Singapore is experiencing an unprecedented age shift. At current birth rates and without immigration, the median age of its citizens will rise to 47 in 2030 from 39 in 2011.

The number of elderly citizens will triple to 900,000 by 2030, and they will be supported by a smaller base of working-age citizens. There are currently about 6.3 citizens of working age (between 20 and 64 years), for each citizen aged 65 and above. By 2030, there will only be 2.1 working-age citizens for each citizen aged 65 and above.

Shifting mindsets

In recent years, there has been much debate about the employability of older or mature workers in Singapore. It appears that many employers continue to have negative stereotypes about the silver workforce, such as that they are unwilling to learn, less productive, slow and so on.

To break away from these stereotypes, Singaporeans need to seriously look at how older workers can best contribute to the economy — not just now but beyond 2030. Older workers, too, must play their part and be willing to bridge any gaps in their skill sets.

Older or mature workers, who include professionals, managers and executives or PMEs, will have to remain relevant to their organisations by continuously upgrading themselves by reskilling or up-skilling through the various programmes and initiatives introduced by the Ministry of Manpower, the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, the National Trades Union Congress and the Employment and Employability Institute.

This will ensure they can adopt new technology and work processes which in turn will enhance their organisation’s productivity.

They will also have to keep themselves healthy through various programmes, including those offered by the Health Promotion Board such as Work Pro. This is crucial as one of the primary concerns of employers today is the health-care and insurance costs incurred by these “older workers”.

Current practices

Although it has no legal powers to investigate cases or take errant employers to task, the Tripartite Alliance of Fair Employment Practices received 303 complaints in 2012, up from 115 in 2010.

In 2007, a year after it was set up, it received only nine complaints. Half of the complaints last year concerned nationality, followed by age, race and language. The numbers may well be the tip of the iceberg, as some workers say that, with no anti-discrimination laws, complaining is a waste of time.

Despite positive encouragement from the Government about hiring older workers, employers seem to have a hiring preference for younger workers, for a variety of reasons.

The factors that influence organisations or businesses to discriminate against older workers, for example, range from higher salaries, higher insurance or health-care costs and Central Provident Fund contributions, to negative perceptions about their ability or productivity.

This preference for younger candidates is not entirely new. Research has shown that even when credentials (technical or academic qualifications) are identical, employers prefer the younger candidates.

There is no justification for this preference. Older workers are known to perform better across a range of relevant performance indicators such as skills — especially interpersonal skills — attendance, work attitude and more.

An experienced worker with good skills can be more productive in terms of work quality, as his experience teaches him how to do things more efficiently and how to avoid errors which can be costly to the company.

An important insight into why employers seem to prefer younger candidates is that supervisors and managers often worry about how to manage older subordinates.

They ponder questions such as, “How can I supervise someone who has more experience than me?” or “How do I motivate older staff who are less concerned about the carrot of promotion or the stick of being fired?”

The answer is that managing older workers is not rocket science, but it does require a more collaborative approach that respects their expertise and engages their interest. If supervisors can do this effectively, employers will find there is a pool of older talent worth tapping.

 

Article by Professor Sattar Bawany, chief executive officer and master executive coach of the Centre for Executive Education (CEE Global). CEE offers human capital management solutions, including talent management and executive development programmes (executive coaching and leadership development). For further information visit www.cee-global.com or e-mail sattar.bawany@cee-global.com