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High time Singapore employers ditch ageist attitudes towards older workers

There remains a negative bias towards older workers in Singapore. In fact, stereotypical views of these workers are so prevalent that some of them even resort to disguising their real age in job applications.

Recruitment, retention, rewards and compensation should be based on merit and objective measures of performance — not on age, says the author.

Recruitment, retention, rewards and compensation should be based on merit and objective measures of performance — not on age, says the author.

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In an in-depth study of the budget needed for Singapore seniors to meet their basic needs, adults aged 55 and older identified having opportunities for employment as one of the key constituents of a “basic standard of living”.

They also emphasised the importance of independence and autonomy.

In reality though, they will find such job opportunities hard to come by, going by my 30 years’ experience in training and counselling thousands of older workers and employers across different sectors, as well as my research on ageing and employment issues.

One of the key obstacles is that there remains a negative bias towards older workers.

In fact, stereotypical views of these workers are so prevalent that some of them even resort to disguising their real age in job applications. To boost their chances of securing interviews, some use a much younger photograph of themselves in their WhatsApp profiles while others omit some work experiences in their resumes.


S$1,379 a month needed for basic needs? This is how Singapore's seniors agree on this baseline

With Singapore’s population ageing rapidly, every individual is valuable human capital.

Since 2012, the retirement and re-employment ages have been raised. They are now 62 and 67 respectively. These ages are set to go up further gradually. This is a step in the right direction and should be lauded.

But beyond legislation, how should we as a society address this issue of ageism?

Here, I will highlight two key strategies. First, a complete mindset change and second, a correct understanding about heterogeneity amongst older adults and the implications.


Extensive evidence exists to demonstrate that older workers are just as effective at work as their younger colleagues.  

In fact, fewer customer confrontations have been attributed to the presence of older workers, who tend to have better emotional control as well as crisis management and problem-solving capacity.

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Research has found that age-related declines in health do not generally adversely affect performance or productivity.

Older workers are also not at higher risk of work-related accidents, although accidents involving older workers can result in more serious injury.

Contrary to common perception, older workers do not have more sickness-related absences from work than younger workers.

Today, health and technological improvements mean there are few jobs that an average 70-year-old cannot do.

To tackle ageism, we need to bring about a fundamental change in personal beliefs, assumptions and attitudes about older workers among policy-makers and employers.

A good starting point is for organisations to involve all employees in an exercise to examine and reflect candidly on their unconscious or subtle biases and attitudes towards older workers.

These could then be processed against the facts and research findings about older workers. Such exercises should be carried out by qualified facilitators.

In addition, multi-generational teams could be put in charge of projects, to work together and promote understanding and appreciation across generations.

Management could also take the lead in highlighting the contributions of older workers at company functions or through in-house publications.

Moreover, older workers could be appointed as mentors to less experienced workers and be recognised for doing so. Research in Singapore has revealed that many older workers do want to serve as mentors, to guide and teach younger or less experienced colleagues.  

Not only would these actions encourage older workers and enhance their self-esteem, they are likely to shape the perceptions and attitudes of an organisation’s employees towards older workers.

Older workers themselves should not imbibe or self-impose negative societal perceptions that are unsubstantiated by research and become self-limiting.

At the same time, they should discard any entitlement mentality by virtue of their past contributions, senior age or length of service with their organisations.

This is a fairly common complaint among employers.

For their long-term sustainability, older workers need to ensure that they are continuing to add value to their organisations. Madam Devi, who attended a training programme I conducted, is one good example.

She is an operations assistant with a National ITE Certificate. Two years ago when her supervisor suggested that she undergo a series of technology-related courses, she declined.

She was not confident that at age 60, she would be successful in the training.

However, after much encouragement from her supervisor and colleagues, she finally took up the challenge. Today, she is able to continue to contribute effectively to her company.

Recently, upon reaching the age of 62, she was offered re-employment by her company.    

The second critical approach to address ageism is for employers to be fully cognisant of the diversity of older workers.

While in general, the functional status (the ability to perform activities of daily living, fulfil usual roles etc.) of the older age-groups tends to be lower than younger age-groups, older workers are highly heterogeneous, in terms of gender, race, class, ethnicity and health.

Moreover, as people age differently, the differences amongst them increase with age. Thus, group averages are unreliable in predicting how an employee may perform.

All of us have probably encountered workers in their 70s who are still physically and mentally robust, fully capable of carrying out their jobs, while we have met others as young as in their 40s who have certain medical conditions and/or other issues and struggle to meet their job requirements.

This implies that each older worker should be assessed individually, based on his or her functional age (the ability to perform tasks) rather than his or her chronological or calendar age. In this way, each older worker’s competencies, capabilities and capacities could be harnessed.

In today’s multi-generational workplaces, employers should apply fair practices to all age groups and refrain from privileging one group over another. Recruitment, retention, rewards and compensation should be based on merit and objective measures of performance — not on age.

Otherwise, even the younger employees may become demoralised if they perceive that their efforts, achievements and career aspirations are not assessed on an equal footing by their employers.

Against the backdrop of a rapidly ageing population and workforce, and recent findings which underscore the importance of employment opportunities to older adults, the need to address the issue of ageism is urgent and compelling. As a society, a paradigm shift about older workers is fundamental.

Beyond the findings of the household budgets study, and the necessity of engaging older workers in employment due to labour shortages in our economy, I believe at a more fundamental level, we should value older workers because of their intrinsic worth and our shared humanity.

How we tackle ageism in the coming years could well define us as a society.



Dr Helen Ko is a senior lecturer in gerontology at the Singapore University of Social Sciences and executive director of Beyond Age, a silver workforce training consultancy. She was previously executive director of Centre for Seniors and chief executive officer of St Luke’s Eldercare.

Related topics

older workers ageism workplace

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