Rethink retirement as the grand finale to working life

Elderly men at Raffles Place on Aug 24, 2015.
Elderly men at Raffles Place on Aug 24, 2015.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Retirement, the romanticised finale to a lifetime of labour, demands honest re-examination in an ageing society like ours.

Evidently, Singaporeans, on average, are living longer and participating in prolonged retirements ("'Healthy lifespan' gets longer in S'pore"; Dec 7 and "Longer healthy lifespan, more time to grow nest egg" by Mr Geoffrey Kung Kuo-Woo; Dec 10).

Yet, what was meant to be a trend worth celebrating bears significant socio-economic consequences we are not adequately prepared for.

It has become more apparent that retirement's promises of fulfilment in continual holidays and unmarked calendars are increasingly unrealistic, and even dangerous when expectations are unmet.

Financially, the same amount of savings needs to be stretched over a longer period of time, thereby reducing the purchasing power and welfare of unemployed seniors.

More importantly, however, are the effects retirement has on the social well-being of the elderly, particularly the absence of social interaction and cognitive stimulation that often accompany employment.

It is unfortunate, though not entirely unimaginable, that the "golden years" of hard-earned respite have been revealed to be so unbearable for some that taking one's own life is the less painful alternative ("More seniors in S'pore taking own lives"; last Thursday and "Vital to help seniors feel connected with society" by Mr Jeffrey Law Lee Beng; last Saturday).

The concept of defining retirement as a person's golden years of freedom from work should be an erstwhile ideal of a bygone era. Employment should not be the antithesis of retirement, but an essential component of it. 

Post-retirement employment should be championed more fiercely as Singapore greys, and flexi-work, its defining characteristic, is key.

By giving retirees the autonomy to choose exactly when they are willing to work and at what frequency, seniors are able to enjoy the benefits of retirement, while still retaining a minimum level of activity through employment.

Notably, flexi-work benefits businesses as well. With overhead costs no longer fixed, firms are better equipped to match employment numbers to the fluctuations of economic cycles - hiring more in busier months and less in quieter seasons.

Post-retirement employment is admittedly not a new phenomenon.

Some companies, such as cooking schools, already hire stay-at-home mothers and active seniors in flexi-work programmes. Seniors in such employment can balance retirement with employment, and can work schedules around planned holidays or leisure time.

As a larger proportion of Singaporeans age, our definition of retirement urgently needs to evolve from passivity to activity.

Reintroducing employment into retirement could be a building block towards that transformation.

Nicholas Koh Jin-Yuan  

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'Rethink retirement as the grand finale to working life'. Print Edition | Subscribe