In the 2015 movie, The Intern, screen legend Robert De Niro plays 70-year-old widower Ben, who becomes an intern to Anne Hathaway's character Jules, the young founder and president of a fast-growing fashion e-commerce start-up. Ben is eventually recognised and valued for his decades of experience, and becomes a mentor to many of the company's millennial employees.
With Singapore's population ageing at a faster pace than in most other countries, The Intern is indeed an apt parable of our times. With the median age in Singapore expected to rise from 40.6 in 2010 to 53.7 in 2050, mature employees such as that of Mr De Niro's character will become increasingly commonplace. A workforce that will become progressively older and more experienced presents a different set of challenges for employers. The effective leveraging and management of "silver" human capital will be crucial not only for the future of organisations, but also for the future of the country as a whole.
Success will hinge on how well employers and workers can make the following four changes:
• re-examining existing attitudes;
• redesigning workplaces and environments;
• realigning firms' priorities to match those of older workers; and
• adopting a lifelong learning framework that retrains older workers in a holistic but precise manner that balances industry needs with personal passions.
There is extensive evidence to show that older employees are just as effective at work as their younger colleagues. Since cognitive performance does not markedly decrease until after the age range of 70 to 80, older workers in professional, managerial and executive jobs could potentially continue to excel for years after the current re-employment age of 62.
But ageist attitudes in the workplace continue to work against employment of older workers. Studies have found that the treatment of older employees by their employers and colleagues has a significant influence on seniors' decision to either continue working or retire.
In today's workplaces, with several generations working alongside one another, companies should apply fair practices to all age groups, not privileging one group over another. Rewards and compensation should be based on merit and objective measures of performance, not age. Otherwise, even the younger employees may become demoralised if they perceive that their efforts, achievements and career aspirations are not being assessed on an equal footing by their employers.
The second critical step in managing an ageing workforce is to redesign workplaces, adjust working conditions and retool work environments. Studies have shown that ergonomic workplace design is particularly important for mature employees as efficiency of the senses, physical strength and speed decline with age.
Ageist attitudes in the workplace continue to work against employment of older workers. Studies have found that the treatment of older employees by their employers and colleagues has a significant influence on seniors' decision to either continue working or retire.
Workplace design that reduces workloads is not only necessary for mature employees with health problems, but are also concurrently a healthcare measure for younger employees. Moreover, the use of technical, strength-increasing work aids can help to prevent the physical overtaxing of mature employees and reduce the physical load on younger employees, thus helping to prevent injury. In relation to the design of breaks, the more strenuous the work, whether physically or mentally, the greater the need for scattered break times. It was discovered that even micro-breaks of only one or a few minutes have an important recovery effect.
People's priorities change with age. Local surveys have found that many mature employees would like to work fewer hours or shorter days. Some need to care for ailing aged parents, or grandchildren. One survey found that among mature employees aged 45 and above, one of the most likely causes of their "earlier-than-intended cessation of work" is the emergence of family needs.
Other older workers want to work fewer hours for health reasons, while another group is focused on spending more time with family, or on travel.
Companies can consider the needs and interests of these groups and where feasible, structure work to accommodate them. Not only will such flexible work arrangements benefit mature employees, but they will also enable companies to continue to tap their valuable experience and skills which otherwise would be lost to the organisation.
Singapore is currently competing in a 21st-century knowledge economy, which is much more complex and fast-changing than before. Intellectual capital is the new competitive advantage. The Government considers lifelong learning to be one of the most important strategies in moving towards a knowledge-based economy. This is evident from the slew of initiatives promoting continual learning.
Mature employees are urged to undergo continual training. Local research shows that mature employees want to learn new tasks and take on new work roles, use diverse forms of learning support and are self-directed in learning. However, some may lack confidence to learn new skills and take on new forms of work despite their interest and capacities. A targeted approach is therefore required to offer the guidance, encouragement and support they need. In terms of training design, it was found that mature employees desire to be positioned not just as "students" but also as "resources" with valuable experiences, skills and knowledge to offer to others, even as they are learning from others.
While some mature employees prefer to learn through an opportunity to share information, others prefer to learn through practice, observation, listening to and working closely with other colleagues, and even on-the-job training. These workers can be positioned as both learners and facilitators who help others to learn.
In a local survey, two-thirds of those in the 50 to 59 age group said the opportunity to "guide and teach younger workers" would make work more attractive to them. Older employees, particularly professionals, managers and executives, want their workplaces to fully harness and develop their capacities, including deploying them as mentors. Employers could attempt to create such opportunities for them.
The current phenomenon of an ageing workforce will continue, in Singapore as well as in many countries across the world. Forward-looking organisations will accept this as a "new normal" and put in place systems and processes to leverage the proven attributes, strengths and potential of older people to remain viable.
We need to work together to adopt these four key strategies - re-examining, redesigning, realigning and retraining. Only then will we revive and renew the passion and commitment of this group of experienced workforce. After all, who wouldn't want to hire Robert De Niro as an intern?
• The writer is executive director, Beyond Age; and senior lecturer, master of gerontology programme, Singapore University of Social Sciences.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2017, with the headline 'Valuing and capitalising on an ageing workforce'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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