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Singapore’s older workers are challenging the ageing stereotype

66-year-old Ms Jarojah D/O S Narayanasamy (left) is still active at her job as a senior nurse manager at Singapore General Hospital’s specialist outpatient clinic.

Older workers rising up to the challenge

At Singapore General Hospital’s specialist outpatient clinic, Ms Jarojah D/O S Narayanasamy cuts a strong figure.

Among the crowd, the senior nurse manager stands poised. Her uniform is wrinkle-free, her hair is neatly combed in a tight bun and there is barely a hint of grey in it.

She looks like she could be in her late 40s. But Ms Jarojah is 66 and has worked in nursing for the past 46 years.

The big R words are far from her mind. Rest and retirement? Not for this lady, who sits with posture, speaks in a deliberate and paced manner and admits she is a “no nonsense” person.

“Except for a little pain in the knees here and there, I have no problem working. In fact, I am working like a non-retiree – the same job scope, no change,” says Ms Jarojah.

“They (the hospital) trust me because of my experience.”

Ms Jarojah manages about 100 nurses and oversees clinical operations, including administrative work. On the odd occasion, she steps in to handle difficult patients when her staff are not able to cope.

She is part of a growing number of Singaporeans who are working well past their 60s and into their 70s, a group which has been steadily expanding over the past 10 years.

The country’s fast ageing population, longer life expectancy and low birth rates are recasting the roles older workers play in Singapore’s economy.  Many employers are turning to older workers as a crucial solution to manpower needs. And older workers are rising to the challenge – spurred by their own desire to remain in the workforce, and in the process overturning stereotypes around “ageing”.

Statistics from the Manpower Ministry showed that the labour force participation rate – which measures the percentage of the population who are either working or looking for a job - for workers aged 65 and above was 14.3 per cent in 2006. This rose to 26.8 per cent  in 2017.

This puts Singapore at the top end of the international league of older workers. In 2016, Japan, a country which has one of the fastest ageing populations in the world, had a labour force participation rate of 22.8 per cent in 2015 for those aged 65 and up. In South Korea, the number stood at 31.5 per cent while Iceland topped the charts for the developed economies.

Source: OECD

In Singapore’s case, the country’s rising education levels, low unemployment rates, long life expectancy, and the high standards of healthcare are allowing seniors to continue contributing in meaningful jobs well past the official retirement age of 62.

“The economy requires the participation of older workers because of demographic changes. There are fewer young workers today compared to the past,” says Singapore University of Social Sciences economist Randolph Tan.

Contributions of the silver workforce

Studies show that tapping on the older workforce has huge benefits for the economy.

A 2017 PwC report estimated that the OECD could achieve a US$2 trillion boost to its GDP in the long term if it raised its labour force participation rate for seniors to Swedish levels, which stood at 16.2 per cent, which is among the highest in the world.

But helping senior workers work longer and take on meaningful jobs has to come with significant adjustments from not only the government, but critically also employers and workers.

To this end, Singapore is a big proponent of helping seniors continue to work beyond the official retirement age.

In 2012, the government introduced a new law that required companies to offer re-employment to their staff up to the age of 65. And from 1 July 2017, the re-employment age was extended to 67.

Apart from legislation, the Government has also rolled out grants to help companies make their workplace more age-friendly. The Age Management Grant, under the WorkPro scheme, allots funding of to $20,000 per company to help employers implement age-friendly practices.

Employer support in making workplaces more age-friendly

Companies like SingPost and PSA, where 1 in 10 of their employees are 60 and above, have embraced the move to have age-friendly workplaces and job design. In particular, investing heavily into technology to help seniors in their work.

The reason for adapting work processes is simple: Companies see the huge value in retaining their senior workers for their experience and knowledge.

And these companies are reaping the benefits, empowering many of their older staff to continue to contribute in a big way to their operations.

Singpost officer on delivery bike

SingPost has introduced 3-wheelers to help its postman deliver mail, says Ms Yong Lee Lee, the company’s vice president of Group People and Organisation Development.

“At the delivery bases, we use electric pallet jacks instead of manual jacks which means loads can be lifted more efficiently and safely requiring less physical strength and effort,” she adds.

Similarly, the company’s re-employed staff also get flexi work arrangements and can adjust their tasks so that the more physically demanding duties may be shared with a younger worker.

Says Mr Ng Kok Cheong, head of human resource of PSA Singapore: “We believe that our senior staff have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. Many of them have decades of experience with us and have been instrumental in building up PSA to what it is today. These pioneers impart good values and are great mentors to our younger colleagues.”

One of them is Mr Lim Kok Koon, a principal service mechanical engineer, who maintains port infrastructure and ensures they comply with building regulations and specifications.

The 65-year-old says: “At my age, I am still learning, and at the same time, imparting knowledge to my younger colleagues. My managers empower me at work and value my contributions. I feel that I am able to do my best and continue to help raise the engineering standards in PSA.”

These are some promising developments that show attitudes towards working seniors in Singapore are looking up. With whole-of-society support, Singapore can be an age-friendly society, where individuals have the option to continue contributing at work as long as they want to.

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