Veteran politician defies age barriers

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At the age of 77, Astrid Nøklebye Heiberg could have been enjoying a comfortable retirement. Instead, she’s become Norway’s oldest-ever state secretary in the new conservative government.

Astrid Nøklebye Heiberg is living proof that age can be a political advantage. PHOTO: Oslo Høyre

Astrid Nøklebye Heiberg is living proof that age can be a political advantage. PHOTO: Oslo Høyre

“This is a conscious decision from the government, to show that old people can be useful,” Nøklebye Heiberg told newspaper Dagsavisen recently, when asked about the surprise new appointment. “I’m expected to live until I’m 86, so I can be a state secretary for two terms. I’m not thinking short-term.”

Born in Oslo in 1936, Nøklebye Heiberg has had, and continues to have, a very rich and varied life in public service. She has distinguished careers in both medicine and politics and has been, at various times, a doctor, researcher, professor of psychiatry, a politician for the Conservative Party, a cabinet minister, president of Norway’s Red Cross, and president of the Red Cross internationally.

She has also been campaigning for years to get the regulations changed to enable more senior citizens to work. Currently only 4 percent of people over 70 are working in Norway, and very few over 75 are employed.

In addition to her high-profile medical and political careers, Astrid Nøklebye Heiberg has written several books, most recently "Change, wonder and the pursuit of old-age" (roughly translated from Norwegian). PHOTO: Cappelen Damm

In addition to her high-profile medical and political careers, Astrid Nøklebye Heiberg has written several books, most recently “Change, wonder and the pursuit of old-age” (roughly translated from Norwegian). PHOTO: Cappelen Damm

“We are healthier than we used to be, and we live longer. It can be an ordeal, for many people, to be retired for 30 years,” she said. One out of two want people to be able to work as long as they like, according to an annual poll conducted by the The Centre for Senior Policy (Senter for seniorpolitikk ). This is a big change from just 10 years ago, when most were against changing the current recommended upper age limit of 70.

She stresses that the government doesn’t want to take away people’s right to retire at the usual age, but to give them the possibility to work longer if they choose.  The current labour laws date back to 1918, and give people the right to a retirement pension from age 67. In many professions the retirement age is lower than that, sometimes in the early 60s.

“I absolutely don’t think I have gone ‘out of date'” wrote one Dagsavisen contributor whose request to work beyond 70 was rejected by his employer. “I am in good health, not away from my job, keep myself in shape, and do my job well,” he argued. Since many jobs are less physically demanding than they used to be, it’s becoming increasingly possible for people to work beyond the official retirement age. They are technically allowed to continue beyond 70, but only if their employer thinks it is appropriate.

Nøklebye Heiberg’s new appointment, as state secretary for the Ministry of Health and Care Services, a position just one notch down from minister, sends out a clear signal that the government wants more senior citizens in the workplace.  The workforce in Norway desperately needs to increase, so either people need to work longer hours, or a larger section of the population needs to be employed.

Nøklebye Heiberg was a state secretary first time round more than 30 years ago, from 1981 to 1985, in what was then called the Ministry of Social Affairs. From 1985-89 she was a Member of Parliament, became a government minister (in 1986) and head of the National Federation of Conservative Women (Høyrekvinners Landsforbund) from 1985 to 1991. In this role she was a predecessor to the current Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who led the group in the early 1990s.  Nøklebye Heiberg became the Conservative Party’s deputy chairman from 1990-1991 and served as President of the Norweigan Red Cross  from 1993 to 1999. She’s also written a number of books, the latest is a reflection on old age, and what it can offer.

When the new health minister Bent Høie from the Conservatives approached her about taking her latest job in October, she was just expecting to be in parliament for a few years after the election, serving as a deputy for the Oslo Conservatives (Oslo Høyre) until 2017. “It was really fun to get the offer, and nice that they have a use for me,” she told Dagsavisen. “I have built up a good deal of expertise over a long life,” she said, and always has to chuckle when she meets 35-year-olds whose job title is “Senior Adviser.”

newsinenglish.no/Elizabeth Lindsay