Seniors at work: The new norm for ageing in Singapore

Photo Credit: Joan Campderros-i-Canas

More elderly Singaporeans are working through their twilight years. Is this reflective of a healthier, more inclusive society or a dearth in state welfare support?

By Maegan Liew

With one of the highest life expectancies and lowest fertility rates in the world, Singapore is on the cusp of an extreme demographic shift. Among the ASEAN member states, the Republic is already the oldest society. Its workforce is also getting older. Employment rate for older residents has surged over the last decade.

In Singapore today, one in four seniors are still working. The employment rate for those aged 65 and older jumped from 13.8% in 2006 to 26.8% in 2018. For seniors aged 65 to 69, employment rate has hit 40% by 2015.

Singapore’s ageing population is a cause of economic concern

Based on projections from the United Nations (UN), 47% of Singapore’s total population will be aged 65 years or older in 2050. This demographic shift will put immense pressure on Singaporean society as a shrinking workforce struggles to support an ageing population.

Additionally, an ageing population comes with a unique set of challenges, from reduced economic growth to increased healthcare and social services costs.

Photo: Nicolas Lannuzel/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Singaporean government has been working towards keeping older workers in the economy 

According to Ministry of Manpower figures, the number of employed residents aged 70 and older has risen from about 16,000 in 2006 to about 43,000 in 2016. This comes as good news for the Singaporean government, amidst efforts to improve re-employment opportunities for older workers

The Special Employment Credit (SEC) was introduced in 2011 to support employers and to raise the employability of older Singaporeans. It provides a wage-offset to employers hiring Singaporean workers aged above 50 and earning up to $4,000.

While the retirement age in Singapore has been fixed at 62 for the past two decades, employers are legally obliged to offer re-employment to eligible Singaporean workers up to the national re-employment age. In 2017, the re-employment age was raised from 65 to 67.

On top of strengthening the economy, engaging older workers contributes to healthy ageing 

Experts find that gainful employment for seniors may help lower the likelihood of depression and elderly suicide. By providing older citizens with financial independence and a sense of purpose through contributing to their workplace and society, they are more integrated, maintain stronger social bonds, and are generally happier than their non-working counterparts.

According to Ms Helen Lim, founder and chief executive of Silver Spring, a job matching site for mature workers, working also helps to keep dementia and loneliness at bay. Many senior citizens in Singapore choose to work into their 80s and 90s in a bid to stay mentally and physically active.

A thin line exists between healthy ageing and elderly poverty

However, the problem lies in keeping elderly citizens with limited education in the workforce. These senior citizens are often forced to conduct hard manual labour, without necessarily earning enough to support their daily life.

A 2015 research paper on elderly poverty by Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy found that although the poverty rate among non-working elderly persons has fallen over the years, relative poverty has been rising dramatically among the elderly in the workforce. Between 1995 to 2005, the poverty rate among the working elderly has jumped from 13% to 28%. In 2011, the figure hit 41%.

When Singapore’s seniors continue to work late into their life, they should be able to increase their quality of life, along with the rest of the nation’s. However, when the elderly are forced to work but are still unable to make ends meet, then concerns are rightfully raised about whether the island nation’s seniors are receiving the support they require.

Singapore is not a welfare state but the ‘stingy nanny state’ has softened its stance

From its early beginnings, the city-state renounced the idea of cradle-to-grave welfare. The Republic has subscribed to the principle of individual responsibility, with the occasional helping hand from the state. International observers describe Singapore’s social policy model as an ‘alternative to the welfare state that works’.

Instead of a pension system, Singapore’s Central Provident Fund (CPF) is a social security system that enables working Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents to set aside funds for retirement. Through CPF, Singaporeans are required to save to take care of their own retirement needs.

In recent years, the Singaporean government has also introduced several healthcare packages to enhance social welfare for the elderly. The Pioneer Generation Package, the Singapore government’s most generous elderly care initiative, was introduced in 2015 to help citizens born before 1950 cope with healthcare and other expenses.

This year, the Merdeka Generation Package (“merdeka” is freedom in Malay) is also being pushed out for baby boomers born during the 1950s. The two elderly care packages are expected to benefit a combined number of 950,000 seniors in Singapore. They illuminate a shift in social policy in the face of an ageing population.

The focus should be on achieving dignity in ageing

Abject poverty is difficult to spot in the country. But Singapore still faces the challenge of rising inequality in a rapidly-ageing society. The issue with Singapore’s non-welfarist model of social support is not that there is not enough help available— but that there are too many targeted help schemes, each with varying criteria and limiting conditions attached.

Citizens are expected to seek help and navigate the system themselves. Without a universal social support system, confusion and misunderstanding prevail and some inevitably fall through the bureaucratic cracks.

To ensure no elderly citizen is left behind, the government needs to reach out to its seniors living in poverty, instead of putting the onus on them to seek help themselves. The national elderly healthcare packages introduced in recent years represent a move in the right direction towards providing dignified ageing among Singapore’s population.

The challenge ahead for the Singaporean government lies in ensuring that affordable, high quality living is universally accessible for its senior citizens. Keeping the elderly active and engaged in the workforce is one option – but a comprehensive and accessible social safety net needs to be tightly weaved into place to ensure nobody is left behind.