Lifestyle

IS THERE A RIGHT AGE TO RETIRE?

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One idea to consider is to let workers decide for themselves and be given the option to work as long as they are able to, or need to, says gerontologist Lily Fu. Photo: 123rf.com

Thursday, 11 May 2023

By LILY FU

Former PM Tun Mahathir, once jokingly said the new retirement age in Malaysia will be 95 when he hands over his premiership to his successor. That was in 2018. He may have said it in jest but at the rate our demography chart is changing, Malaysia will reach ageing nation status by 2030, when we will see more people working well into their 70s. This is inevitable.

When the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) was set up in 1951, life expectancy then, believe it or not, was 55! With the retirement age set at 55, lump sum EPF withdrawals would be more than sufficient to sustain contributors through the short retirement period. We now know those figures were way off the mark. Advances in science, medicine and technology have drastically extended life span. Life expectancy in Malaysia currently stands at 76, and is set to rise further in the years ahead. 60 is the new 40, and living to a ripe old age of 80 and beyond is fast becoming the norm.

But what good is a longer life span if we do not have sufficient savings to enjoy those extra years? According to EPF figures, 51.5% of its 6.67 million members under the age of 55 have less than Rm10,000 savings. EPF’s 2019 Expenditure Guide for Malaysian individuals and families in the Klang estimates that an elderly couple living in the Klang Valley would need at least RM3090 a month for living expenses, or at least RM240,000 in savings by the time they retire at 55. With prices escalating and inflation showing no sign of abating, for those living in the urban areas, this figure will be grossly inadequate in the years to come.

With longer life span, retirees in their 60s-70s have elderly parents in their 80s-90s to look after. Long term age care alone for their parents will eat up whatever savings they may have. What about their own medical and healthcare expenses? The family structure has changed so drastically that parents can no longer expect their adult children to support them in their old age. Family size has shrunk, and with the grown children moving out to work or settle elsewhere, older couples are often left to fend for themselves.

That is why more and more retirees are returning to work life almost immediately after retirement. And older workers want to continue working past 60. Except for those with ample savings, most older workers especially those from the lower socio-economic group can ill-afford to stop working. 

But getting a job is easier said than done. Older workers face age discrimination in the workplace. Unless they have skills that are highly sought after, and unless the government offers a helping hand to retrain and upskill older workers, many have difficulty re-entering the job market once they have left it. It certainly doesn’t help when the public has a negative perception of older persons as frail, senile and a burden to support.

We are moving rapidly into an ageing society. Businesses that deal with retail, travel and hospitality, for example, would do well to employ more silver-haired staff to cater to customers in the older age group. Indeed, older people make good workers. Here’s why.

They are mature and conscientious. They are committed to their job, and do not job-hop. They have excellent people skills, and are experienced in handling crisis and emergencies. Older customers definitely feel more comfortable with older sales personnel who understand their needs and tastes much better. They are also more patient and confident in handling customers’ requests or complaints.

On the other hand, unless they have much-needed skills or expertise, older workers seeking to re-enter the workforce should not be too picky about job offers and be prepared to accept lower remunerations and fewer benefits.

In acknowledging the plight of retirees and those nearing retirement age, the government has sought to increase job opportunities by offering tax incentives for employers hiring older Malaysians. More companies are offering pre-retirement courses to help their soon-to-retire employees prepare for the years ahead. Whether this will make a significant difference remains to be seen.

One thing is for certain – we can expect the retirement age to continue going up in tandem with the rise in life expectancy. In developed countries such as Singapore and Japan, life expectancy is 82.8 and 84.8 respectively. The retirement age is moving towards 65. Former PM of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, famously said that ‘retirement means death’, and was in favour of doing away with the retirement age.

Let workers decide for themselves. They should be given the option to work as long as they are able to, or need to. 

As it is, we are already complaining about escalating prices and soaring expenses. With inflation eating into our nest egg, we just have to keep on bringing home the bacon, especially if we have college-going children and elderly parents to support. 

When older workers continue working, everyone benefits. The older workers themselves can remain self-supporting. For young people, they can be thankful that their working parents can fend for themselves and not be a financial burden to them. The government can save billions that would otherwise have to be spent on welfare aid for older citizens. Companies will be able to address labour shortage by hiring from a big pool of mature workers.

So, whichever way we look at the situation, the retirement age will have to be raised. The likelihood of doing away with a retirement age altogether will gain traction in the years ahead. Let’s just hope it won’t reach a situation where we have to work until we drop dead!

(The above article was first published in The Star under the monthly column ‘GREY MATTERS’.)

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