Only slightly more than three-quarters of Singaporean men aged 55 to 64 are still employed, while less than half the women this age are still working. Senior Minister of State Heng Chee How, who sits on the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, said,
“What is reality? In 1965, lifespan was about 65 years. Today, half the Singaporeans who are 65 years old have a chance of living beyond the age of 85.”
Furthermore, four in five people aged above 60, and three in four aged above 75, consider themselves healthy. Mr Heng said the Committee is trying to bring society’s perception of older people in line with the reality this group is living in today.
“At which point do companies consider them to be no longer young and up-to-date? A person even reaching 40 years old, 50, 60?”
He urged companies to offer more flexible arrangements – such as part-time, flexible hours or working from home – to allow older people to keep working.
One of Singapore’s greatest problems (let’s not use the euphemism “challenges” here) is the abysmal fertility rate of 1.2, which combines with rising life expectancy to produce the problem of a rapidly ageing population. Currently, 1 in 12 Singaporeans is 65 or older. By 2030, it will be 1 in 5 if current trends persist. This is part of that “reality” Mr Heng Chee How was referring to.
As the population ages, Singapore needs to combat the twin problems of rising financial dependency and a declining workforce by encouraging Singaporeans to retire later (or ideally, not at all – if former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had his way). As people live longer, it becomes increasingly difficult for one’s retirement savings to last till one’s final days if one were to retire at 55 or 60 as people used to do. The Government is pulling out all the stops to change the mindsets of both employers and workers.
But walking past a coffeeshop the other day and looking at some of the over-60s reading their newspapers in the morning, I was struck by how difficult Mr Heng’s job is. If you were an employer, would you feel confident hiring the wrinkled, rather lethargic and not very alert looking elderly gentleman? Trying to “bring society’s perception of older people in line with the reality this group is living in today” is certainly easier said than done in a 21st-century world that is more preoccupied with outward appearances than ever, especially appearances of age.
Gone are the days, it seems, when white or silver hair was seen as a mark of wisdom, an elder deserving of reverence. Even in Asian societies today, the traditional esteem accorded to age is fast diminishing. Rather than seeing the elderly as founts of wisdom and experience, we are more likely to view them today as stubborn, slow to learn and outdated (does he have a Facebook page? Yeah right, I’m suuuuurrre she knows how to operate an iPad).
Try to find me one Asian lady in her 60s today who is proud of her greying or whitening hair. More likely than not, she is on her way to the salon to have it dyed if she can afford it. Even the men feel quite terrified of white hair these days, it seems.
Perhaps Singapore society needs to reflect on the way it perceives the elderly. Unfortunately, it may also be equally true that the elderly need image consultants and makeovers. The elderly may also need to take better care of themselves so that they can project a more energetic and vibrant image. Perceptions and mindsets are hard to change, especially in this restless age where speed, novelty and style – not calm reflection – rule.
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