Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wasting wisdom

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

I didn’t go to the University of the Philippines so I did not have the opportunity to meet, be mentored, or be tormented by Clarita Carlos, renowned political science professor of the university. But given how Carlos’s scholarly opinions on politics and national defense has always been sought by media, particularly by television reporters, she could very well have done any of those.

Carlos seemed to be always on television, especially during the times when the country was going through one political crisis after another. I thought it was just me who knew her from television (obviously my job as columnist requires me to keep half an ear tuned in to anything political and I have disciplined myself to listen attentively to the political opinions of others, particularly those whose opinions matter) but apparently she really was that ubiquitous because even my siblings knew her also from television.

A couple of weeks ago, Carlos was the subject of media attention courtesy of her musings on mandatory retirement published in another daily. It turns out the woman is pushing 65 and is therefore required to avail of mandatory retirement as prescribed by law.

Carlos asked almost plaintively in her essay: “Why am I being retired mandatorily when I still have the spring in my step as I walk from my university-subsidized housing on campus to my class in the Arts and Sciences building? Why am I being retired when, after 44 years, I would have accumulated so much knowledge, skills and competencies both as a scholar and a professor, and am always passionately imbued with the mentoring mission to extend the same to my students? Why am I being retired when my brain has not become suddenly fossilized and neither dementia nor another degenerative disease has compromised my critical faculties?”

These are questions that should make all of us squirm. Those of us in academe know that there is no relationship between age and certain work outcomes such as performance, productivity, absenteeism, tardiness, etc. In fact, whatever physical limitations caused by age such as reduction in muscular flexibility is more than made-up for by added productivity caused by experience, wisdom, even expertise honed through many years of work. And then there’s even the issue of senior people having more desirable work ethics.

The truth is that we discriminate against age although some take comfort in the fact that very often it’s positive discrimination or reverse discrimination that is at work. Most of us think we are doing senior citizens a favor by forcing them to retire at 60 or 65 presumably because we want them to rest and have fun, enjoy their twilight years, etc. What we don’t recognize is that very often we do so because we imagine that is what we would like to do when we hit a certain age. Some studies however showed that while most people dreamt of retiring early when they were younger, they tended to continue working even in their old age for fear of mental or physical atrophy. I personally thought so too; my goal when I was 20 was to retire at 40 and spend the rest of my life on a hammock reading all the books I never got to read in my younger days. I even started a collection of books reserved for retirement and embarrassingly enough the collection is almost as sizable as the books I have actually read in my personal library. But I digress.

Why do we insist on mandating retirement at 60 or 65 even for people who, like Clarita Carlos, still have a lot to contribute? When we come to think about it, it’s such a pity because it’s at that stage when organizations—or the country—can fully harness the wealth of wisdom and expertise that have accumulated all through the years.

Besides, the current retirement age of 65 was set in 1889 when the average life expectancy was just 37 years. Advances in medicine have increased life expectancy significantly through the last 122 years.

A related incident, which happened to me last week, painfully illustrated the need to rethink our policy and practice on retirement. While in Tacloban City for a quick errand last week I decided to drop by my college alma mater, the Leyte Normal University. As fate would have it, my visit was propitious as it coincided with the last working days of the university registrar who was turning 65 and was consequently due for mandatory retirement. This gracious lady whom we simply called Mana Alice served the university for 32 years and was a fixture at the university registrar’s office. She was assistant registrar when I was in college more than two decades ago and was a steady figure in our college life. She actually knew most of us, students, by name and she knew by heart the ins and outs and all the minutiae of course loads and complying with syllabi and the complications of enrolment and cross-enrolment. The wealth of institutional knowledge that resided within her was priceless and she clearly was in topnotch physical health to continue being of service. Unfortunately, the law said she had to go.

Although Mana Alice intimated that she wanted to retire and enjoy a less strenuous life, we knew she still had a good number of productive years ahead of her and that she would have stayed if the choice were up to her.

Fortunately, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago has filed Senate Bill 2797 seeking to amend the Government Service Insurance System Act and in the process, changing the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 70.

I don’t know how old Senator Santiago is and I must admit that I find it difficult to imagine the senator retiring because of age. There are many others who are similarly situated. Again, I am not really sure how old they are, but it does seem unthinkable to imagine the likes of Winnie Monsod, Juan Ponce Enrile, Estelito Mendoza, and company being forced to retire at 65. It would be such a waste of collective wisdom. Even the late President Cory Aquino continued to be very productive beyond 65. Former Chief Justice Cecilia Munoz Palma and Senator Eva Estrada Kalaw continued to be beacons of democracy in this country well until their late years. I have a number of friends and colleagues who are more than 60 today but are probably more physically able than the average guy in his 20s today. Why, even actor Eddie Garcia remains nimble despite being an octogenarian.

Clearly, there are people who want to retire early so that they can focus their energies on other personal pursuits and there are those who are still up to the challenge of working continuously while they are still physically able.

Of course there are certain issues that must be addressed such as the higher costs of healthcare; but these can be subject to certain arrangements. In many countries, there are employment arrangements where senior citizens work strictly for salaries and do not enjoy benefits although if we come to think about it, we should be able to take better care of our senior citizens. The point is that retirement must be a choice.

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