South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
John Chan says how we define ‘senior citizen’ often depends on location and the money involved. Longer, healthier lifespans are not the only criteria for raising the retirement age
In China, citizens aged 60 or over enjoy the privilege of concessionary fares in many places, but they do not use the term “senior citizen”. People aged over 60 are called lao ren (old people).
My wife and I were in Hangzhou (杭州) with five of my secondary school colleagues and their wives in late October. Eleven of the group of 12 had just joined the ranks of lao ren.
As part of the visit, we went on a boat ride on West Lake. At the ticket counter, I presented 11 home return permits for Hong Kong and Macau residents and said: “Eleven tickets for those aged 60 and over, and one adult ticket.” The woman at the counter, unlike staff in other scenic spots, did not bother to check the birth dates on our identity documents and just said, “One ordinary ticket, 11 old people half price”.
I tried to correct her by saying, “Not old people, but aged 60 and over”, to which she replied with indifference: “If you’re not old people, no discount”.
I then protested that we were not lao ren but just over 60. But the woman insisted: “So, no old people, no half price”. I was left with no choice but to admit that we really were “old people”, in order to enjoy the concessionary fare.
The next day, we visited the scenic old town of Wuzhen, some 60km from Hangzhou, where the World Internet Conference is held yearly. There, I asked for 11 entrance tickets for visitors aged 60 and over, and one adult ticket. But the employee there just said, “Just the same, 12 adult tickets.”
I then readily admitted that 11 of us were “old people” and should enjoy concessionary fares. To my surprise, the person replied, “Those aged 60 are not old people; you have to be 70.”
So how old can be considered old? It all depends on where you are and, very often, the amount of money involved. While the firm running the West Lake boat ride is ready to cut 50 yuan from the 100 yuan fare if you are 60, the company that has the monopolised right to run the old town of Wuzhen is not that generous; it refuses to cut its 150 yuan fare for visitors under 70.
The same question – exactly how old is considered old – arises very often when we talk about retirement. It is often said that, in modern times, 60 is too early to retire. So it is no surprise that Cathay Pacific flight attendants find it unfair that they are required to retire at 55, while still fit to work, and their counterparts in mainland-China-based airlines retire at 65. Frontline flight attendants at Cathay can rightly feel discriminated against when back-office staff can choose to retire at 60, and pilots are allowed to work until they are 65.
In determining a mandatory retirement age, whether a person is still fit to do a certain job when he or she attains a certain age has never been the only factor to be considered. It is a very sensitive and complex issue. For one thing, it has to do with retirement benefits, and that boils down to the burden of employers, and in many countries, the public coffers. In other cases, accusations of age or sex discrimination come into play.
Civil servants in Hong Kong retire at 60 with a plan for an extension of service because of a shortage of experienced staff. Western European nations like France, Germany, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands have a retirement age of 65 for both men and women, and the trend is to slowly increase it to 67, as financial and fiscal considerations become increasingly important. With Greece extending its retirement age to 67 following its fiscal crisis a few years ago, one can see that longer lifespans and a healthier older population are not the only factors leading to increases in the retirement age.
In Hong Kong, property prices are an important factor. Many people aged over 60 are still working hard to pay off their mortgages. With property prices soaring, many of our youngsters are unable to save enough before they are 35 for the down payment on a home with a 30-year mortgage. It is difficult to tell them that, by 60, they should cease working altogether. The reality is that they may have to work hard until 65 or over to pay off their mortgage – just in time to start receiving a monthly return from a reverse mortgage on their hard-earned flat for the remaining years of their lives.
John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party