For retirement, not only age counts

Updated: 2011-07-02 07:53

By Li Xing (China Daily)

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On Tuesday, I attended a media day at the Pentagon arranged by the Public Affairs Office of the United States Assistant Secretary of Defense ahead of the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

I saw there a fellow female journalist who could walk as fast as I could, even though she was on crutches.

Inside the Pentagon Chapel, which was constructed and opened a year after 9/11 to provide staff members of all faiths a place to worship and pray, she put away her crutches, and knelt on the ground to get unique angles for photographs.

Only her blond hair mixed with gray betrayed her age, perhaps one of the oldest among the media corps that day.

But she was as agile and active as anyone else in conducting stand-up interviews and taking photographs at the Pentagon Memorial at the impact site, and the Pentagon Chapel.

I didn't get a chance to get her name but I marveled at her professionalism and devotion. Of course, she is still young if we follow the benchmark set by Helen Thomas, former columnist, wire service reporter and member of the White House Press Corps, who retired last year at the venerable age of 90.

Since I came to live in Washington, I've noticed that people over 60 have ample opportunities to keep up their careers, whether they are flight attendants, shop assistants, bookstore clerks, journalists or professionals in many other fields. It is the norm here that an individual has the right to choose whether he or she retires or continues working.

In China, we also have similar role models, such as Wu Mengchao, the octogenarian army surgeon skilled in treating liver diseases.

However, he is an exception rather than the rule. I don't believe China has done enough to encourage people to continue pursuing their careers when they are over 50. In fact, once people reach 50, employers seem eager to sideline them.

At local government agencies, for example, most people approaching 50s especially women hit a glass ceiling, and have to accept a reduction in responsibilities or even semi-retirement.

Last March, when I interviewed a member of the National People's Congress, the farmer-turned businessman asked me why I was working as a journalist at my age, just over 50.

"Is it because you need money?" he asked. I found his questions insulting. However, his questions represent an unhealthy trend in Chinese society, in which official rank and pursuit of money are more important than dedication to a professional career.

There are a limited number of official posts. A society's progress and stability depends on experienced professionals and career people who not only implement new ideas but also handle the challenges that arise in every sector of our society. When these people are sent home, their knowledge and experience leave with them.

As a society, we should judge people by their abilities, their knowledge, their experience and professionalism, rather than by their age or rank. The path to building a strong civil society is to utilize the people who can genuinely contribute through their expertise and dedication, no matter what age they are.

The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily and its chief US correspondent. E-mail:

(China Daily 07/02/2011 page5)