More than eight years have passed since Her Majesty the Queen lamented the effects of the brain drain caused by the mandatory retirement of civil servants at the age of 60. The Civil Service Commission agreed with her suggestions and in 2008 a legal amendment to the Civil Service Act was approved to allow a select number of senior civil servants in the legal and medical fields to continue working until they reached 70.
Those qualifying were mostly judges, and the regular exodus from the civil service continued each September as 60-year-old retirees filed out the door.
It is now clear that this change in the law did not go far enough and that the country is wasting productive human resources.
Specifically, it failed to take into account declining birth rates which will gradually shrink the pool of eligible young candidates, the greying population and the country's long-term needs in providing a growing number of public services. Nor did it take account the fact that the mandatory retirement age of 60 was set in 1941 when the average life expectancy of a Thai citizen was 52. Now it is 74 due to better health care, but retirement for most government workers and many in the private sector continues to be at 60.
Statisticians also note the average age of the nation's 2.7 million civil servants is 43 with medical expenses alone running to 60 billion baht a year, of which roughly half goes to dependents over the age of 60. That health care bill can only increase. It is all part of a worldwide trend as governments question their ability to meet eventual social security obligations given a gradual decline in the available workforce.
Japan is pushing its retirement age to 65 in March and many European Union countries are increasing their pension entitlement age from 65 to 68.
The Civil Service Commission is aware of the problems that lie ahead and is likely to recommend an increase in the retirement age to 62 and the recall of recent retirees with exceptional skills, such as engineers and university lecturers. For this plan to work, an even greater reform is necessary; one that would bring about an end to promotions based purely on seniority, and have them replaced by those based on ability and performance.
Birthdays alone count for little and age-based retirement has been phased out in many countries because it is discriminatory. Enforcing arbitrary retirement ages instead of using a real appraisal of a person's competence ignores the fact that some people are ineffective at 65 and others at 45. Many people today are achieving new goals well into their 70s and beyond.
The number of seniors, or those over 60, is expected to increase to 22% of the total population over the next two decades, up from 12% this year. Demographers warn that within three decades, Thailand could find itself in a situation where there could be just two working people bearing the tax burden for each elderly person with migrant labour no longer available. Each successive generation is likely to be smaller than the last.
The process is a gradual one, but the spectre of zero growth looms, paving the way for a society in which the old outnumber the young. Such radical changes in society would have to be sustained through well-funded social welfare schemes. But where would the revenue come from to finance them? This is a ticking time bomb and action is needed to defuse it. There is no better time to start than the New Year.