Over the hill?
Stabroek News
December 24, 2006

Related Links: Articles on labor concerns
Letters Menu Archival Menu

In our edition of December 9, we reported Minister of Labour Manzoor Nadir as saying he had no intention of advancing any proposal to extend the mandatory retirement age of 55 years for public service employees. Stabroek News had raised with him the matter of the migration of skilled persons from these shores, but the Minister replied that where skills were in short supply, people over fifty-five were hired on special contracts. He expressed the view that anyone who remained in the system should be given an opportunity to move upward. "If the older persons can still work and we require their services, we could have them on the job by using a service contract, but generally, I believe that staff renewal is good for any profession or organization," he was quoted as saying.

All one can observe is that if that principle were applied to the Cabinet, some very worthy gentlemen would have to 'retire' to facilitate the process of renewal, beginning with the Prime Minister who is 63. He is in respectable company: Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee is 56; Minister of Housing and Water Harry Narine Nawbatt is 60; Attorney General Doodnauth Singh is 73; and Minister of Foreign Affairs Rudy Insanally is 70. And then there are those who are hovering close to the cusp of the compulsory retirement age, namely, Minister Kellawan Lall, who is 53, and Minister Robeson Benn who is the same age. Of course there is the Minister of Labour himself, who will hit the dreaded 55 in four years time - before we are visited by the next general election. So will he volunteer to step down on his birthday, November 14, 2010, so he can set an example of regeneration at the highest levels of government?

Of course the electorate knows full well that it need not hold its breath. But it might be worthwhile to remark that if not one, but two, septuagenarian Presidents were seen as sufficiently mentally and physically capable of running the country in recent times, how could anyone believe that a fifty-five year-old teacher is too over the hill to manage a class? The Minister, of course, did not actually suggest that those in the latter half of their fifties were senile, but he did by implication describe them as "older persons," and herein lies the first problem - one of definition and by extension, perception.

In developed countries, someone in their fifties would certainly never be placed in the 'old' or 'older' category; this is a decade of life which for the vast majority of people is still associated with considerable vigour. As it is life expectancy has increased dramatically in all parts of the globe - even here - and along with that has come better health in later years and the capacity to remain physically and intellectually active. To categorize people of this age as "older," and put them out to pasture when they have the ability to contribute fully to the society seems to border on the irrational.

The age of 55 was settled upon at a time when life expectancy was much lower, especially in tropical climes, and the balance of age cohorts in the population was different from what it is today. In developed societies the trend is for the working population to decrease and the aging non-working population to increase, with serious implications for pensions. It is this which has triggered a review of the retirement age in many countries. In the UK, for instance, despite a victory by the civil service unions recently, it is still thought that it will have to rise to 68 in the not too distant future - and it is to be noted that Britain's current retirement age for men is 65, not 55. While developing countries generally are not under pressure in terms of the size of their working populations, they are experiencing an expansion in the numbers making up the older age groups.

The second problem is that the higher echelons of the public service in colonial times were staffed by expatriates, and the original retirement age was probably set with them and their special circumstances primarily in mind; as mentioned above, in the UK itself it was (and is) 65 for men and 60 for women. There can be no good argument for hanging on to arrangements which were originally conceived in a different time for a special segment of society. And whether the Minister has noticed it or not, the situation in this country now really has changed radically.

In addition, there are specialized areas in the public domain where those filling official posts are expected to retire much later than fifty-five; such is the case with judges, for example. Would Mr Nadir care to argue that renewal in the judiciary is not a good idea, or that unlike other public areas, there are simply not the judicial skills available to fill the bench? The private sector, of course, pragmatically follows no hard and fast rules in relation to retirement, although some organizations will retire employees at the age of 60, when they become eligible for their NIS pensions.

The third problem is significant, because Mr Nadir is behaving as if there were no skills' crisis in this country, and there were all these fifty-five year-olds hanging on doggedly to jobs that a host of young, enthusiastic and highly qualified juniors were jostling to fill. But where are all these skilled twenty, thirty and forty somethings? Not clamouring to enter the classrooms of the school system or the wards of our public hospitals, that's for sure. And not competing for senior posts in the public service proper either, one suspects. Perhaps the Minister of Labour needs to have a quiet meeting with the Ministers of Education and Health, so they can all read from the same hymnsheet. Certainly Mr Baksh, at least, appears to have a rather different perspective from that of Mr Nadir, being of the conviction that the migration of teachers constitutes a major problem, and that his schools are critically short of qualified staff.

As our December 9 report mentioned, the skills deficit in Guyana might very well get worse with the extension of the category of skilled persons allowed to work in Caricom countries under the Single Market. One can only wonder if the Ministry of Labour has ever compiled a skills inventory, so to speak, even if only in the public sector domain, so they can compare what they need with what they have. It would hardly be a difficult exercise, since the data for the public sector must be available already, and it is just a question of collation. At least then the Minister would have some hard figures in front of him on which to ground his conclusions.

It does not really help Mr Nadir to say that "older persons" who can still work could get service contracts; such arrangements lack the security of an established job, are dependent on the whims of bureaucrats, and involve a great deal of unnecessary administration, as an excellent teacher whose services were desperately needed at Santa Rosa Secondary School but who was compulsorily retired at fifty-five, discovered a few years ago. The point is the country needs the skills; fifty-five year-olds (and upwards) can still perform in a full-time job satisfactorily; and for humanitarian reasons at least, the society cannot afford to have a large, retired population living in penury.

Perhaps when Minister Nadir gave his answer to Stabroek News, he was just speaking in an off-the-cuff fashion. One hopes so, and that after due reflection he will be prepared to amend his view.