In professions which are not labor-intensive, such as medical consultancy, teaching, and scientific research, the expertise acquired by an individual through long years of service adds maturity and value to his/her skills and capabilities. Losing acclaimed professionals belonging to such categories at a traditional retirement age of 60 or 65 will not only be a loss to the society, but also lead to a sense of emptiness and isolation among them, if they have to just sit at home, doing virtually nothing useful.
As life expectancy rises across the globe, 80 is becoming the new 60. Meirav Cohen, the Israeli Minister for Social Equality, believes that society should judge people according to their actions and abilities, and not retire them traditionally at 60 or 65 years of age, because not everyone older than that is ‘elderly’ , and may have a great deal to offer back, yet. Rather than handling post-retirement social isolation, many people above the age of 70 or even 75 can continue to make useful contributions to the societal fabric and also stay active and healthy. Meirav Cohen has established specialist centres called ‘up60+’, to offer personal and professional help to people who are close to retirement at traditional cut-off age.
Japan has been at the forefront of “elder employment”. Currently, the employment rate for people of age 65 and older in Japan is over 25%. Japanese believe that staying at work keeps them mentally and physically fit, and helps them combat isolation and loneliness post-retirement. Therefore, they prefer to go back to work, and in the process, utilize their skills and knowledge, too, for the betterment of society. A huge number of elderly Japanese citizens opt to forego the traditional retirement habits of gardening, get-togethers with friends and looking after the grandchildren, and rather go back to the workplace. During my visit to Hokkaido University in Sapporo, I used to come across an elderly Japanese gentleman manning a multistoried parking lot, every day, as I walked to my place of work. Never missing his traditional Japanese greeting of bending forward, he was meticulous in doing his job of assisting the drivers to enter their cars into an elevator to proceed to the allotted parking slot.
At present, one in four Japanese is over 65, and that is likely to increase to one in three by 2040. Today, elderly Japanese are much healthier and more energetic than they were say 30 years back, partly due to modern medicine. On the other hand, the birth-rate is falling, pointing to a labor shortage in future, to deal with which the Japanese government has lifted the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 70, last year.
I am 76, a scientist, formally retired in 2010. In my profession, people continue to work as long as they are physically fit. I, too, was called upon to run an autonomous system of government schools in India for three years, until I was 69. Currently, I deliver seminars, write popular articles and books, which I do nearly full-time, and enjoy with hardly any relaxation. I can give several examples of fellow-scientists, who are engaged actively in their profession, long after the formal retirement of their contemporaries.
Prof. Eiji Osawa, now 87, continues to contribute to the development of applications-oriented nano-carbon materials, long after his formal retirement from Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan in 2001. A world-renowned computational chemist and educationist, he had predicted the structure of the C60 molecule, called fullerene, way back in 1970, fifteen years before its actual discovery which heralded the era of nanoscience and nanotechnology. Currently, he is the President of NanoCarbon Research Institute Limited, an R & D company, manufacturing nano-structured carbon materials.
Prof. Jun Akimitsu, now 83, continues to mentor research students and conducts world-class research work in his labs at Department of Physics at Aoyama-Gakuin University in Tokyo since 1982, and is known the world over for having discovered superconductivity in a non-oxide called magnesium diboride, MgB2, at 39 degrees Kelvin, in 2001. An international expert famous for the development of new superconducting materials, he discovered superconductivity at 6 degrees Kelvin in the Bi-Sr-Cu-O system in 1987, and a new superconducting class of compounds based on a copper oxide carbonate, Sr2CuO2(CO3), in 1994, with Tc values as high as 115 degrees Kelvin. I visited Prof. Akimitsu’s labs when he was about 65. He had, then, a record number of PhD students working with him.
Prof. Reshef Tenne, a senior chemist from Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, is known across the ‘materials world’ as one who was the first to discover non-carbon nanostructures, namely, polyhedral and cylindrical structures of tungsten disulphide, WSe2, in 1992. Now 78, he works in his lab daily, even though he retired formally eleven years ago, and gets no salary for work done by him, but he derives immense happiness for being able to go to work daily. In view of his seniority and contributions, his department colleagues are glad that a senior scientist like him continues to conduct research with his project funds, while mentoring his PhD students. Besides, laurels won by Reshef such as the “Chemistry of Materials Award of the American Chemical Society”, won by him recently, bring prestige to his Institute and a name for Israel, in the world of science. There are, of course, quite a few other scientists in Israel who are engaged in active research beyond the age of 75.
Professor John B. Goodenough, now 100, who won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for having developed the Li-ion batteries, still works in his labs at UTexas at Austin, daily. Like him, Prof. Jean-Marie Lehn, the supramolecular chemist from Strasbourg university in France, who won the Chemistry Nobel in 1987, remains very active in his labs and shares his knowledge with young science researchers by delivering seminars, frequently.
Living legends of Indian science, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan (97), Prof. C.N.R. Rao (88), Dr. R. Chidambaram (86) and Dr. K. Kasturirangan (82), continue to make rich contributions to the growth of India’s potential in their respective areas of expertise, which could be space science, education, agriculture, materials chemistry, condensed matter physics, or nuclear science, etc. Their enthusiasm is exemplary, and inspires scientists younger than them by decades.
Moving to the world of arts and music, Zubin Mehta, the 86 years old world-famous Indian conductor of western classical music has conducted Philharmonic Orchestras across the world. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra appointed Mehta its Music Director for Life in 1981. In view of his extraordinary talent, Mehta has been bestowed honorary citizenships of Florence and Tel Aviv. Besides, he is an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera, and the conductor emeritus of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He can’t think of retiring from a profession which has given him so much recognition, and talent to thrill his audiences.
Top-ranking ‘country’ musician from Texas in USA, Willie Nelson, now hitting 90, has performed on stage since 1960s to the delight of huge audiences. In his peak days, he was a 100-show-per-year performer, sleeping only in his custom-designed bus during his tours. After his recent bout with Covid, walking just a few steps can leave him gasping, but once he gets going with his singing and playing of guitar, he is like the young Nelson of old times, with his singing serving as an elixir for his lungs, presumably. Typical Willie crowds are men and women in their 20s and 30s, who come decked up in big boots and big belt buckles, to enjoy his concerts. Willie goes on, even if not at his old pace, and nothing can bring him to his retirement, except death.
The services of senior Israeli academics can, of course, be extended beyond 67, across the board, only if a formal law is passed by the Knesset of Israel. But I admire the pragmatic approach of Meirav Cohen to re-employ the retiring Israeli people with useful talents towards a win-win situation where the society at large continues to benefit from their expertise, and such professionals themselves can beat the isolation of a retired life. In fact, this policy, if adopted the world over, can even counterbalance the recent loss of regular staff in some professions like medical doctors and nurses who have been ‘quiet-quitting’ or leaving their jobs due to a post-Covid feeling of being ‘burnt-out’.
. Not everyone of advanced age is ‘elderly’, by Meirav Cohen, Blog, Times of Israel,
Sep. 23, 2022, https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/not-everyone-of-advanced-age-is-elderly/