Tuesday, September 22, 2020

We must rethink the idea of a rigid retirement

I find the recent argument that certain people be retired particularly at the age of 45 years, confounding. It also seems to me, that it is an individual exhibiting a certain type of character who is asked to go to the lands on account of their age. However, the fact that a 45-year old is young need not be belaboured. On the exhibitionism surrounding such removals as reported in some newspapers lately, it really is unnecessary.

My view is that if someone is incompetent, regardless of their age, they should be told so and shown the door. That is why there are contracts of employment. It is accepted in business and indeed Government, that employees will not always operate on the basis of consensus and some conflicts might be serious enough to warrant the departures of some of them. But using age, as a reason for dismissing someone, is discriminatory.

Further, I also have misgivings about the 65-year retirement cap. The limit may well be an impediment to economic growth and also sends the wrong message that once you reach that age you are truly finished. I say this because, in my dealings, I have encountered some irredeemably incompetent young people as well as highly diligent and skilled senior citizens. The opposite holds true.
For me, it is further misdirected to argue that the old need to be retired so that they can make way for the young. This argument is spurious. It is not a sustainable way to create employment opportunities. Issues of employment creation should be directed, elsewhere, not at the old. If the economy is not generating jobs, you cannot blame older people who are working, hard and honestly for that matter, for the good of the country.

We are sending the wrong message by using age as a reason to have people to retire. The impression is being created that we are a society which glorifies youth. A country where it is terrible to be “old” but beautiful to be young. The misplaced implication is that the competent lot is to be found only in those aged below 45 or 65 years. The cult of jeunism is unnecessarily strong in this country.

My argument also rides on the coat tails of the one Lord Browne, former BP boss, gave to the Young Foundation on April 6, 2006 in London. His message was clear: not all old people are useless. As he said, they can be “sources of wisdom and experience” for the younger generations. Old people, as long as their mental faculties are cogent, are physically fit, have the right experience and skills, and should be put to good use.

The traditional and often denigrating view of old age has to change especially in light of the fact that some of the older folk of today possess skills and experience necessary to help take this economy forward. Of course, brilliant and competent young people must also be given an opportunity to do their bit.

However, old people can add a lot of value to our economy in many ways. These days, young people do not stay long with a particular employer as would be compared to a retired employee engaged either on a full or part time basis. In addition to loyalty, such an employee would bring to bear years of experience on the job as Lord Browne contended.

We also have a small population stunted largely by two factors: young Batswana are reluctant to have many children and the mortality rate among the same group is high compared to among the older generation because of disease and car accidents.
Lord Browne noted that British sociologist, social activist and politician Michael Young also argued against “chronologism”, that is, the inclination to judge people according to their age. Young (the same chap who single-handedly wrote the Labour Party’s 1945 Manifesto) argued that society needed to make a radical break with the concept of retirement “which marked not only the end of a person’s useful contribution to society but also the beginning of the process of death.” Lord Browne states that it was Michael Young who noted that the preference for a fixed age of retirement came into being at “the time when the majority of men started work in a factory, or down a coal mine, at the age of 13 or 14 and, when it was considered exceptional to live to the age of 70”. We embraced the system whole heartedly, perhaps without finding out why it was initially put in place.

The Lord Browne exposition is also necessary from the point of view that countries now live in each other’s world. This means that even third world states like Botswana must try and catch up with the first world in terms of skills development, service delivery and the like. European and American economies have since stabilised their manufacturing sectors hence they are now moving towards services. African economies have to move in tandem. This is where the old can become useful because jobs are becoming etched in knowledge born out of years of experience.

Retired folk can, therefore, become a useful asset in the service industry. They can become advisors to youth starting out in business for instance. Retired lawyers can provide much needed counsel to the underprivileged at a minimal fee or at not cost at all much as the University of Botswana Legal Clinic is doing; retired teachers too can provided tuition to students, etcetera; retired nurses and doctors should be used to run satellite clinics to ease the congestion in current facilities, and retired experts in agriculture, finance, etcetera, could be used to strengthen SMMEs.

During the Debswana strike of 2003, when some employees downed tools, and young they were, I might add, some retired former employees came in to alleviate the situation at the mines and its hospitals. I recall there being no argument that they were old and should therefore not bother.

Lord Browne reminds us that in the United States, there is no formal retirement age and cites the example of Alan Greenspan who “retired” at the age of 80 years a short while ago. If judges of the High Court, tribal chiefs – who are civil servants and, therefore, subject to the Government’s Conditions of Service- politicians, business people, academics, and writers of various genres can work beyond the ages of 45 years or 65 years, why can’t other professionals? It is further incomprehensible that while we retire our own on account of them having reached the retirement age, one will likely find “aged” foreign consultants in our private and public institutions.

Chairman of De Beers, Nicky Oppenheimer, speaking recently at the United Services Institute in London, where he delivered his 10 rules for accelerating development in Africa, rightly observed that “economic growth requires the necessary institutions, skills and governance. It places a premium on vision and leadership. It demands the right policies are put in place.” We, therefore, need a new way at looking at how best we can blend the skills of the young and the old for the benefit of our economy.

Oppenheimer is further correct in saying that “the need for reform, reinvention and innovation never ends”. The time has come for Botswana to put to better use its “retired” but competent human capital. The old, skilled and mentally cogent have a lot to offer this country. Some of these folk have received a good education, have a strong work ethic, and are talented.

These people can come in and work full or part-time or as advisors supplementing their pensions in the process, which, in some cases, are not enough to sustain them. Indeed, there are practical and economic reasons why we should rethink the retirement age.

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.