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Silver, the new gold: Longer lives offer opportunities to tap, instead of problems to solve

Seniors increasingly make up a larger share of the population, and countries, including Singapore, are making adjustments for an ageing society. But longer lives provide opportunities to be tapped rather than problems to be solved.

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Salma Khalik on 01 Sep 2019

The Straits Times

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Singapore will have the oldest population in the world by 2100, with a median age of 56.4 years, the United Nations has predicted.

 

While Singapore has been preparing for an ageing population for years, the figures pointing to such a new world ranking may, at first, not seem so desirable. Some might view the increasing number of older people as a problem to be solved.

 

However, that idea is being turned on its head.

 

In July, Finland, the fifth oldest country in the world, with 21 per cent of its population aged 65 years and older, held the first High-Level Forum on the Silver Economy to discuss how to take advantage of the longer lives people now have.

 

It was attended by people from 45 countries, and 60 speakers from government, business and other groups shared their experiences.

 

The message that emerged was this: Longer lives provide opportunities to be tapped, rather than problems to be solved.

 

Indeed, Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Health, in her address at the forum, said a healthy ageing population could continue working longer and offset the shortage of labour from smaller birth cohorts. Singapore has announced plans to raise both retirement and re-employment ages - which now stand at 62 and 67 years - to 65 and 70 years by 2030.

 

However, the move may have little impact on most companies. This is because, although the Retirement and Re-employment Act allows for employers to reduce pay and perks for older workers, the Ministry of Manpower says two in three workers in the private sector continue working beyond the age of 62 years "on their existing contracts without a specified end date". Being able to continue on existing salary also applies to all government employees who continue working in the same job.

 

Singapore's move to keep people in the workforce for longer mirrors action taken by other ageing nations. Countries like Norway, Israel, Greece and Iceland have raised retirement age to 67 years. In the Netherlands, it is 68 years.

 

Finland changed its retirement age to a flexible one, with younger cohorts having later retirement. The pension scheme there has been adjusted accordingly.

 

Says Dr Khor of the discussions at the silver forum: "One notable idea was turning the 'retirement cliff' into 'flexible retirement' by enabling individuals to continue working and contributing beyond the formal retirement age through age-friendly ecosystems and mindsets.

 

"This includes addressing ageist attitudes and encouraging companies to be more flexible in hiring and managing older workers."

 

THE SITUATION AT THE MOMENT

 

Today, Japan leads the world in having the biggest proportion of elderly people, with 27 per cent of its population over the age of 65 years. Most of the other nations with old populations are in Europe.

 

Singapore is not among the countries with the highest proportion of seniors. People aged 65 years and older account for 14 per cent of the population. This does not even put it among the top 25 nations, where the elderly account for 18-27 per cent of the population. But by 2030, one in four of Singapore's total population will be at least 65, according to government projections.

 

As the number of people aged 65 years and older increases, the fear is a falling old-age support ratio - the number of working population, aged 20-64 years, supporting people aged 65 years and above.

 

The ratio fell from 13.5 in 1970 to just 4.8 last year, due largely to falling birth rates and people here living longer. In fact, Singaporeans overtook the Japanese recently as the world's longest-lived people.

 

OPPORTUNITIES, NOT DIFFICULTIES

 

A dominant narrative that emerged at the forum is that change is needed - and governments, businesses and society need to reassess the implications of an ageing society.

 

The United Nations said last year was the tipping point when there were more people aged 65 years and older than there were children five years and younger. By 2050, the older cohort will be double that of youngsters.

 

Dr Michael Hodin, head of the Global Coalition on Ageing, told the forum that there are now more than one billion people aged 60 years and older. This number will double by 2050. He said: "Done right, the ageing society will be a multiplier of global GDP. But first, we need to undo the culture of ageism."

 

Among the Swedes, for example, four in five people aged 65 years and older travel every year.

 

Ms Britt Monti, creative leader at Ikea of Sweden, shared that her company will be launching a "Caring" range of products in May next year, the result of four years of research and planning. Her team had studied "the global macro trends and how they affect people at home" and saw the need to build for seniors as "what's on the market today are ugly and expensive".

 

Dr Khor's take at the forum was that she liked the predominant view that ageing should not be regarded as challenges to be solved, but "is a positive force with great potential and opportunities".

 

REMAINING IN THE COMMUNITY

 

Mr Martin Seychell, deputy director-general of health at the European Commission, said chronic diseases are not inevitable. In Singapore, two in three seniors have at least one chronic condition.

 

But people need to care for their health early in order to enjoy a healthy and active old age, he said.

 

A Finnish study found that more than 100,000 seniors in Finland were malnourished, resulting in 650,000 hospital referrals a year. Preventing malnutrition in this group could save the country €515 million (S$789 million) a year.

 

In Sweden, doctors provide supplements to 80 per cent of seniors to prevent this. The Swedes suffer less than five years of unhealthy life, the shortest in Europe, and possibly the world. Singaporeans have about a decade of ill health.

 

Like the Finns, about half the older people here are not eating enough protein, resulting in their losing muscle and bone mass. The Health Promotion Board hopes to address this by getting manufacturers to add powdered protein to food normally eaten by seniors, such as soup, tofu and ice cream.

 

Also showcased at the forum was how technology can help keep people living in the community for longer, even as they grow more frail.

 

Mr Seychell said providing integrated care can increase independence and alleviate isolation in seniors who have difficulty going out. This included having virtual lunch mates, connected through tablets, so they can chat. The advent of the revolutionary 5G network will spawn more devices to keep seniors connected and cared for.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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