Commentary: Navigating the new road to modern elderhood

green and white leafed plantsSINGAPORE: The national conversation about keeping older people in the workforce habitually zeroes in on the accompanying gyrations in Central Provident Fund (CPF) rules and rates. It’s not about to change in a hurry.

But are these numbers, driven and decided by humans, the be-all and end-all of an employment future that wiser people have long seen coming?



When I started work in the 1970s, a retirement age of 55 seemed immutable and all but carved in stone. My contemporaries and I could never have imagined what’s happening now.

We’re now pushing the statutory retirement age to 63 by 2022, and 65 by 2030. It means that workers can’t legally be forced out of a job simply because their employers want to replace them with younger and cheaper hires, at least not until those already on the payroll hit the statutory retirement age.

Think about it: That “sell-by date” has advanced an entire decade from the starting point.

Even more pertinent to some may be the rise in re-employment age from the current 67 for employees born on July 1, 1955, or later. By 2022, that re-employment age will be 68, and it will rise to 70 by 2030.




But here’s the catch. While the rules require employers to offer jobs to existing employees eligible for re-employment, employers can adjust the terms of their employment.

Adjust is a frustratingly flexible word. This leaves employers free to use that as a get-out clause to arbitrarily cut the pay of workers who hit that “retirement” age. Slashing annual leave and benefits is also a doddle.

For those who stay on and continue doing exactly the same work as before that arbitrary pay cut was imposed, such clever corporate craftiness can be a marvelous morale killer and a no-brainer performance disincentive because they totally ignore the human factor.

Well-travelled Yeo Chwee fong, who retired almost 20 years ago, spends most of her time volunteering at a wellness centre for the elderly and tending to her garden.


There is another way to look at the benefits of sustaining an age-diverse workforce.

A couple of days after the changes were announced at the National Day Rally, I caught up with a couple of friends, a session which quickly turned into an extended but impromptu sharing.

It started with Clement, a self-declared IG newbie, wanting our thoughts on something he’d just posted “on IG”. On what? I was totally at a loss.

Jeanette, 40 years younger than I, and maybe 20 years younger than Clement, and more skilled in things digital than either, delivered a quickie capsule lesson on the ways of IG, that is, Instagram.

In between, I suggested story ideas to Jeanette and Clement shared insights into the music industry and the new work he’s been doing. We all also took away one another’s insights from what we had shared about the recent National Day Rally.

Uncannily, the next morning, a link to a TED talk by former boutique hotel wunderkind and visionary author Chip Conley popped up on my Google home page. Google’s algorithms must have eavesdropped on my email and WhatsApp messages!

Conley’s advice on exploiting the blessings of a five-generation workforce and “opening up the intergenerational pipelines of wisdom” struck a chord. He said:

… the one thing that can never be automated or left to artificial intelligence is the human element of business. You may not be a software developer, but you are a soft skills developer – and soft skills are the ones that will matter most in the organisation of the future.

In retrospect, it reflected what my friends and I had been doing a day earlier.

Conley’s own awakening began when he was invited by AirBnB’s co-founders to help them take their start-up global, and to mentor CEO Brian Chesky.

Conley admits he foundered at first, surrounded by engineers at least two decades his younger. Until he realised he could match his “wise eyes with their fresh eyes”, like “a modern-day Margaret Mead among these millennials,” he said. (Mead was a famed cultural anthropologist.)

Two colleagues in a discussion. (Photo: Unsplash)

You and I may have no such ambitions. But we all have experience. And most of us must surely have acquired some wisdom over the years that is worth sharing.


What baby boomers like Conley have which millennials lack is wisdom earned and learnt through years of experience.

But we don’t necessarily trust each other enough to share that wisdom, he observed. We don’t speak the same lingo, as he put it. And we each need to get inside the other’s mind.

To achieve this, those artificial age barriers so constantly and relentlessly reinforced by statistical tables, must be breached before we can reclaim and revitalise the notion of elderhood, and learn to mentor and be mentored at the same time.

In the United States, nearly four in 10 employees have a boss younger than they are, said Conley. I have no similar stats to offer but Singapore is clearly getting there.

But simply because these younger folk are parachuting into positions of power, or as he puts it, power is “cascading to the young” because of their digital intelligence or DQ, doesn’t mean they can be expected to embody all the skills they need, particularly dealing with people in order to get things done.

As Conley sums it up: “It’s hard to microwave your emotional intelligence.” EQ is what older folk like the boomers have been slow cooking for years. Having life lessons boiled, baked and burnt into us was an essential part of the process.

(Photo: Unsplash/rawpixel)

A more compelling reason for keeping older workers on the job may be that an ageing workforce can positively impact company performance.

One such study published in 2009 on the impact of ageing and age diversity on company performance authored by Uschi Backes-Gellner of the University of Zurich, and Stephen Veen of Disney Research used an employee-employer dataset covering more than 18,000 German firms and two million employees.

It found that organisational productivity doesn’t necessarily dip as the workforce ages, and that “greater age diversity can have substantial positive productivity effects, particularly in innovative and creative companies.

Another example is offered by the HR in Asia website. It cited a survey of 1,700 companies that globally age-diverse companies were more innovative, more likely to produce unconventional solutions, and also to generate more and better ideas.

While so-called experts have turned experience from asset to liability, Conley argues that in a “60 is the new 40” age, the new world of work calls for renewed regard for wisdom and what he calls the Modern Elder.


Take that tiny circle of Jeanette, Clement and me, for example. We weren’t even trying and we were learning from one another. Imagine what could be achieved if we all consciously and systematically shared our collective wisdom, reach and abilities.

Social media has greatly facilitated my staying in touch with many friends, former colleagues, students and trainees, among others, some of whom still occasionally pose questions to me, seek my advice or ask my help to edit their writing.

(Photo: Unsplash/rawpixel)

Some have gone on to become university dons, entrepreneurs, senior civil servants and newsmakers of one kind or another. Among them are those who have nudged me towards opportunities in training, writing and editing.

So I’m learning how I can be a Modern Elder. Starting with reading Chip Conley’s book, Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder.

Just as soon as I undo the unwisdom of stuffing that brand new paperback into a bag with a water bottle whose cap hadn’t been properly secured.

Irene Hoe is a writer, editor and coach and has been a journalist for many decades.

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