Commentary: Older workers vulnerable to rising tide of retrenchment as ageist mindsets persist
Poor attitudes about older workers and their ability to learn, adapt and work make them an exposed group in a COVID-19 economy, says SUSS’ Megan Ching.
SINGAPORE: A round of layoffs at Resorts World Singapore last week has shone the spotlight on the rise in retrenchments amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the World Bank, advanced economies are expected to shrink by 7 per cent, and emerging markets and developing economies, 2.5 per cent.
Singapore’s GDP growth forecast for 2020 is around -5.8 per cent.
Job losses arising from economic contraction is expected to affect middle-aged and older Singapore workers more adversely.
They are usually the first to be retrenched during an economic crisis. Once they lose their jobs, they will likely have difficulty finding another.
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The vulnerability of middle-aged and older workers is largely rooted in the somewhat pervasive assumption that an older workforce is less productive regardless of his actual abilities. This phenomenon has been described as ageism.
Gerontologist Robert Butler coined the term ageism in 1969. He defined it as a process of stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old.
A negative stereotype of the old has been prevalent in global popular culture and idiomatic sayings. A study from Cambridge University trawled through 76 pop songs in 2014 and concluded that “mainly negative representations of age and ageing” influence popular music texts.
Just think also of how often we hear people (regardless of their age) use the term “senior moment” to describe a momentary memory lapse?
Call it unconscious bias but when people share common attitudes and stereotypes about a certain group of workers, these beliefs can find their way into discriminatory practices and actions, further entrenching such thinking into our culture.
Like a virus, ageist myths can also be internalised by older people. Studies have shown that if a person is told often enough that he is useless, he will eventually grow to believe and behave as if he is useless. This learnt helplessness lowers self-esteem and contributes to social isolation, a factor associated with elderly suicides.
AN AGEING WORKFORCE YET AGEIST MINDSETS REMAIN
Today, six in 10 of the Singaporean workforce is 40 years or older.
That has not hindered Singapore’s march towards automation and digitalisation efforts. Despite an ageing workforce, Singapore’s productivity has increased by about 30 per cent over the past decade.
Much credit should be given to senior workers. Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam during the National Broadcast last month described them as a “hardworking and vigorous generation who have accumulated valuable skills and experience over the years, and still have many good years ahead of them.”
However, at the national level, ageism obstructs the development and deployment of such human capital.
Because of ingrained ageism, older workers in Singapore believe they won’t have as many chances to hone their skills.
In a February 2020 survey on ageism in the workplace, recruitment agency Randstad found that 57 per cent of Singaporeans feel there will be fewer training opportunities the older they get, with 64 per cent of those aged 55 and above feeling that way.
This perceived loss of opportunities ultimately affects morale and prospects for career advancement.
An ageist workplace typically presumes the older worker to be part of a homogenous group with outdated skills. They are viewed as less flexible, not technologically orientated and more expensive hires.
Regardless of their individual abilities, older workers are stereotypically ranked lower in creativity, alertness, health, ambition, physical strength and productivity. They’re ranked higher in susceptibility to accidents, and resistance to innovation and change.
Organisations therefore adopt the practice of not hiring older workers, an action that reduces the average age of their workforce.
Research by the American Association of Retired Persons following the 2008 global financial crisis showed older workers faced a greater likelihood of long-term unemployment, which, coupled with age discrimination and other barriers added to the challenges in finding a new job.
Even older jobseekers who do find work have trouble recovering financially, with many accepting jobs at lower pay, fewer hours and limited benefits.
Forbes further reports some employers may even use the challenging economic conditions wrought by COVID-19 as a pretext to lay off older employees because they hold views that seniors are less likely to function well in a remote-work setting requiring tech skills.
A BRIGHTER SPOTLIGHT ON AGEISM
The issue of ageism at the workplace has been raised in Parliament in recent years. Much has been said about the difficulties faced by older workers to find new jobs because of age.
The cost of hiring and retaining older workers have also been the subject of many debates, when increases in the CPF contribution rates were announced in August 2019.
The setting up of the National Jobs Council, plus the various schemes such as SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package, and Skills Future are all steps in the right direction to help the unemployed find jobs and upskill.
The Fair Consideration Framework by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower for employers to avoid discriminatory hiring practices also signals the Government’s stance on ageism. Five employers were recently penalised in March for age discrimination in hiring.
More can be done to help the older worker.
Today, the life expectancy of the average Singaporean is about 83 years. With better health and longevity, many workers will see the need to continue working beyond the current retirement age of 67.
The longevity dividend from longer lifespans is fuelling massive transformations in the workplace.
In more progressive economies that recognise the older workforce as a valuable source of human capital, governments, employers and labour unions are working together to help older people gain employment in sectors facing shortages in skills, knowledge or manpower.
In Japan, it is not uncommon to see staff from vastly different age groups working together.
Singapore aspires to be a progressive economy that fully maximises its human capital, as it reaches a critical stage in its digital transformation journey. A successful breakthrough may be hampered by anachronistic boundaries within social structures that reinforces ageist stereotypes.
The retirement age may be one such boundary. Although expressed in legislation as the minimum retirement age, it is in reality treated by most employers and even the employees themselves as the “best before” date.
Public and private sectors can address the issue of ageism by getting organisations to value diversity and engagement with the older population.
A NATIONAL CAMPAIGN NEEDED
Singapore has done well over the years in shaping national attitudes through various campaigns such as those to save water or quit smoking.
A similar effort to raise public awareness about ageism issues and bust the myths of ageist stereotypes can reshape attitudes in the workplace and society at large.
Eradicating ageism from our organisations must be a goal corporate leaders get behind. After all, ageism stands out from other forms of discrimination where the victims may be our future selves.
Megan Ching is a lifelong learner who holds a law degree from the National University of Singapore and an accounting diploma from ACCA. She is currently a Master of Gerontology student at the Singapore University of Social Sciences under scholarship from the Alice Lim Memorial Fund.