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In Thailand, Retirement Is Not Always a Choice

Pa Noi
Pa' Noi (Auntie Noi) retired from the public sector at age 60, and started working again at 65.

Pa’ Noi manages the neighborhood restaurant that my boyfriend, Joe, and I love here in Thailand, where I’m doing part of my master’s program in gerontology.

When we arrive, she greets and seats us, and patiently waits as we, the farangs (Thai for “foreigners”), fumble through our orders. When we finish, she brings us our check and our change, and she inevitably beats the busboys to a first swipe at our table.

Pa’ Noi is 71, and she’s great at her job. And yet, sometimes customers complain.

“They ask why we hire older people,” the owner, Pa’ Noi’s niece, told us recently. “We explain that it’s a family business, and it’s good for her to be here with us and stay financially independent.”

Age discrimination in the workplace is not a foreign concept in the United States. But having to justify the presence of an older worker? It felt more unfamiliar than the menu.

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The customers’ comments and the perspectives that fuel them may trickle down from the law. In Thailand, mandatory retirement starts at age 60 for public sector employees, meaning people who work for the government or government-operated institutions, such as public schools. That also includes employees at mainstream businesses, such as cellphone companies. Many private sector jobs also specify retirement ages — often around 60, too — in their contracts.

In the United States, retirement is typically a personal decision. Unless you’re a pilot or a police officer, or you’re in one of a handful of other careers that require individuals to step down once they reach a certain age, you decide when to retire, based on your own timeline and financial situation. It’s a right we rarely pause to recognize, perhaps because the law protecting it — the Age Discrimination in Employment Act — was passed in 1967, long before many boomers even had summer jobs.

How we retire is another freedom many Americans enjoy. Life on the other side of a 9-to-5 can be a life reimagined. It’s socially acceptable, and some might even say desirable, to take on new post-retirement roles. A former business executive may decide to work part time at a flower shop. A teacher might pick up hours as a tutor or a consultant.

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But in many Eastern cultures, the idea of recareering doesn’t quite translate. In Thailand, stable jobs that pay well are typically in the public sector, reserved for people younger than 60. A post-retirement gig, then, is likely a “lower level” job, which doesn’t sit well with many adult children who presume outsiders will think they have failed their parents. That’s because Thai adult children have long been a main source of income for their older parents. Working in a family business, though, as Pa’ Noi does, is considered OK.

Scholars in Thailand are encouraging lawmakers to extend the mandatory retirement age beyond 60. It’s a step toward giving experienced workers a choice to continue their careers, if they want to. And it’s a step toward changing attitudes about what’s possible as we age.

Photo credit: Laura Hahn

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