Walking down the lane armed with a walking stick, Watson Perera, an elderly neighbour, waved at Kussi Amma Sera and her two friends while also shouting out, “Ayubowan”. At 72 years and retired from a public service job, Watson keeps fit by gardening and tending to a sizable vegetable plot in his backyard. He also [...]

Business Times

Retirement and ageing gracefully


Walking down the lane armed with a walking stick, Watson Perera, an elderly neighbour, waved at Kussi Amma Sera and her two friends while also shouting out, “Ayubowan”.

At 72 years and retired from a public service job, Watson keeps fit by gardening and tending to a sizable vegetable plot in his backyard. He also has paddy lands outside Colombo which he occasionally visits. He believes he can still contribute to the country’s development through his expertise, knowledge and experience.

Seeing him bright and early on Thursday morning, Kussi Amma Sera and her friends engage in a conversation about ageing and the traditional Sri Lankan support system where children care for their parents on retirement.

It was at this point that the phone rang with Pedris Appo – short for Appuhamy — a retired agriculture expert who does farming on a plot outside Colombo, on the line to discuss what he felt was an interesting development.

“The morning newspapers have a story about how the outgoing Navy Commander refused an extension of service because that would deprive another officer or his second-in-command in getting that job,” Appo said.

“This is a very commendable decision,” I replied, also having read the report. “Service commanders in general seek extensions which have been given traditionally.”

In military service, extensions for senior officers are given – at the discretion of the President — after the retirement age of 55 years. Thus, often, through no fault of the senior officer seeking an extension, it deprives another from rising up the ladder. Service extensions are limited and so is remaining in a particular, senior rank.

We then drift into a long conversation on retirement ages, pension schemes and inadequate preparations for retirement – one of the reasons why people are reluctant to retire when their time is up.

In Sri Lanka, the age of retirement is 55 years in the private sector with provision for extensions and 60 in the public sector with provision for extensions.

In recent times, there has been a growing debate on retirement ages in Sri Lanka and whether they should be extended given that the country is rapidly seeing an ageing population and a spurt in the growth of those over 60 years.

In a recent interview, Kishu Gomes, a former CEO/Managing Director at Chevron Sri Lanka, says that the retirement age of 55-60 years is not the right policy for Sri Lanka for the simple reason that of the 200+ listed companies in the Colombo Stock Exchange, at least 50 per cent of those who serve on the boards are 60 to 70 years. “What does this tell us? That they are still sharp and good to provide leadership to most of the business entities. If you look at all the large conglomerates, there are people who are over 60 or 70 and still very capable. Those who retire at 55 or 60 continue to work (outside) thereafter. They are not in the formal sector but in the informal sector. The ideal retirement age should be 65,” he argues.

According to economist Nisha Arunatilake, the old age support schemes available in Sri Lanka are not inclusive and are inadequate for the majority of the people. “Only those retiring from the public service receive an adequate pension to keep them out of poverty. The rest of the population does not either have access to a pension or the pension they receive is inadequate. As a result of this, many in the informal sector have to work till very old or until they are unable to work due to health,” she said, also in a recent interview.

This highlights three significant changes in the demographic patterns that the Government and society at large need to address: 1) That Sri Lankans are still active and have a lot of experience when they reach the compulsory retirement age; 2) That there are inadequate pension schemes on retirement in the private sector and; 3) There is a need to prepare for retirement so that the process is smooth and the retiree is, excitedly, ready to start a new chapter in his or her life.

According to official data from the Registrar General’s, the number of those over 50 years is rising. The number of those over 50 years reached 4.8 million in a total population of 21.2 million in 2016, 5.05 million in a population of 21.4 million in 2017 and (provisionally) 5.08 million in a population of 21.6 million in 2018.

Other data show that the category of 60 years and over in Sri Lanka’s population is rising from 5.4 per cent in 1946, to 16.7 per cent in 2021 and to an estimated 25 per cent in 2041, which means that 1 in 4 persons in Sri Lanka (at that time) would be over 60 and among the elderly.

The age of retirement being among the lowest in the world, is also becoming a big debate in Sri Lanka with arguments growing that it should be increased in line with other countries, for many compelling reasons. For example, those in the corporate sector are compelled to retire at 55 when this is the age where they reach the peak of their career and have a lot to share with society in terms of experience and skills.

Another point raised by believers that the age of retirement should be increased is that when older people are engaged in some work, they become active and healthy and when they have a proper income, they can look after themselves better. In this sense, the economy benefits while productivity increases.

According to official data, in most countries the age of retirement is 65 for men and 60 years for women. In a few countries, it’s even 67, while in Libya it’s 70 years. When taking Asia, in China it’s 60 and Japan 62. In South Asia, the age of retirement is 60 in India, 62 in Pakistan, 59 in Bangladesh and 58 in Nepal. Thus, Sri Lanka has the earliest retirement age at 55.

In all sectors including the military, those reaching 55 and/or 60 (after receiving extensions), are at the top of their class and career and can work for another 10 years on an active basis.

Currently, there is a discussion on increasing the age of retirement in the private sector to 60 which has, however, faced resistance from companies saying workers are anyway eligible to extensions of service until 60. Companies also argue that fixing the compulsory age of retirement at 60 would force them to keep inefficient workers for another five years while, at the same time, deprive others from coming up the ladder and promotional opportunities for younger people.

“Dang kaa-le, apey lamai hariyata balaaganney-nehe ovunge demavpiyanva (Nowadays, children don’t look after their ageing parents properly),” says Kussi Amma Sera, interrupting my thought process, while bringing the morning tea.

Indeed, in Sri Lanka, traditionally children look after their parents in their old age. However, patterns are changing with an increase in old age homes catering to low income, middle and upper classes. In fact, in the upper class categories there is a proliferation of old-age homes, some pricey and others at a reasonable sum which are attracting many seniors in Sri Lanka.

In the meantime, a national charter and policy for senior citizens in Sri Lanka was approved by the Cabinet in March 2006 but there seems to be little movement thereafter.

With more focus and attention on the ageing population, many new organisations are joining the ranks of institutions like Helpage, the Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation and the newly-formed Sunrise Senior Foundation, to work for the benefit of senior citizens. On the part of the state, there is a need to work on or improve the 2006 charter and chart a course that would keep Sri Lanka’s senior citizens active and contributing to the country’s development as long as they are physically and mentally able to do so.

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