Facing the axe at sixty

Politicians wear their hearts on their sleeves, when they discuss problems affecting the youth. They make various promises at every election but do precious little afterwards to help the young. Immediately after the second youth uprising in the South in the late 1980s, the then Premadasa government appointed a special presidential commission to inquire into the causes of youth unrest, which had, among other things, led to the bloodbath at issue and the commissioners concerned dutifully made a host of recommendations. But, they remain unimplemented even after two decades! Instead of doing something for the country's youth for whom they weep buckets, ageing political leaders try to regain their lost youth, albeit in vain, with the help of expensive hair dyes, hormones, vitamins and God knows what else!

It is reported that the government is planning to retire some senior bureaucrats who have turned 60 so as to enable young officers to achieve career advancement. While it is agreed that there are stipulated retirement ages for all categories of State employees and they need to be adhered to, something that needs to be factored in is that Sri Lanka is one of the fastest ageing nations in the world. Therefore, the existing rules and regulations as regards recruitment, retirement etc. in the public service as well as in the private sector require revision. This, however, does not mean that those badly in need of geriatric care or about to push up the daisies should be kept in high posts because of their political connections at the expense of deserving young officers down the line!

In the same breath, it needs to be added that we also have young bureaucrats with ambition sans diligence and ability aspiring to top posts and going places thanks to their remarkable adeptness at licking political boots/sandals. Ageing officers on contract may be capable of better performance than such youthful misfits. So, we believe that the baby (or the old man/woman?) should not be thrown out with the bath water and it is only on a case by case basis that key public officers should be retired.

Likewise, the government ought to realise that there is no national strategy to cope with the socio-economic implications of a rapidly ageing population. It is imperative that new policies be formulated on recruitment and retirement of workers without further delay. In this regard, we are reminded of some recommendations made by the World Bank in 2008, which include, inter alia, increasing labour force participation of old workers and reducing the labour market rigidities such as inflexible retirement ages that force healthy old workers out of the formal labour markets before they would otherwise choose.

Meanwhile, the question is whether it is only at the top rungs of the State service that the young should be given opportunity to realise their dreams. What about politics dominated by old people who stick to their positions like limpets, blocking as they do the path of the youth?

President J. R. Jayewardene became Head of State well past the so-called retirement age and had to retire unwillingly mainly because of a provision in his own Constitution, which debars a president from running for a third term. But for that legal hurdle and stiff resistance from his ambitious second-in-command who could not wait, JRJ would have contested again––with one foot in the grave! President Mahinda Rajapaksa would have been retired a long time ago if he had been a public officer. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is over 60 years but carries on regardless like a young man! The same goes for many others in both the government and the Opposition. Life, they think, begins at 60!

Ageing politicians who want public officers to retire or be retired at 60 so as to enhance the efficiency of the public service and/or to make way for young mandarins, we believe, should set an example by stepping down and letting the up and coming leaders in their parties take over. Charity, as they say, begins at home!

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