[SCMP Column] Li Kashing and old age

March 19, 2018

Old age may be about a creaky back, cranky eyesight, hearing difficulties and the ego-sapping slippage into baldness, but above all else it is about a state of mind – which surely has been well illustrated this weekend with Li Kashing’s decision, aged 89, to sort-of retire.

I remember visiting my 86-year-old mum and dad in the UK two years ago, only to arrive with them about to leap in the car to go down to the local church hall to make tea “for the old people”. Even aged 86, “old” is a state of mind.

As the biographies of Li Kashing get written, I suspect many will say some of his more creative, daring and lucrative decisions were made long after an age when most of us would have been pushed out into retirement, with little better to do than thwack golf balls. So too of the many other octogenarian tycoons who have for most of our lifetimes dominated the Hong Kong economy. And let’s not forget the likes of Warren Buffett, now 87, and seemingly unconcerned by the issue of old age.

These thoughts were all rather bleakly distilled by a fascinating and disconcerting presentation in Singapore last week by Takahisa Takahara, the 56-year-old chief executive of Unicharm, one of the world’s leading producers of “hygiene products” – the euthanized phrase for the quietly hidden world of women’s sanitary napkins, baby diapers, and adult diapers.

In a fast-ageing society like Japan, demand for baby diapers is in sharp decline as fewer and fewer children are being born. Demand for women’s napkins is static, as the country’s female population is static. But demand for adult diapers is booming, as the over-65s account for more than a quarter of the country’s population. They now outstrip baby diaper sales.

Adult diapers used to be something dispensed in hospitals and old age homes for the fragile old. Today, thanks to brilliant chemists and materials called “super-absorbent polymers” they may not quite be fashion items, but they are increasingly being designed for discrete use by older people who are expecting to lead normal mobile lives well into the 80s.

As Joe Coughlin, head of MIT’s AgeLab, writes in his new book “The Longevity Economy” about the rising expectations of older people to maintain quality lives deep into an increasingly healthy old age, so Unicharm’s Takahara provides an important insight and warning: incontinence (which for many women becomes a problem from early middle age after having children) is one of the main anxieties of older people, making many of them reluctant to leave home. This quickly ruins health as exercise declines and social isolation sets in. Quality of life collapses, and steep mental decline is common.

Clearly, Li Kashing and Warren Buffett have no such problems, but they remind us that there is an urgent need for our societies to deal differently with ideas of old age. I am sure that a significant part of their robust good health into deep “old age” is in no small part due to no-one ever forcing them to retire. I am coming increasingly to think that, in so far as old age is a problem, it all comes down to forced retirement far too early in our lives. As one wag noted: “Without your job, you are robbed of the most important institution of all in a capitalist society – your career. What are you? Senior vice president of your living room? Admiral of the bath tub?”

A recent US study discovered that 67 per cent of people say they plan to work for pay in retirement. A Pew study found that only 35 per cent of Americans over 75 said they felt old. Whatever the current attention paid to dementia, it is important to remember that over two thirds of people over 85 do not suffer any such symptoms – as Warren Buffett and Li Kashing well illustrate.

As Joe Coughlin notes, far too many still view longer life as a burden rather than a gift, with innovation for the elderly market “motivated mainly by the instinct to ease (older people’s) perceived load, rather than help them make the most of a long, possibility-filled stage of life.” He insists that the future challenge is not to see older people as “bundles of medical problems” for whom we must “manage disability”, but to enable older people to “get out doing things despite disability.” And that will often mean staying in work.

Whether in work or retirement, the digital revolution has huge potential to redefine the experience of old age, with a host of online services for everything from home grocery deliveries to intelligent home security and health maintenance services making it much easier for seniors to “age in place”. Apparently a majority of AirBnB hosts are elderlies, and 25 per cent of Uber drivers in the US are over 50.

Even Unicharm’s business is being transformed as elderlies too embarrassed to check out large and obvious bags of diapers at the local chemist are now able to order online, and have them discretely home-delivered.

This need to redefine old age (and retirement) is being driven not just by longer life and better health, but by the need to fill fast-burgeoning skills gaps in many sectors – electricals and petrochemicals, defence industries, healthcare, agriculture, financial advisory services and the auto industry – to pre-empt a “retirement brain drain crisis”. Note German auto manufacturers’ investments in low-impact flooring, ergonomic benches and seating, and avoidance of repetitive stress to enable highly-skilled older workers to stay on at work in old age – with evidence of large productivity gains.

Hong Kong would today be a poorer place if Li Kashing had been forced onto the retirement rubbish heap aged 60. He proves in spades how our older years have just as much potential value as those in our 20s and 30s. Before the retired “baby boomer” generation becomes an intolerable burden for us all, we need to transform them into an opportunity. The task is easier than many think. It is all about a state of mind.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

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