Friday, November 10, 2006

My son, my pension

Last Sunday at church I commended one of our oldest members on her very smart suit.

'O! Thank you, my dear! I bought this in America.'

I knew she was recently in America. She's 90-something and she tells me she wakes up each morning saying, 'Thank you, God, I'm still alive!'

She then went on to tell me how her son who is soon to retire had bought a retirement home in Palm Springs. He had arranged for her to fly first class with a companion to see his new home.

She has one grateful son (amongst others) who is mindful of the sacrifices she made while he was younger. A successful businessman now, he has seen fit to make sure her mother travelled in the utmost comfort to visit him.

She then commented on how my own son was growing. (She first saw him at two weeks old.)

'Look after him. He's your pension,' she said.

The truth is I grew up in a family and generation where people had large families because 'our children are our pension'. My parents used to boast about the half dozen children they had and how we were to grow up and make sure they were well looked after.

I cringed at school every time my teachers at school asked how many siblings we had. In a class of 44 pupils, I always had the most siblings. I was embarrassed.

There was the family planning programme in Singapore during my most impressionable years: "Girl or boy, two is enough".

Traditional Chinese families are not complete until the mother is able to produce a son. With the universal education of girls and an ongoing campaign to reduce family size, this family planning programme became, with hindsight, too successful.

In Singapore today, the government is trying everything within their means to get young couples to reproduce.

The fact is when my dad was dying, I really appreciated that I have five siblings to take the strain of caring for him. We took turns to visit him at hospital, took turns to pay for his mounting hospital fees, took turns to baby-sit his grandchildren, etc. It was the same when mum died. She was in and out of intensive care at hospital and the children and in-laws were kept busy shuttling to and from hospital, making sure that she was OK. (By this time, however, I was living in the UK.)

Neither my dad nor my mum had any pension to speak of. But they had six children who appreciate what they had done. With no NHS, we also paid for their (albeit heavily-subsidized) medical care.

Speaking at a workshop on ageing issues in Oxford some years back, I noted that so many societies do not have a pension system. Children were their pension and maybe we had to go back to that sort of thinking.

Looking at the problem of poverty in some countries, some sceptics say 'if only these people did not have so many children, they wouldn't go hungry'.

Having many children is not the cause of poverty in these situations. Having many children is a symptom of poverty. Where poverty means a lack of healthcare, a prevalence of malnutrition and therefore poor physical development, where infant mortality is high, where children do not get an education, where many hands are necessary to farm or tend livestock, having many children is the key to survival. It is merely an outworking of the principle of 'survival of the fittest', for those who have faith in evolution.

The next time we think about how we could eradicate poverty, let's think also of what we can offer these people in terms of a 'pension'.

Meanwhile, in the 'developed' world, we must also be mindful of what might happen if we do not 'reproduce ourselves'. In a welfare state like the UK, who is going to pay the income tax to fund pensions?

In a country like Singapore we have the CPF (Central Provident Fund, a compulsory savings scheme we pay into almost as soon as we start working). People then draw a large portion of these savings to finance the purchase of a property. A certain amount is ringfenced for converting to annuities when one reaches retirement.

There is also the thinking that when one retires, one could 'trade down', buy a smaller flat, and pocket the profit from the sale. However, a property is only worth its resale value. What would these properties owned by pensioners be worth if there isn't a younger generation who would buy these properties?

So, maybe I should not have doubted the wisdom of my parents. Our children are our pension.

Whether it is through providing directly for us (with or without first class flights thrown in), through maintaining the price of properties, or paying taxes to pay for my pension, our children are our pension.

Back to Organic-Ally.

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