April 2, 2004
In 1984, when the ninety-year-old Harold Macmillan made his maiden speech in the House of Lords, he revivified the normally somnolent and partly decrepit peers of the realm with his eloquence, wit and jabs at Prime Minister Thatcher for "selling off the family silver." At the time it was regarded not just as a formidable performance in its own right - it was delivered without notes, and, it might be added, without any of the rambling to which the denizens of the Commons are sometimes prone - but also unique, in the sense that the overwhelming majority of ninety-year-olds were not believed capable of such a feat.
The wags, of course, wasted no time in pointing out that a substantial proportion of the incumbents sitting on the benches in Britain's Parliament were incapable of delivering a speech of this quality, whether or not they were advanced in years. However, perhaps in the more age-conscious society of twenty years ago, when the baby boomers still had more of life in front of them than behind them, and the Queen had to send out a whole lot fewer congratulatory telegrams to centenarians than she does nowadays, Harold Macmillan was rightly seen as something of a spectacular exception.
But not any more. In this twenty-first century of ours nonagenarians - and octogenarians and septuagenarians - are beginning to come into their own. Alistair Cooke, for example, died this week, aged 95. Intelligent, articulate and urbane, he was best known for his radio programme 'Letter from America,' which began as a BBC pilot project slated to last thirteen weeks, but which in the end went out on the air for no less than fifty-eight years. He told his biographer some years ago that he really did not intend to retire; he thought he would die in harness. Well, he almost managed it. He said goodbye on his last programme in February, a victim finally of the physical - but not mental - infirmity which he had staved off for more than nine-and-a-half decades.
Then there is the more singular case of the lady in the US a few years ago, who had been battered by her husband for the duration of their marriage and lived in difficult economic circumstances, who suddenly found herself on the best-seller list after writing a book about her experiences in her mid-nineties. And there is the 60 Minutes programme, which examined the case of a factory - a successful one - where the workers were almost all pensioners, many of them in their eighties and nineties.
These are, of course, anecdotal tales. But the statistics confirm that in both developed and many developing nations too, the population is not just greying, but is also maintaining sound health for a more extended period than ever before. Furthermore, medical studies confirm that older people retain their mental faculties for much longer when those faculties are utilized. In other words, an inactive retirement is not good for mental or physical health.
The developed nations are being forced to look at the question of the retirement age, because their welfare systems and national insurance schemes are coming under stress as the number of pensioners relative to the working population increases so dramatically. France, for example, has recently been forced to extend the years a citizen must work in order to qualify for benefits, a measure which (among other things) has made Prime Minister Raffarin the most unpopular man in the country, and will probably cost him his job in due course.
Guyana, it seems, also reflects the general world trend of a greying population, although not anything like to the same extent as a developed nation. However, as Mr Christopher Ram pointed out in his budget analysis in our Wednesday edition, actuaries have already advised that the "ageing of the general population will have a major impact on the ratio of workers to retirees, and... [have projected] that the number of NIS contributors for each pensioner will fall from 4.4 in 2001 to 1.9 in 2062."
One does not have to be a statistician to see that a crisis in the scheme is looming. Yet this is a country where the compulsory retirement age is often 55, and sometimes 60. Those numbers were arrived at, of course, in an era when life expectancies were much shorter than they are today, and when older people were on average less healthy than they are today. In addition, we all knew a lot less then about how to maintain physical well-being and mental acumen into what have hitherto been our twilight years.
Worst of all, perhaps, is the fact that Guyana is suffering from a serious dearth of skills, which makes a retirement age of 55 or 60 even less defensible. In this country, at least, it is not a question of older workers blocking the advancement of a younger age cohort; it is more a question of the skills not being there to replace those which are lost when senior employees reach retirement age.
In addition, we have never systematically explored the possibility of attracting back skilled Guyanese retirees in the developed world, to help reduce our human resources deficit. Younger people with children are less likely to want to come back to their homeland given our circumstances, than those who have completed their working lives abroad, whose children are grown up and who are financially secure. Could the teaching profession, for example, not benefit from an injection of older qualified Guyanese educators?
The latter issue aside, the time is now appropriate, both for development reasons and for wefare reasons, for the government to look at the question of the compulsory retirement age, and invite opinions from various interested groups and the larger society about the direction to take.