Domestic Affairs

People should choose when to retire

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2011-05-24 10:14
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Opinions are flying about a looming economic problem as April's census data revealed that people above the age of 60 now account for 13.3% of China's total population and the number is still rising. Commentators have made many good suggestions to address the problem including improving the social security and pension systems, building more nursing home facilities, and developing new population policies with the older demographic in mind.

However, the elephant in the room not being addressed is the outdated mandatory retirement policy. In China, the mandatory retirement age is 60 for men and 55 for women. The policy is intended to create employment opportunities for younger workers but leaves large numbers of otherwise productive and healthy people unemployed and unproductive. There is also a large body of behavioral research which suggests that workers prefer flexible retirement policies and that such policies would psychologically benefit those workers.

From a societal viewpoint, mandatory retirement - especially at the youthful ages of 60 and 55 respectively - makes little sense. Capable individuals forced to retire become net expenses rather than economic contributors. As lifespans increase, society can ill afford to put people on the dole for sustained periods. Whatever benefits society realizes from employing more young workers will be outweighed by the costs of supporting older unemployed persons.

There is also evidence that foreclosing choice may be harmful. The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged were the subject of a famous field experiment conducted by Yale Professor Judith Rodin and Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer in the 1970s. The researchers studied the effects of enhanced personal responsibility and choice on 91 nursing home residents.

Residents who were in the experimental group (choice) were given a communication emphasizing their responsibility for themselves, whereas the communication given to a 2nd group (cared for) stressed the staff's responsibility for them. The latter message of dependency is essentially what we communicate unconsciously to people when they are forced to retire.

In the Langer/Rodin study the choice group was, for example, given responsibility for taking care of a plant and allowed to choose movie nights, whereas the cared for group did not have the plant responsibility or movie night choice. Seventy-one percent of the cared for group got worse in only 3 weeks. The health of the residents encouraged to make decisions for themselves actually improved. They were more active and happier. They were more mentally alert. When the researchers returned 18 months later, twice as many residents in the choice group were still alive.

These findings fit in well with the work on learned helplessness in dogs which psychologist Martin Seligman did in the late 1960s, and on Langer and Rodin's own studies on the perception of control.

Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

By forcibly taking away persons' abilities to choose when to retire and placing them into dependent roles, society may be unintentionally accelerating mental and physical problems of the aged and creating an even larger drain on the country's financial resources.

Patrick Mattimore is a 60-year-old former psychology teacher living and working in Beijing.