GROWING OLD IN ST. KITTS-NEVIS – By ELVIN BAILEY

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I recently represented Social Security at a very commendable workshop in St Kitts, sponsored by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the [Federal] Ministry of Social & Community Development & Gender Affairs. The purpose of the workshop was to finalise our National Ageing Policy.  Such policies are part of a worldwide initiative, much of which is contained in the Madrid Plan of Action.

During the workshop, the discussion of the role and functioning of Social Security in the policy was of great interest to me.  So on return to my desk I began some research.  What emerged was very interesting.

I am on record as stating that there is no official retirement age in the country, rather there is an age at which pension becomes payable and you can continue to work beyond that age if you so wish and if anyone will employ you. I have also argued that while there is a gender disparity within the country that Social Security does not contribute to it; our data merely reflects and quantifies it.

And I have vigourously defended that Social Security shows a lot of love to old women, even as they ‘eke’ out their living.   I have also shown that there are more female workers than male. So what is new?

I examined records from 2001 to 2007 and found that old people, defined for us as those aged 62 and over, continue to work, even though the numbers are declining, from 2.9% of the workforce in 2001 to 2.2% in 2007.   That is, 549 persons were in the workforce in 2007 who were 62 years and older.   Of these, 346 (63%) are men.

From age 55 onwards, we find more men working, and working further into their old age than women; and earn, on average, substantially more than women. The closest women come to men in this regard is to earn 78% of average wages at age 55-59 but the greatest chasm is in the age range 60 – 62  where women earn 55% of men’s average wage.

It isn’t only that people are working well beyond pension age, they are registering for the first time with us too at age 62 and beyond. Within the last 7 years, up to 1% of our registration has been persons older than 62 (1.5% did so between January and March ’08).  A raise in the pension age to 65 from 62, over time, should not therefore be that much of a concern.

When we analyse earnings by gender and by age range, we see an almost perfect distribution within the population. That is to say, the best earning capacity is in the middle years and the lowest wages are paid in the very young.  This strengthens the point often made that starting out is very difficult, and that you should do all that you have to do by the time you are 55 – 60 years old.   Average salary dips by 24% for those over 62 years: they may therefore be very attractive to the bottom line of businesses.  Read between the lines.

The bigger issue in this discussion, however, is the reality and functionality of pensions.  We hold dear to us the freedom, the self esteem and the independence that pensions allow to the elderly. These attributes are priceless!

We also are proud of the fact that Social Security is the key player in the continued provision of pension payments in St Kitts and Nevis.  For an increasing number of persons, the pension from us may well be the major source of sustenance for them as they grow old.  Those persons who have an occupational pension are doubly blessed.

As the population of the Federation ages, and as the behaviour of younger persons intensifies (unfortunately), we may need to rely more and more on the old people to keep the machinery of state running.  Therefore, the international debate as to the virtue and value of old folk to the workforce becomes more and more relevant, and the need for a policy on the aged becomes more urgent.  Congratulations, therefore to the ministry and government for this initiative.

Good news is worth repeating!  For 2007, we paid EC$16.6 million to 1848 persons because they achieved that milestone of age 62.  Another 88 persons have come on stream for January to March of 2008; and were paid EC$4.5 million.  When my turn comes, I want my money too.  I do not want an explanation and I cannot offer you one either.  That is why I urge all of us to join hands in ensuring that Social Security lasts for eternity.

My final word to all of us is to prepare ourselves properly for old age.  Plan to be among the 94% of us who achieve old age.  Plan your retirement.  In 2003, 175 self employed persons answered a survey we conducted and responded to the question: what … plans, other than Social Security, have you made for retirement?  Twenty-eight (28) of them had made no plans. Most (91 of them) were relying on monetary investments (savings, T-bills, shares, etc.), 11 of them on real estate (hope it sells when they need the money). Only 35 of them had a pension fund.  That was then. Have we progressed since?

Social Security will provide a maximum of 60% of your best 3 year average salary of your last 15 years. If you’ll need to top up, prepare for it now!  Call on us, we can help. We would be glad to do so.  Growing old in St Kitts and Nevis need not be scary anymore!