The Minister of Education Professor Ruqayyatu Ahmed Rufa'i recently disclosed that the Federal Government was considering a request by the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) to have the retirement age for primary and secondary school teachers increased from the current 60 years to 65.
The revelation has, understandably, been generating mixed feelings. On the surface, there is no reason why people who still feel, and are, strong and willing to work after the age of 60 should not be allowed to do so, especially given the fact that advances in medical science have enabled people to live healthier and longer these days. Moreover, the vitality of a 60-year old these days is certainly not what it used to be years back. In fact, the clamour by teachers for their retirement age to be increased seems to be in tandem with trends in some Western countries such as Britain where the government has been planning to increase the retirement age of its workers as a way of curtailing the public expenditure from many people retiring into pensions and welfare support. Remarkably, while there has been strong resistance by workers against any increase in the retirement age in such countries, in Nigeria, it is the workers that are clamouring for it.
As well-intentioned as the clamour for it may appear to be, there are strong reasons why the government should re-think the proposal. The first is that the retirement age in any country should be closely tied to the life-expectancy of its people. In this sense, raising the retirement age in say Britain to say 70 years where official life-expectancy for women is 82.6 years and 78.4 years for men, is not likely to be the same as raising the retirement age in Nigeria to 65 years where the official life-expectancy is only 47 years.
The other consideration is the need to open up the labour market to fresh blood and new thinking that often comes with youthfulness. This is especially so given the alarming rate of youth unemployment in the country and the several social problems that this brings in its wake. This argument is made more forceful because in Nigeria - as in many other developing economies - the government is often the largest employer of labour, which means that increasing the age limit blocks the career prospects of younger elements. Additionally, given the propensity of public servants for moonlighting, there is a likelihood that people whose health are already failing at 60, or whose capacity for work has diminished considerably, may continue to hang onto their jobs - just for the salary. In this way, the proposed increase in retirement age becomes counter-productive.
Rather than a blanket increase in the retirement age, there should be more creative ways of maintaining the services of people who have retired but who remain enthusiastic about their jobs and are in good health and demonstrable capacity to deliver. For instance, while raising the retirement age of certain categories of workers such as top military officers may be valid because of their specialist skills and expensive training, for the rank and file, it may be more fruitful to create a 'reserve corps' such that retired soldiers who wish to be on such service could enlist so that when required, they will be mobilised on short notice. In the same vein, for teachers and others in the public service, those who still want to continue working after attaining the official retirement age should be encouraged to explore the contract system of engagement, currently in place in many sectors of the economy.
What appears to be more urgently needed is the need for the government to pay more attention to pre-retirement trainings so that those who are retiring should be adequately prepared for life out of active service, both psychologically and in terms of providing them with new skills. Government should also ensure that retirement benefits are paid promptly, and that workers' pensions are regularly paid as and when due. This will seem to be a more efficient way of dealing with the issue of teachers who have reached official retirement age but still want to continue on the job, rather than a blanket increase in retirement age, which would more likely lead to 'me-tooism' - a too frequent occurrence in Nigeria where workers in other sectors of the economy would also start agitating for their own retirement age to be increased.