Recent months have given us the opportunity to reflect on a number of significant anniversaries, including the 70 years since the ending of the Second World War, and the declaration of independence of Vietnam.
Today, as we mark the International Day of Older Persons we must reflect on those that have lived through those turbulent years. They have played a vital role in shaping the society we live in as leaders, workers, caregivers, and volunteers. Yet in their retirement, when their contribution should be rewarded and recognized, too many are vulnerable to financial insecurity, discrimination, neglect and sometimes even abuse and violence.
For example, 85-year-old Bang is a salt worker from Nam Dinh. He and his 80 year old wife, Nhiem, are among the 9.5 million people aged 60 and above currently living in Vietnam. He shared his dream. “I’ve always wanted to visit as many places as possible and enjoying the beauty of my country. When I was young, I worked hard, moving here and there for work, just working, hoping that I could save enough money so that when I get older, I will be able to realize my travelling dream”.
Sadly, Bang and his wife are among half the elderly population who have no pension. Their nine children, all grown-up, are either farmers or working in other places, leaving them to take care of grandsons, 13 and 7 years old. On reaching 80 they qualified for a small social allowance, but at 85 Bang still works in the salt field every sunny day to help cover their living expenses, rarely going beyond the boundaries of their village.
There are millions of elderly like Bang and his wife, struggling on in their old age to eke out a living. The number of the elderly (aged 60 and above) in Vietnam is projected to rapidly increase in the coming decade reaching one in five by 2030.
As the world sets out an inspirational new development agenda, and commits to reaching the new Sustainable Development Goals, the issue of ageing has never been so important. Dramatic improvements in health and living standards have increased life expectancy, but at the same time it brings challenges. If we are to maintain our quality of life into old age, we need to be able to enjoy social protection, and there needs to be a sustainable way of paying for it.
Current pension and insurance schemes are falling short. In 2014, here in Vietnam only 2 million older people received pensions, and around 2.9 million older people received allowances from social assistance programs. This left some 4.6 million people aged 60 and above uncovered by any social protection scheme, those most likely to be poor, near poor or very vulnerable to poverty. It’s telling that half of those 60 to 65 are still working, with this figure only falling sharply after age 75.
Women are particularly vulnerable. Living longer than men and retiring earlier than men, women are more likely to be widowed in their older years, with insufficient pensions, or nothing at all.
Vietnam is fortunate to have a large number of working age people, a situation called ‘demographic bonus’. However, they will have to support a growing population of elderly in the future. Moreover, 63% of the labour force, many of them women, work in the informal sector. This means that just short of two thirds of the working population aren’t contributing to formal pension schemes, and lack any form of coverage.
At the same time, traditional forms of care for the elderly, including families, community and other informal safety nets are reducing due to migration, urbanization and other social changes. We urgently need to understand the changing social dynamics of ageing and the accompanying risks, and to put more sustainable systems and structures in place.
Urgent work is needed to build a more comprehensive pension system for Vietnam. Social, public and private pensions must be expanded to increase coverage to the vital informal sector. This has the potential to ensure universal social protection, and to reduce the burden of government pension spending into the future.
Not only would a sustainable pension system provide the means for millions of older people to attain a better quality of life, but it would also help ensure their dignity. By ensuring fairer Government pension provision this has the potential to increase public trust and investment in the state system. Providing a social pension of US$15 per month for all people aged 65 and above would cost only 0.3% to 0.5% of GDP, which is a very small fraction of Government spending but could have a huge impact on the lives of older people.
Vietnam has worked very hard to increase life expectancy. But this achievement is surely wasted if Vietnamese citizens cannot live these additional years in comfort and in dignity. Together with our partners, UNFPA will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that people can live well up to and throughout old age. By taking action now we can ensure that retirement is the best, and not the worst years of our lives.
|* Ritsu Nacken is Acting Representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Vietnam. The opinion expressed is hers