A job for life
2014-07-18, Andrea Deng

Hong Kong people’s mentality towards full retirement is changing, and many see it as a ‘death sentence’. As Andrea Deng reports, the number of retirees who have returned to the workforce is on the rise, partly fueled by a desire for a more independent and healthier life.

Peter Cheung is 74 and never officially a retiree. He was an engineer in telecommunications right up until his retirement age.

He then took a lump-sum payout of his pension and started his own business as a property agent. He ran that business until last year — turned it over to his family and became a waiter in a restaurant.

“I don’t want to rest yet. I don’t like being lazy and doing nothing. And I don’t want to be a burden on society or a parasite living off my family. I gotta keep moving ahead and I never want to leave the last stage of my life empty. Until the lamp is extinguished, I will keep my light burning, all the way to the end,” declared Cheung.

“Retirement is merely a result of our current practice. You can choose to retire at 40, but I just don’t want to retire yet,” he said. 

He’s done OK as a waiter too. “Although he’s not well experienced in the catering business, he is eager to learn and has good work habits,” said Joyce Mak Man-mei, executive officer of Gingko House where Cheung works.

Gingko House is a restaurant specializing in Italian and French cuisine, whose staff consists entirely of elderly retirees, some in their eighties. It’s a social enterprise.

In her previous life, Mak was a social worker, specializing in working with elderly people. She saw plenty of evidence that, for many people, retirement can be a death sentence. They slip into depression and die too young from boredom, from having nothing to do or just because they feel they’re no longer useful.

She points to Cheung, whose hair is always neatly combed. He’s immaculate, even to the symmetrical bows on his shoe laces — tied just how his mother taught him long, long ago. He’s a man of “high responsibility, hardworking, friendly and with pleasant personality”, Mak said.

Cheung’s family doesn’t really fancy his working well into his 70s. But Cheung hates the thought of becoming financially dependent on his family. “They asked me why I don’t take some time to enjoy my twilight years. They said I’m only looking for trouble for myself. But, I have my own life. I want to be the captain and steer my own ship,” he said.


Retired workaholic

There are many others like Cheung not ready to give up and retire. Gingko House receives applications non-stop from elderly people. Right from its inception a few years back, there were more than 400 applicants vying for 40 positions. When the restaurant opened a second branch inside the Jao Tsung-I Academy at Mei Foo Sun Chuen, more than 200 people applied for fewer than 40 positions, according to Mak.

The Hong Kong Idea Centre, a local think tank, released a survey in May showing that 67 percent of 1,002 respondents between 55 and 74, supported a retirement age at 65 or older. These people had no doubts about being able to continue working and just as strongly wanted to retain their financial independence.

The report also showed that 53 percent of respondents who had stopped working, spent most of their time watching TV. “Unlike volunteer work or other free time activities, working to earn a living brings them not just financial reward, but a sense of self-worth and recognition from society. Some crave for order in their lives. They like to dress for work and take off their ‘uniforms’ after work every day. They like to be busy and have goals,” Mak said.

She believes f more places offered jobs to elderly retirees, it would create social benefits aside from the mentoring that older workers provide. She talked to many who continued working after reaching retirement age and found they have fewer family problems, and even seem to stay healthier. “Rather than sending elders to elderly homes, offering them jobs in my opinion is a preventative measure for dealing with issues of an aging society,” Mak said.

Government census statistics showed that the percentage of working people between 60 and 64 years old grew from 29 percent in 2003 to 39 percent in 2012.

Mak noted that more people will be reaching retirement age, people with skills and education far advanced over retirees of previous generations. The people with professional experience are a valuable resource, would feel even stronger being considered worthy of continued financial reward. 

“The government must be prepared to get these well-educated retirees settled down (with a job),” she said.

Cheung, for example, grew up in a prominent family, his father was a top official with China Customs. His uncle was the principal of Queen’s College. Cheung saw them as hard working, dedicated men. Cheung was well educated, having graduated from Queen’s College and then from Hong Kong Polytechnic (now a University).

“I don’t necessarily feel satisfied to be able to work, but I think I need to work for money, and stop myself from doodling,” said Cheung.


Adapting businesses

Even the most superficial observation reveals that companies prefer to hire younger workers over veterans. It may seem odd hiring only retirees, but there is an undeniable generation gap in any corporate culture.

Gingko House celebrated its eighth anniversary in July this year. The company has been acclaimed as a model social enterprise, winning a dozen awards as an outstanding business achieving social responsibility, including a Silver Award by the Hong Kong Corporate Citizenship Award Scheme and a Merit Award by the HSBC Living Business Program.

The restaurant’s reputation has been helped by its social mission. On OpenRice, — the Hong Kong website that posts customer reviews of local restaurants — many customers wrote on the restaurant’s page that they had been attracted initially by the social mission.

Mak acknowledges that the difficulties of running a business with a social mission are doubled in a highly competitive industry like catering. “Of course, elderly retirees have limitations. They may be slower, they forget more easily, sometimes their feet hurt and they cannot work. They can be stubborn because they have experience. So, we have to be patient with our training, explaining why the cup should be placed this way and not that way. But we stick to our mission.

“Meanwhile, we make it clear that we’re selling products and our products are foods. We’ve to make sure our food quality is high. We even own an organic farm. We have to come up with different dishes or pastries constantly, to keep our customers, and we strive to offer just a little beyond customers’ expectations with the quality of the food and pricing.

“We’re not a charity that gets subsidy to help elderly retirees, we’re not selling job opportunities for elders. And we don’t tell our employees that they can do whatever they’re capable of. We require them to achieve a certain standard,” said Mak.

Mak conceded that elderly people working together with young people in the same place might be difficult. “Youngsters don’t necessarily have a positive perception of elderly colleagues. This is an area that is still unknown to me,” said Mak.

“We’re not saying that all retirees must work or want to work. There are those who spend their time reading, doing volunteer work, traveling or taking care of their grandchildren, but we noticed that many elders, after traveling for a few years, want to go back to work,” she said.


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