On a recent trip to Hubei province, I had a happy reunion with cousins whom I had not seen for years. Despite the excitement at seeing each other, I detected a sense of aimlessness in some of my cousins. They are only in their late 40s or early 50s, but a few have already retired and others face retirement in a couple of years.
When I asked two of my cousins what they do now that they are retired, they said they are idle, except when their parents are ill or when friends need some help.
I am troubled by this response. They are still in their prime and their children have grown up. Even though my cousins do not hold diplomas from top educational institutions, they are not without skills. They also have years of work experience. One cousin with a major in pre-school education was a teacher and then headmistress of a kindergarten. Another was a factory technician before taking early retirement at age 50.
I respect the choices people make for their own lives and careers, but there are others, like my cousin-in-law, who want to continue working but haven't got a chance. "Have you seen the job opening notices posted on the windows of restaurants? Even the cleaners and dishwashers they want need to be under 35 years old," she told me.
This conundrum is faced by all levels of workers who approach or reach the mandatory retirement age of 55 for women and 60 for men. At the local government level, it is standard practice for bureaucrats in their early 50s to make way for younger people. After stepping back to "the second line", they no longer hold titles or have work.
All these early retirement policies may have been created for altruistic purposes. My cousin-in-law had to leave her job because the State-owned business she worked for needed streamlining.
Officials must give up their positions years before they officially retire to make way for the next generation and also as a means to stem corruption. There have been cases of officials convicted of corruption for feathering their nests two to three years before retiring.
However, these policies have also created problems. The vast number of retirees has led to reported shortages of billions of yuan in pensions. One factor, experts say, is early retirement, which has resulted in many people not paying enough into the national social security fund.
In the meantime, governments, especially at the local level, complain that shortages of qualified personnel have made it hard to provide good service. The irony is that a good number of government employees with both experience and talent were forced to retire. Rather than serving the public need, they have little to do.
How is this not a waste of human resources and taxpayer money?
I hope our government will re-examine existing retirement policies and make full use of the skills and experiences of people who are still in their prime working years. The tapping of this vast potential work force can only benefit our economy and improve government services.
That's why I'm happy for another cousin, a highway construction engineer who led a team of Chinese workers to build roads in Nepal.
At 53, he has just stepped aside as county communications bureau chief to make way for a younger colleague. He only has a couple of years left before retiring officially. He has taken up an offer from a construction supervision company to work as a chief quality manager on the expansion of a highway linking Yidu with Yichang along the Yangtze.
Even though he works away from home and returns only once a week, he doesn't complain. He can still make full use of his knowledge and experience.
(China Daily 08/13/2009 page9)