Readers turning to Page 8 of the Business Times would have been moved by the picture of a group of elder citizens manning telephones at a call centre.
Dialog, the company that has enlisted their services, should be commended for such a forward-thinking move in recruiting the elderly in the twilight of their life and giving them a special place in society.
Under the programme, as detailed in the story, staff work for four hours on a roster which is not too strenuous at their age and provides them an income in addition to being able to continue to help society with their skills. It also gives them something to do rather than whilling away the hours at home or a home for the aged.
As many commentators have pointed out, Sri Lanka’s population is ageing faster than any other country. A World Bank study in 2008 found that not only is Sri Lanka’s population among the oldest in the non-developed world, but it is also one of the fastest ageing countries in the world. Sri Lanka’s share of population over 60 years old in 2000 was 9.2 %, which exceeded the average of all regions in the world except OECD countries, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Manjula de Silva, Managing Director of HNB Assurance, at a recent discussion on pensions organised by the Sunday Times Business Club noted that everyone should be cautious on "where we need to put our money to get adequate return during the old age."
He said within the next 30 years one out of four of the total population will be over 60 years of age. This will become an enormous problem for bread winners in the families and to the whole country. The family is the main support for old people. Formal old age income support systems have limited coverage, inadequate benefits and are financially unsustainable.
Health systems are not ready to address the needs of an aging population, he said, prompting another panellist at the discussion, T.M.R. Rasseedin - President Ceylon Federation of Labour to suggest that what is needed is ‘old-age pensions’.
The Sunday Times Economist Nimal Sanderatne says that the ageing of the country’s population poses grave economic and social problems. By the middle of the 21st century persons over 60 years of age would constitute about half as many as those between the ages of 15 and 60. This is the seriousness of the impending ageing population, he says.
The World Bank says in slightly more than two decades, Sri Lanka’s population will grow to be as old as Europe or Japan’s today, but its level of income will be much lower. It would take a spectacular growth for Sri Lanka to catch up with developed countries’ per capita level of income.
Without major changes, Sri Lanka will face this massive social challenge at a level of income and pension system coverage that is much below that of countries already at a similar stage in their demographic transitions.
Pensions are received by less than one-fifth of the old people and only one-third of Sri Lanka’s labour force participates in pension schemes, with the vast majority of informal sector workers lacking coverage and considerable evasion among those in the formal sector.
Pensions are often said to be unsustainable. However if not pensions, what are the options for income on old age retirement? Savings! Yet the misconception about savings as the saviour of the elderly was revealed by HNB’s De Silva when he showed a ‘How to save” graph. Here the savings rate of an individual reaches a peak, then drops sharply to rock-bottom (when the savings are withdrawn to buy something expensive), then goes up and comes down again. By the time the individual reaches the retirement age, there are little or no savings.
On the other hand, savings and/or pensions are not enough for today’s costs and the elderly needs to find work until they are able, fit, willing and alert. Thus initiatives like the Dialog Call Centre employing the elderly is a programme that should be emulated by others in the private sector – utilising the skills of an often-forgotten segment of society. In recognising their skills and making them a productive force in society, it also provides them an opportunity to interact with others and brighten their lives.