Tough work getting jobs for Taiwan's elderly

At Bu Lao 125 cafe, the average age of the eight workers is 68. The cafe is set up by welfare organisation Hongdao Foundation, which promotes active ageing. The cafe is the first of its kind in Taiwan.
At Bu Lao 125 cafe, the average age of the eight workers is 68. The cafe is set up by welfare organisation Hongdao Foundation, which promotes active ageing. The cafe is the first of its kind in Taiwan.PHOTO: HONGDAO FOUNDATION

Rising silver population, stagnant economy, shrinking workforce raise pressure for action

Helped wanted. Only those above 60 need apply.

Such is the requirement at a new cafe in Taichung, central Taiwan, where 68 is the new 25. Instead of the usual cafe worker in his 20s, the eight workers serving up drinks and rice cakes here have an average age of 68.

The cafe named Bu Lao 125 – after the Chinese words “never old” and the cafe’s address – was opened last week by Hongdao Foundation, a welfare organisation set up in 1995 which promotes active ageing.

Its chief executive Ros Lee said: “No one is too old to do anything, or to make (himself or herself) count and valued in society.”

Active ageing will soon become an even more pressing issue in Taiwan, where those over 65 will next year outnumber those under 15 for the first time. This is according to a recently published ageing index by the National Development Council under the Executive Yuan.

Today, 12.5 per cent of Taiwan’s population of some 23 million people are older than 65.

PUSHING BACK RETIREMENT

Why are we making them redundant when they have a lot more to contribute? We should just let them work for as long as they want. Old people should not be seen as a burden but a valuable resource for society.

PROFESSOR YANG PEISHAN, from National Taiwan University, who is one of the proponents of eliminating a compulsory retirement age.

  • An ageing planet

  • The number of people aged 60 years or above worldwide has increased substantially in recent years and that growth is projected to accelerate in the coming decades, according to a United Nations report on the trend.

    Globally, the number of older persons is growing faster than the numbers of people in any other age group. As a result, the share of older persons in the total population is increasing virtually everywhere.

    Here is a look at the key findings from the report titled World Population Ageing:

    • Between 2015 and 2030, the number of people in the world aged 60 years or over is projected to grow by 56 per cent, from 901 million to 1.4 billion, and by 2050, the global population of older persons is projected to more than double its size in 2015, reaching nearly 2.1 billion.

    • Globally, the number of people aged 80 years or above, termed the "oldest-old" persons in the UN report, is growing even faster than the number of older persons overall. Projections indicate that in 2050, the oldest-old will number 434 million, having more than tripled in number since 2015, when there were 125 million.

    • Over the next 15 years, the number of older persons is expected to grow fastest in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a projected 71 per cent increase in the population aged 60 years or over, followed by Asia (66 per cent), Africa (64 per cent), Oceania (47 per cent), Northern America (41 per cent) and Europe (23 per cent).

    • Improved longevity and the ageing of larger cohorts, including those born during the post-World War II baby boom, mean that the older population is itself ageing. The proportion of those aged 80 years or over is projected to rise from 14 per cent in 2015 to more than 20 per cent in 2050.

    • The older population is growing faster in urban areas than in rural areas. At the global level, between 2000 and 2015, the number of people aged 60 years or over increased by 68 per cent in urban areas, compared to a 25 per cent increase in rural areas. As a result, older persons are increasingly concentrated in urban areas.

    • In 2015, 58 per cent of the world's people aged 60 years or over resided in urban areas, up from 51 per cent in 2000. The oldest-old are even more likely to reside in urban areas: the proportion of people aged 80 years or over residing in urban areas increased from 56 per cent in 2000 to 63 per cent in 2015.

    • Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs

Taiwan’s situation is not as bad as that in Singapore, where 13.1 per cent of the citizen population were 65 and above last year, and Japan, where 26.7 per cent of the population fell into this age group, according to its 2015 national census.

Still, Taiwan’s elderly ratio is likely to exceed 20 per cent in 10 years, said the National Development Council, pushing it into the ranks of what the World Health Organisation defines as “super-aged societies” like Japan and Italy by 2026.

Adding to the grey mood is a stagnant economy that is expected to grow by only 0.77 per cent this year, a shrinking workforce and anaemic pension system.

The problem is more acutely felt in small towns in Yunlin and Chiayi counties in western Taiwan, where most of the young have left for the capital Taipei to find work.

“Sometimes you see more silver- haired people than youth walking around in parks or shopping malls,” Ms Lee told The Straits Times.

While an ageing population is a challenge shared by other Asian societies, the problem in Taiwan is made worse by how the Taiwanese tend to retire earlier than peers in say, Japan or Singapore.

The Taiwan government raised the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65 in 2008. But in reality, most Taiwanese still tend to retire earlier, said ageing issues expert Yang Peishan of the National Taiwan University. This is either because they are teachers or public servants who retire as early as 55, or a result of private firms not abiding by the mandatory retirement age rule. In effect, private sector workers generally retire at 60.

“Why are we making them redundant when they have a lot more to contribute?” asked Professor Yang, one of the proponents of eliminating compulsory retirement age.

"We should just let them work for as long as they want. Old people should not be seen as a burden but a valuable resource for society.”

While the Taiwan government has pledged to spend more on healthcare and eldercare, Dr Kristy Hsu, director of the Taiwan-Asean Studies Centre at Taiwan’s Chung- Hua Institution of Economic Research, said more needs to be done to empower the silver generation economically.

This could be by providing more jobs for them for example, she said.

But age discrimination in employment is a concern, with many Taiwanese seniors saying companies are not willing to hire them and younger workers are not welcoming, said experts on ageing.

Creating more jobs for seniors may help to ease Taiwan’s labour blues – the National Development Council estimated that the island’s labour force will lose 180,000 people annually starting this year due to retirement and job seekers heading overseas. Said Dr Hsu: “With a manpower shortage, companies will prefer to outsource the jobs to cheaper countries like South-east Asia, making Taiwan less competitive.”

One retiree eager to find employment again is Madam Chang I-hsin, 61, an accountant who retired last year. The Taichung resident, who is looking for a job as a teacher or to set up a cafe, said: “If I can still exercise and do yoga, I don’t see my age as a problem for me to do my job.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2016, with the headline 'Tough work getting jobs for Taiwan's elderly'. Print Edition | Subscribe