPF pension scheme has not yet been operating for long enough for it to reliably provide a suitably large "golden handshake" when our workers currently reach retirement age. Only those who started out on their Hong Kong working lives (a minority of us) by having MPF contributions paid from the beginning - meaning people now in their 20s and 30s - will receive a lifetime contribution's benefits, as the scheme will eventually cover, and as it was intended to cover. Older people will have only a comparatively small proportion of a working lifetime's MPF contributions to rely on, when they want to stop work.

For those many older MPF scheme members not protected with additional pension provision, or holding substantial private assets, that means they would likely need to keep on working well into their late 60s, or beyond, to generate enough to retire on, reasonably comfortably.

Then there is the connected issue of the shrinking population of young Hong Kong people: Not enough babies are being born to replace the retirees. While the size of the local workforce is shrinking, it does not make sense to reduce it further at the senior end by forcing into retirement capable people who are keen to carry on working for a few more years. The talent shortage can also be readily addressed by keeping well-experienced people in the workforce for longer, beyond 60 or 65.

The community stands to gain across the board from the productivity, wisdom and experience of the older generation if they can remain in the work place for a longer period than at present.

The author is a Hong Kong-based commentator and university lecturer on cross-cultural issues.

(HK Edition 12/23/2013 page1)