Fine wine in old casks: Jamaica’s aging population

First, let me declare my biases.

I’ve just turned 60. I’m retired; I decided to take that opportunity early. It runs in the family, though, as both of my parents did the same (albeit on medical grounds). I was recently appointed as a Director of the Board of CCRP (Caribbean Community of Retired Persons). I’m a Jamaican. I am also an economist.

Now, with those weights off my shoulder, let me go on.

Yesterday, CCRP held its 5th anniversary AGM. It also celebrated those who have grown older gracefully and done so while still making significant contributions to Jamaica and further afield. It gave its ‘Living Legacy Awards’. The recipients were:

  • Mrs. Merel Hanson: for services to nursing and senior citizens
  • Mrs. Beverly Hall-Taylor: for  community and social services
  • Ambassador K.G. Anthony Hill: for local international service and support for environmental issues
  • Ken Jones: for literary services
  • Dr. Badih Shoucair: for services to medicine, especially supporting the poor and less advantaged

I wont try to recapture all of the event, but just some essential parts that struck me and made me think about roles we can play.

Founder-CEO, Jean Lowrie-Chin, led proceedings at the AGM and her organization, PROComm, continues to be the main supporter of CCRP. Without her generosity and foresight, CCRP would be an idea and little else. Her energy and willingness to make others use their energies explain much of the success of both organizations. So, she is inspiration enough, in a sense.  

Founder-CEO of CCRP, Mrs. Jean Lowrie-Chin

 But, the awardees added greatly to that. Let me summarise.

Mrs. Hanson had a hand in training many of Jamaica’s nurses, since her involvement in the 1950s. I did not get a chance to ask her if she might have helped my mother in her early training, but I will fill in the gap in my mind, and ask my father, who was a male nurse.

Mrs. Hall-Taylor was full of energy and was looking ready to lead us in a bout of exercise, I thought, once she got to the podium.

Ambassador Hill, also known to many as a footballer, gave us food for thought about ‘transitions and intersections’.  He highlighted what I often say, that there are no coincidences: we meet people for a reason. He mentioned his father and grandfather and how they shaped his life. He pointed to his links to Mrs. Lowrie-Chin, that started years ago through their schools, downtown, and continue today in many ways. He argued that the two issues of aging population and climate change pose Jamaica’s biggest challenge. He wondered if it was time to consider a National Retirement Service, so that those whose age meant that formal work may have to stop, would still hae ample opportunities to give of their experience and energies. Many heads nodded. No surprise. Many senior and retired people do this already, albeit as volunteers.

Ken Jones, showed that transitions and intersections abounded, as he related how Ambassador Hill’s father was one of his mentors. How the two awardees were one as the same feet of learning, and now sat next to each other as ‘aged people’. He offered two good aphorisms:

  • Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is a gift; that’s why it’s the present
  • Try to do something for the present

Dr. Shoucair demonstrated what we all hope, I think: that age may seem no more than a number. Though in his 90s, he’s still working as a doctor. He looks frail, but sprang out of his chair and stepped up to the podium like a little pony. He pointed out that in your 70s you get criticised for mistakes, but in your 90s, people give you a bit more latitude. No kidding! He’s a living example of what he says: he was sent to this world to help others. He would live his life over in exactly the same way, if he had the chance–no regrets. If a family needed inspiration, then his is not short of it. The family was there in numbers and generations and were rightly proud. Medicine is all he ever wanted to do, and he continues to do so.

Ernie Smith may not be known to all who are now young, but most Jamaicans will know of him and his many songs. We all have our favourites and his selection would have satisfied most. One Board director yelled “Ram goat liver…” but that was as much of that song as we got. Mr. Smith sang, locks flowing, and rocked, knees bending. The audience gladly finished many verses. His wife got into the act and urged many to get up and ‘shake a leg’. It was typical seniors’ behaviour: afternoons are when we are lively.

Ernie Smith, with Financial Secretary, Devon Rowe

After I got home, and was reflecting on the afternoon’s events. I read that Ernie Smith has just done a project with the Ministry of Finance, writing and singing a song about the Economic Reform Programme, dubbed ‘A fi wi bizniz.

I liked the notion, but could see that some would have the immediate reaction of ‘give youth a chance’.

Ambassador Hill saw the ageing-climate change nexus as our major challenge. It may loom large, but I see a bigger challenge before that one. While the world is aging, it is also seeing its youth numbers rise rapidly. However, we have moved in most countries to a position where economies are not growing very fast and now allowing for ‘natural’ replacement of older workers by those who are younger. The contest between older and younger workers is a major issue, and one being addressed by the International Labor Organization. Their analysis in 2012 noted an important constraint:

  • Lowering the retirement age so that young people replace older workers while the latter move into a well-deserved rest misses a very important point: Younger workers cannot easily substitute older workers. The evidence suggests that early retirement policies have not generated jobs for younger age groups.
  • One of the main reasons is that there is no fixed number of jobs. This constantly changes depending on the state of the job market. So when an older worker quits his or her job early, he or she is not automatically replaced by a younger worker.
  • A young worker cannot necessarily do the same job as an older worker who has acquired skills throughout a career.

We have had for decades the conundrum faced by new entrants to the work force: we like your resumé, but we need experience; go and get some more, then come back to us. When economies were growing fast, that did not seem such a problem. A starter position was easier to get. Now, it’s very hard to secure. Those with little or no skills, have few good options. Those with average skills may get a foot in at the bottom, but now also have to compete with those who have excellent skills but are prepared to take any position just to get a ‘foot in the door’. Being young and overqualified for a job is now a better option that having no job. Jamaica faces that problem in a stark way.

The extened recession poses an enormous challenge to social cohesion. Much though our society and many others give due respect to older workers, there is a presumption that they will ‘move over’ to let young and new workers ‘get a foot on the ladder’. But, people living longer with good health poses a very clear problem to this process. Large numbers of young people without work has never been a basis for good social development. How tolerant will the high proportion of the youth unemployed be?

In the UK and USA, for example, one can see that many firms prefer to keep or hire older workers, with lots of work experience rather than hire younger staff. Reasons for that may be related to costs, such as wages plus social benefits, and that series of older workers may be cheaper obligations that locking into younger workers. We see that trend in many service areas that do not require high skill levels, such as supermarkets and retail stores. We also see it with airlines. The young still feature in many areas such as cafes, bars, restaurants. We know that in finance, the stresses and strains that used to be taken for granted and thought to favour younger workers, do not seem to deter older workers as much anymore. Again, maybe experience trumps youth.

I may be wrong in seeing the risk that a healthy ageing population pose for social cohesion as bigger than the risks of climate change and that ageing population.

CCRP has the great advantage of one of the world’s experts on ageing, Prof. Denise Eldemire-Shearer, as its Chairperson. I’m sure she will be thinking about the relative risks of many issues Jamaica’s ageing population pose. But, it’s something for us all to consider.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)