Ageism complaints down but more can be done: Experts

Re-employment age will rise to 67 next year, but changing mindsets still a challenge

Although official complaints about ageism have tapered off, more can still be done to build a culture of inclusiveness in workplaces, according to employment experts.

Reducing stereotypes and giving older workers opportunities to continue developing their skills will become more critical as Singapore's workforce ages.

First - the good news. Figures from the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) show that age-related complaints fell to 43 last year, down from the average of 66 per year from 2011 to 2014.

More people will be able to work longer with the re-employment age being raised next year, as employers will be legally obliged to offer eligible workers re-employment until the age of 67, instead of 65 now.

But challenges in shifting mindsets towards being more accepting of older workers remain, experts told The Straits Times.

Employers, colleagues, family members and even older workers themselves may have unconscious biases against older staff members, including viewing their age as a liability, said Tafep general manager Roslyn Ten.

"The challenge is in changing employers' mindset about older workers from a cost to an asset, and assessing their value according to intangible benefits and not just 'monetary' value," she added.

AGE SHOULDN'T BE A BARRIER

If an older employee takes the initiative to upskill, is willing to take on new assignments and shows aptitude for further development, he too could be 'high potential'.

DR STEWART LLOYD ARNOLD, senior lecturer at NTU's Nanyang Business School.

Dr Stewart Lloyd Arnold, senior lecturer at the Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School division of strategy, management and organisation, said older workers may not get the same training and development opportunities as younger people who have been identified as "high-potential leaders".

"If an older employee takes the initiative to upskill, is willing to take on new assignments and shows aptitude for further development, he too could be 'high potential'," he added.

Assistant Professor Irene de Pater from the department of management and organisation at the National University of Singapore's Business School said stereotypes not only affect how others see and treat older employees, but also how older employees see themselves and perhaps behave.

But companies that have an age-inclusive culture, and give older workers the autonomy to work on tasks that they enjoy doing and find challenging and stimulating, "will motivate them to put in effort, learn and develop themselves, and will increase their health and well-being, as well as the contributions they can make to the organisation", she added.

Customer and administrative executive Rosie Tong, 67, who works at home-grown diesel and lubricant business Interion, said she is glad to be treated like any one of the workers despite being the oldest of the 20 employees.

She did not have such a good experience at her previous job, which she held until 2013.

Madam Tong said she was moved from the call centre into the sales department due to company restructuring and could not keep up with younger colleagues as she did not have much training in using a computer.

Her supervisor also asked her to do multiplication sums in front of her. "My morale was low. I felt I could have done better without that pressure," said Madam Tong.

Interion manager Ryan Peh said one way the company tries to accommodate older workers is to avoid overtime work so that staff do not tire themselves out.

They also try to keep office politics to a minimum, and so far the staff have been cooperative.

He said: "Elderly workers can be victims of office politics. If things get out of hand, you can say something like 'Everyone will be old next time' or 'Is this how you want your parents' colleagues or bosses to treat them?'"

Creating an age-inclusive workplace culture is the topic of a roundtable discussion tomorrow organised by The Straits Times and Tafep.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2016, with the headline 'Ageism complaints down but more can be done: Experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe