Many of us are fiercely loyal to our favourite hawker foods –a quick poll within the Pop.sg team came up with Adam Road Nasi Lemak, Bedok 85 minced meat noodles, and Lao Ban beancurd. The remarkable thing about many of these dishes it is that they have been family favourites for decades, and the Uncle or Auntie managing the stall can sometimes be in their 60s or 70s. We appreciate the dedication of many of these hawkers to their craft – they have perfected their recipes and preparation techniques, and continue to manage the daily grind even at their age, much to the relief of their customers.
Like your favourite hawker Uncle or Auntie, many Singaporean seniors are working longer and leading more active lifestyles. There is no secret behind Singapore’s senior population: we simply live longer. According to the latest World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Estimates on global lifespans, Singapore was ranked 5th and 4th in the world with our average life expectancy at birth being 80.2 years for men and 85.1 years for women.
Source: WHO Statistics, 2014
At the same time, we are facing declining birth rates. While our grandparents had five or six children, these children only had two or three. Many of today’s couples are thinking of having just one child so that they can give him or her the very best.
The twin effects of living longer and declining birth rates mean that our citizen population is ageing. The age pyramids illustrate the transition of our citizen population from a bottom heavy one in 1980 when our TFR was much higher at 1.82 and our life expectancy is lower at 72 years old.1 If our birth rates remain at current level of around 1.20, our citizen population age pyramid will become even more top-heavy by 2050. Some of you might be wondering why this is a big deal, isn’t growing old just another stage in the natural progression of life? The truth is that Singapore’s ageing population may cause challenges for the country, if left unmanaged.
Citizen Age Pyramid, as of 1980, 2015 & 2050.
First, our public spending will increase as the size of our citizen population aged 65 years and above increases. As it stands now, the number of citizens aged 65 and above will double from 500,000 in 2016 to 900,000 in 2030. At the same time, the number of working-age citizens who form our tax base has peaked and is projected to decline. This may place a strain on our national budget as more public monies are directed towards supporting the needs of older Singaporeans, for example, healthcare and other social services.
This pressure would be greater and potentially insurmountable had we adopted a pay-as-you-go pension scheme. Already, countries with such social security system are grappling with huge debt from overspending. Japan, for example, has seen its national debt balloon over the past decade, due in part to heavy spending on social welfare to support its rapidly ageing population. As governments face increasing difficulties in funding pay-as-you-go pension schemes, more responsibilities are shifted towards individuals and future generations through higher taxes, for example.
In Singapore’s case, we have adopted different approaches to ensure that our social security system remains sustainable. For instance, our Central Provident Fund (CPF) (equivalent to ‘defined contribution’ schemes) is designed such that retirement savings are contributed by individual themselves and employers into individuals’ retirement savings accounts, instead of from the future generations. More recently, the MediShield Life scheme was introduced to provide better lifelong and universal protection against large hospital bills and costly outpatient treatments, such as dialysis and chemotherapy.
Our public housing policies which support Singaporeans in owning their homes also help Singaporeans to build an important nest egg in their silver years. With more than 80% of Singaporeans owning a HDB flat, these homes are valuable assets that can be monetised through the Lease Buyback Scheme (LBS), which allows owners to sell part of their lease back to HDB for cash.
Through these schemes, we have placed an emphasis on shared responsibility. In other words, by encouraging citizens to build up their assets and savings, rather than relying solely on direct assistance, Singapore has managed to create a sustainable social security system — one that won’t end up bankrupting future generations.
With an ageing and shrinking workforce, companies may face difficulties in hiring suitable local manpower, and risk having to close down or relocate their operations. This could potentially hurt our economy and limit our growth opportunities. While companies are allowed to bring in foreign workers to supplement local workforce, we need to balance our population make-up and ensure that there are sufficient and good opportunities for Singaporeans as well.
A more lasting solution is to focus on enhancing worker competency (think SkillsFuture) while continuing to pursue capital-intensive ways of growing our economy. Singapore can achieve this by moving up the value chain through engaging in commercial activities that leverage on niche knowledge and technology. For example, aerospace manufacturing and 3D printing are both cutting-edge enterprises that emphasize skill over manpower. Furthermore, the returns are higher for every unit of time and labour invested in these industries.
At the same time, it is important to facilitate and encourage our older Singaporeans to remain in the workplace longer, by transforming the workplace to be more family- and age-friendly. Employers can also benefit from the vast experiences of the older workers. For this to work, we need enlightened and supportive employers who appreciate the value older workers bring, and are willing to adapt to the changes in our workforce.
Aside from enhancing our industrial capabilities and transforming the workplace, Singapore would do well to strengthen familial and community ties. This is because changes in our population make-up will eventually lead to a shift in the nature of our domestic relationships.
Some of us would have noticed that gatherings during festive seasons are no longer the same. Relatives, who may have been able to visit in the past, but no longer come over because of their declining health and mobility. Dinner table topics have also shifted towards elderly-related issues; it could be aches and pains, or perks that come with age – those who join the sixty-plus club enjoy subsidies for public transport, 4-dollar movie tickets, and more.
Family plays an increasingly important role in supporting our seniors, not just financially but also in providing emotional and caregiving support. Familial support is important to enable our seniors to age in place and enjoy family life in their old age. While living longer and having a shrinking family size can lead to a heavier financial burden for younger family members as they have to support both the young and old, a smaller family unit could also bring about a more closely-knitted family. It is therefore important to forge stronger intergenerational bonds and strengthen family values.
Communal relationships matter too. Active ageing initiatives, like silver volunteerism and lifelong learning can help seniors to build up their social connections and remain socially engaged. After all, healthy relationships do contribute to a higher quality of life and this will help seniors to truly enjoy their silver years.
In summary, the impact of Singapore’s ageing population will be felt everywhere across the nation. With an eco-system that embraces ageing and the necessary infrastructure in place to support the needs of our seniors, an ageing population need not be a crisis but an exciting transition for our nation. Grandmother to grandchild, wheelchairs to strollers, may we build a Singapore that is conducive for all.
Check out the infographic below on what an ageing population mean for us!
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1 Singapore TFR and life expectancy data are from the Department of Statistics.