Li Xing

Stop forcing professionals to retire early

By Li Xing (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-11 07:07
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I was surprised to read on the front page of a major newspaper last Friday that a "world-class specialist" was planning to retire.

The specialist, Wu Qingyu, is a leading heart surgeon who has won international recognition for his innovations in the surgical repair of heart defects. He is a member of prestigious professional associations in the US, Asia and Europe.

One of the many people who owe their lives to Wu Qingyu is my daughter. Three years ago, she was barred from taking the national college entrance exam due to a congenital heart defect. Today, she is a happy, healthy college student, thanks to life-saving surgery by Dr Wu.

Doctors like Wu Qingyu do not simply decide to retire. Dr Wu Mengchao, who at 88 is China's top specialist in the treatment of liver and gall bladder diseases, still performs surgeries and guides his students.

Wu Qingyu is only 58 years old, still in his prime. I've followed his career for nine years, and couldn't believe retirement would "come quickly" to him, as the newspaper claimed. I decided to send him a text message, asking if the report was true.

Dr Wu called back immediately to say the story was in error. He said he still has many goals to fulfill in thoracic surgery and education, all while managing a major hospital in Beijing. He feels he is just too young to retire.

While few of us are as indispensable as Wu Qingyu, many professionals and administrators who have passed the age of 50 are feeling pressure to retire. My two cousins, a hospital pharmacist and a road engineer in Hubei province, have already stepped down from their administrative posts and plan to retire in a couple of years. The pharmacist is 54 and the engineer 55.

These days, it seems career advancement ends once one reaches 50. The career track in officialdom is closely tied to age. Many professions follow suit, regardless of experience or expertise.

Women professionals are especially hard hit. Most of them must retire at 55, and they are expected to step down from leadership posts even earlier. I believe policy-makers should reconsider the practice of forcing professionals to retire in their 50s and early 60s.

Demographically, these people may soon outnumber those in their 20s and 30s. If they are made to retire early, their skills and experience will be wasted, while the younger generation will have to work even harder to support a larger population of retirees.

The government recently announced an ambitious new plan to increase the national pool of professionals and skilled workers by 66 million within the next 10 years. This plan is crucial if China is to sustain its economic development. Forcing the most experienced people to retire is obviously a step in the wrong direction.

The recent wave of strikes demanding higher pay is a clear signal that China can no longer sustain its GDP growth by relying on cheap labor to manufacture low-end products. Neither can we maintain our economy by depleting ever more expensive raw materials and polluting our natural resources.

China needs more "talents", people who do "creative" work and contribute to the country's overall development, not only in areas of economic development but also in culture, public health and social well-being.

Echoing the words of President Hu Jintao, the plan stresses the need for "talent". China simply cannot afford to waste the expertise of senior professionals. Policy-makers should go beyond emphasizing the importance of making the best use of the retired professionals and skilled workers and actively discourage early retirement of professionals, in order to ensure that their potential is tapped to the full.