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Institutions, norms and mindsets need to change for Singapore to age well

A fast-ageing society, with the median age of the resident population rising to 41.5 years from 37.2 years in the decade to 2020. More singles who are ageing alone in their own homes. A greater number of older couples in households with no younger adult members living with them.

Institutions, norms and mindsets need to change for Singapore to age well

An elderly couple at Bukit Batok Central on Feb 25, 2020.

A fast-ageing society, with the median age of the resident population rising to 41.5 years from 37.2 years in the decade to 2020. More singles who are ageing alone in their own homes.

A greater number of older couples in households with no younger adult members living with them. 

All this, and much more data can be found in Census of Population 2020, the once-in-every-10-years omnibus survey of the Singapore population.  

These trends of a much larger population of older Singaporeans, many of whom might be living alone without family to care for them, are most concerning, especially since these are occurring so quickly. 

Japan took three decades to go from an ageing society (7 per cent or more of the population aged 65 and above) to super-aged (more than 20 per cent of the population aged 65 and above). Singapore will take only two decades to do so. 

By the time Census 2030 is conducted, one in four of the population is projected to be 65 years and above.

All is not all doom and gloom though.

While Singaporeans are getting older, they are maintaining their health in older ages too. Their education level is also higher than that of previous batches of seniors.

Our institutions, societal norms and mind-sets will need to change for Singapore to age well and with purpose. Why and how so?

INSTITUTIONS 

First, let’s look at Singapore’s highly lauded institutions: Our systems of healthcare, education and public housing.  

Singapore’s care continuum is dominated by medical care, with health and medical care delivered in institutional settings like tertiary hospitals. This has served a younger and generally healthier population well and even into older age, given better lifetime healthcare.

However, this high standard of care is not so well matched at the long-term and palliative care end of the continuum.

As societal pressures for long-term care increase with changes to family sizes and composition, there will have to be a greater allocation of resources to build up Singapore’s long-term care institutional capacity, especially within the community and in people's homes.  

This additional economically active group of older persons could provide an answer to the question of who might care for Singapore’s elderly: Healthy, active older persons forming a pool of potential caregivers who will be able to care for others of their own age.  

The same challenge can also be found in the country’s educational institutions. Excellence is predominantly situated in the formal schooling system which delivers quality standardised and accessible education in institutional settings. 

To adapt to the needs of an older population, there is a need to shift into more customised lifelong learning platforms and networks that extend learning beyond the traditional educational institutions and weave them into people's daily lives regardless of age. 

Many people will need help with career guidance and navigating the future of employment. This will be facilitated by the establishment of formal and informal eco-systems of counsellors and mentors, possibly drawn from the growing pool of Singaporeans with experience in hiring and people development.

These eco-systems would aim to replicate the support that guilds or kongsi used to provide for their members, but beyond the confines of a specific trade or clan association.

Another institution that will need to evolve with the ageing population is the public housing system.  

The strong emphasis on home ownership has allowed many households to own a fully paid-up property that provides a roof over their heads post-retirement. 

However, older households will need new housing options such as the Housing and Development Board's (HDB’s) Community Care Apartments, preferably embedded and fully integrated into the community in multi-generational precincts that allow the elderly to age gracefully in place.   

For those who do not wish or are unable to move to such apartments and prefer to continue living where they are, there is a need to provide more extensive home care options for them. The issue of cost will inevitably arise.

But this can perhaps be addressed by HDB through a home equity monetisation plan built into an enhanced lease buyback scheme, where a portion of the proceeds from the lease buyback is retained and put into a fund that will pay for the home care services that the homeowners require. 

NORMS 

Second, Singapore's societal norms will have to change. 

A prime example of this can be found in retirement and re-employment age (RRE) provisions. 

These can anchor norms and practices, linking somewhat arbitrarily a person’s productivity, economic worth and identity to a chronological age marker that might not be reflective of the contribution that a person can make.  

Between 2010 and 2019, Singapore’s health-adjusted life expectancy increased by 4.1 years for both Singaporean women and men, paralleling almost exactly the increase in median age between 2010 and 2020.  

Extended healthy lives of older Singaporeans could result in an effective increase in the potential resident labour force by almost a third if more Singaporeans aged 65 and above remain economically active.  

Allied to this is the changing educational profile of the Singaporean population.

In 2020, more than 11 per cent of those aged 55 years and above had a university degree, up from 6 per cent in 2010. There is also a building momentum here, with more than a third of the 45- to 54-year age group having a university degree in 2020.  

This more highly educated Singaporean older population will possess more economic and social capital options to contribute to their own welfare as well as to society as a whole.

Whilst it is good that the Government has committed itself to raising the RRE provisions steadily over time, with a lead time to allow employers and employees to adjust, it is also important not to be overly fixated with these numbers because they are just that.

Instead, it is important to make a stronger connection between a person’s actual contribution and his or her employment status rather than to rely on chronological age milestones.

Other changes in our societal practices can include moving on from the standard three major stages of the human lifecycle model.

These are childhood, associated with learning and development; adulthood and middle-age when one engages in productive work; and, finally, old-age, linked with leisure and retirement at best, and impairment and infirmity at its worst.  

De-linking this lifecycle model or template from those associations and shifting to a more dynamic, adaptive model of living that is less determined by one’s age will allow a society to cope with its population ageing.

This will happen only if this society is able to review and revise rigidities in our conception of the standard, desirable life-course.

MIND-SETS

This brings us finally to mindsets, which will have to change too.

We are all subject to heuristics that allow us to quickly classify people we meet into infant, toddler, school-going age child, teenage, youth, middle-aged, and elderly (and many other age-based labels), which in most cases have mostly benign implications.  

But the site where ageist mindsets are the most pernicious is the workplace, when being older or just old is often associated with diminished capacity and productivity, by both employer and even the employee himself or herself.  

There are grounds for optimism about this society’s ability to change. 

Whilst the raising of the RRE will enforce greater acceptance of working at an older age, there are other factors that will encourage this, such as the improved health and educational outcomes of our future elderly.

Singapore can manage the rising care needs of a more aged population by ensuring that older persons continue to lead purposeful lives that enrich all of society.

We can do that by adapting institutions to cater to different generational needs and requirements, revising norms, especially those that anchor behaviour and activity to arbitrary chronological age markers, and ditching discriminatory ageist mindsets. 

 

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Christopher Gee is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. 

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ageing population society elderly

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