Speech by Dr Amy Khor, Minister of State for Health, at The Age-Friendly Workforce Asia (AFWA) 2011 Conference, Day 2, 4 November 2011, at NTUC Centre

I am very happy to be here to join you at the inaugural Age-Friendly Workforce Asia Conference organised by the Rotary Club of Jurong Town (‘RCJT’).  

2.    This conference marks the 40th anniversary of the RCJT. 40 years of community service speak volumes about the dedication and service of RCJT. I would like to commend Rotary Club for the good it has done in the last 40 years. You have touched many lives and your work is an inspiration to us all.

Ageing will Transform the Future Labour Market

3.    This conference is yet another effort by the RCJT to promote inter-generational understanding and the employability of older workers. It is indeed timely.  We often hear this phrase nowadays - the ‘silver tsunami’.  I would say that while our population is ageing, the full impact of the silver tsunami has yet to hit us. However, in the next one to two decades, as our baby boomers age, and by the way, that includes many of us here, our ageing population will grow rapidly.  It will be much more visible and its impact on our society will be that much more profound.

4.    And that applies to the labour market too. Ageing will significantly alter the labour market here in Singapore. Our workforce profile will change quite drastically, with a much larger proportion of the existing workforce ageing and perhaps retiring. When a significant number retire, the labour supply will shrink and add to the tightness in the labour market. 

5.    Businesses will have to think about how to respond to this dramatic transformation in our workforce. Indeed, the HR conversation in recent years has been on how we can engage with “Gen Y” workers. In my view, we need to give equal if not more attention to the other end of the spectrum, and think about how we work with an ageing workforce!  Given the tight labour situation, businesses need to think about how they can capitalise on the pool of older workers and maximise the longevity and productivity of each and every one of their employees.

6.    On the other hand, individual workers may want to think about the “longevity” of their careers. In one of my recent visits to a day care centre, I saw that the majority of the seniors there are in their 80s and quite a number are near or above 100 years old. If this is the longevity of the future old, and provided our health holds up, we would all just be at mid-career at 60!  And if so, this should really change how we think about our careers and what we need to be doing to ensure that we stay relevant at the workplace, whether in terms of skills and training, and staying healthy so as to be able to stay engaged at work.  

Creating workplace environments that support older workers

7.    We cannot stop the workforce from ageing, but we can determine how we respond.  How can we manage the challenges brought about by a more rapidly ageing workforce, while maximising the opportunities therein?

8.    The conference had an invigorating discussion yesterday on getting ready for the Re-employment Act.  The Re-employment Act will provide the framework for older workers to have the opportunity to work longer.  However, with the Act taking effect next year, I would suggest that tripartite attention needs to be focused on creating the conditions to enable older workers to work longer. 

9.    Today, I would like to focus the rest of my speech on the things that each of the tripartite partners can do to maximise the longevity of talent in our workforce.    

10.    Let me first share a case study that came up in the Harvard Business Review. Back in 2007, one of BMW’s European plants decided that they had to do something to arrest what they thought was the inevitable decline in plant productivity, as their workers aged.  And so, they started an experiment, staffing one of the plant’s lines with older workers, based what the company’s age profile would be in 2017.  They started looking at how they could do things differently in working with this group of older workers.  They started a health initiative to raise awareness on health maintenance, and also to gather feedback on changes that would make the workplace a better place to work.  This started a chain of small changes- from having special footwear to reduce the strain on joints, the use of workstations with adjustable heights, to installing flexible magnifying lenses that help workers distinguish among small parts, while reducing eyestrain and mistakes.  By the end of the year, the line had achieved a productivity improvement of 7%, bringing productivity on par with lines staffed by younger workers.  Within the next year, they had brought the absenteeism rate down from 7% to 2%, which is lower than the rest of the plant!    

11.    I like this example because it demonstrates that there are many possibilities when managers open up their minds, and organisations re-imagine their work processes.  When BMW went on this journey, they surprised even themselves by proving themselves wrong- ageing does not have to mean an inevitable decline in productivity, not when organisations work in partnership with their people to co-create solutions to the ageing challenge.

12.    We need to extend the relevance of the workers to the workplace, and conversely, extend the relevance of the workplace to the workers as they age.

Setting the National Context

13.    To be able to extend the relevance of workers to the workplace, one basic starting point is to help workers remain healthy and fit for work for as long as possible. The government has invested heavily in health promotion and early detection and management of chronic illnesses.  We also understand that one of the key reservations of employers would be the impact of an ageing workforce on healthcare costs. 

14.    The government is trying to help in this area.  The Health Promotion Board (‘HPB’) actively promotes proactive screening and management of chronic diseases as well as a healthy lifestyle among Singaporeans young and old. Their Integrated Screening Programme is aimed at encouraging older Singaporeans to be screened for conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high blood cholesterol.  HPB has also launched a new community screening programme for older residents, ensuring that they get proper follow-up care by a General Practitioner (GP) near them. 

15.    Under the Primary Care Partnership Scheme (PCPS), we have improved accessibility of care by making available subsidised treatment at GP and dental clinics to patients above the age of 40.  The Chronic Diseases Management Programme (CDMP) allows for the use of Medisave for outpatient treatment for a number of common chronic conditions and health screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies. Both schemes have recently been extended to cover bipolar disorder and dementia, to make it more affordable for Singaporeans to manage these conditions.

16.    Over the years, the tripartite partners have also been working hard to bring about a flexible, competitive and performance-based wage system. This involves moving away from a seniority–based wage system to one that is based primarily on workers’ performance and productivity.  Moving away from a seniority-based wage system allows both employers and employees more flexibility to extend the longevity of the work relationship.  The results are encouraging.  As at December 2010, more than 6 in every 10 employees are now on wage systems which are reflective of performance and not seniority.  

Older workers need to maintain their relevance 

17.    The government also helps workers to remain competitive and employable by investing in their continuing training and education.  With the Workforce Development Agency’s continuing education and training infrastructure in place, workers can upgrade themselves by gaining skills and certification, whether in essential areas such as literacy and numeracy, or to develop in their careers by gaining industry skills.

18.    While we can make the national context more conducive to workers who wish to work longer, workers themselves need to want to work longer and take charge of their own career planning and development. 

19.    Individual workers must take responsibility for their own health management and make personal efforts to maintain their fitness for work. They also need to make an effort to learn, unlearn and re-learn new knowledge and skills to maintain their relevance in the workplace for as long as possible.

20.    Beyond hard skills, I guess each one of us also needs to prepare ourselves mentally for inevitable changes in the workplace if we want to work longer. On this, the individual has to make his own effort because it is not so much a skill that you can be trained in. Part of this mental transition includes working out new work priorities for ourselves, being open to new possibilities and new job responsibilities, being open to picking up new skills, and even being able to communicate and work well with our younger colleagues, including potentially younger supervisors, at work.

Employers Must Make the Workplace Inclusive and Relevant to Older Workers

21.    Last but not least, employers play a critical role in determining whether the workplace is age-ready, age-friendly and inclusive.  Employers can make the workplace more relevant to older workers in a few ways.

22.    Employers may like to consider investing in preventive health programmes at the workplace, which can not only extend the longevity of their workforce but also increase their productivity.  Employers can support older workers in the detection and management of risk conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, by offering workplace health screenings and encouraging follow-up care.  HPB is piloting a tighter follow-up care model called “CHAMP – Corporate Health Analysis and Management Programme”, through which they support companies in providing tailored health coaching and interventions for employees with detected risk conditions such as high blood pressure, weight and cholesterol, following a workplace health screening.  We hope that this pilot will yield good learning points on effective chronic disease management which other companies can then emulate. 

23.    In addition, employers can take concrete steps to position themselves favourably in the future labour market, by rethinking HR policies to make their businesses an employer of choice for experienced older workers. Flexibility is key. Older workers in particular, may be drawn to part-time or more flexible work arrangements, as they may desire greater flexibility at this stage of their lives.  Employers can support this by putting in place flexible work arrangements such as part-time work or telecommuting, as well as remuneration packages that are better able to appeal to the needs of older workers. To better retain older workers, businesses may well also have to build an age-friendly corporate culture, and train up managers to be able to manage older workers effectively and tap on their strengths. Employers can also review if work process can be changed to help increase the productivity of the older workers, including leveraging on technology, especially if the work is more physical in nature.

24.    Finally, I would encourage employers to take an active interest in the training and career development of their older workers so that they can continue to contribute meaningfully to the workplace.  For work to be engaging and meaningful, employees need to feel a sense of fulfilment and growth; this applies to older workers as well.   There is scope for organisations to look at how they can help older workers continue to develop at the workplace.  This need not necessarily take the form of career advancements or promotions, but could also be in the form of new roles where their skills are best put to use, for example in mentoring and coaching other staff.  

Conclusion

25.    Singapore’s economy has been enriched by strong labour, employer and government relations.  We should extend the tripartite co-operation to dealing with the issue of a rapidly ageing workforce.  Each tripartite partner has a key role to play in promoting the longevity of talent in the workplace. There really is no single silver bullet for the silver tsunami, if you pardon the pun.  Rather, we can help workers to work longer and more meaningfully, if each of our tripartite partners makes a series of efforts together and has the determination to see them through over time. By working together, I am confident that we can achieve a win-win-win, for workers, for companies and for the economy.

26.    This conference is a good opportunity for tripartite partners to come together to discuss new strategies and co-create better solutions, and I look forward to an interesting dialogue with you.

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