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Friday, April 28, 2006
Stabroek News

It is well known that in the developed Western world populations are greying. But with the old major epidemic diseases under control, improved medical care and better nutrition, people are living longer in the developing world as well. Even a 'young' country like Indonesia, say the reports, will see its population ageing, while China - although hardly a developing country in the ordinary sense - will have 30% of its people in the over-60s bracket not so long from now. It might be noted that in some African countries in particular further demographic distortion occurs because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which particularly affects people in the working-age bracket, leaving mostly the very old and the very young in certain communities.

Nations like the UK are beginning to try and respond to these demographic changes, not least because there will shortly be an insufficient number of people of working age to sustain the public pension system. Everyone knows that the retirement age will have to be increased, although the civil service last year managed to get the government to back down from its original proposals where its employees were concerned. Nevertheless, the general trend is accepted: working lives will have to be extended.

In the United States, in fact, an American scientist from Stanford University has suggested that given current life expectancy trends, by 2050 the retirement age should reach 85. Among other things, he says, 50-75 year mortgages might not be unreasonable. Of course, life expectancy in the developing world will not rise at the same rate as in the developed world, but countries badly affected by HIV/AIDS excepted, it will continue to rise.

The initial British response has been to introduce age discrimination legislation, which will come into effect later this year. The law will ban direct and indirect discrimination in recruitment, promotion and training. Employers will be prohibited from forcing workers to retire before the age of 65, and will have to give six months notice of the date of their retirement. In addition, workers will be able to remain on the job after 65 if the employer so agrees.

Commentators have said that UK employers have not yet got the message that the pool of young workers on which they have traditionally depended is shrinking rapidly, and that they really will have to come to terms with offering employment to much older applicants. It might be observed, however, that the reality of the situation which will eventually make itself felt, will force an adjustment in their employment practices far faster than any legislation.

As far as older workers themselves are concerned, a recent survey in the UK found that this generation of elderly people want to work longer in old age than did the previous ones. In fact, 70% expressed a wish to be working in retirement, although many of them preferred part-time or flexi-hours. There were others, however, who saw themselves taking up an entirely new career.

Guyana too is in tandem with the international demographic trends, although in our case the situation is probably exacerbated by the emigration of so many of our people of working age. As things stand we still have retirement ages which bear no relationship to life expectancy, and we reported on the case of a North West teacher a couple of years ago who was forced to retire at 55 in a situation where his services were desperately needed in the secondary school in his region.

Like the developed countries, we too could be facing a public pensions crisis in due course, in addition to which we can ill afford to lose the skills of those over the ages of 55 or 60.

While this is not a problem very high on the government's list of priorities at the moment, any administration coming to office after the election will have to give the issue of the retirement age some attention.