Sunday 21 October 2012

Towards an 'ageless' society

Society needs to remove obstacles that keep the aged from their goals
By Koh Buck Song, Published The Straits Times, 20 Oct 2012

AS THE world's population continues to age rapidly, Singapore has taken many steps to prepare for a very different future with a higher proportion of older people who will live longer. But is enough being done? Is a paradigm shift needed to change mindsets from "aged thinking" to "ageless thinking"?

"Aged thinking" is how most people today make judgments and decisions about others based on age. So younger people can, say, view some types of media or hold certain positions in society only after a specified birthday. Older people are deemed unsuitable for some jobs, or doomed to lower salaries, after arbitrary age limits.

"Ageless thinking", however, opens up opportunities in all areas of life on a fairer basis of merit, regardless of age, as far as is practical. In an "ageless society", people are not hampered from realising their potential by their own sense of self-worth, or the preconceptions of others, about age.

Dealing with ageing is not a matter of how many nursing homes are built, or how many older workers attend subsidised training courses. It is about what aspirations older people have, and how to remove the barriers that stand in their way.

It is not just about how many retirees get rehired past age 62, but whether the total environment is the best it can be to allow them to maximise their talents. The gap in untapped potential extends also to other contributions - through older people's own entrepreneurship and independent economic activity, volunteerism, and even caregiving within the home and community.

Unfortunately, unhelpful mindsets about age are clearly pervasive. At the simplest level, the common terms of address, "auntie" and "uncle", while usually respectful, often include perceptions laced with prejudice. At the worst, people beyond a certain age find it increasingly difficult to find meaningful work for fair wages. There is much to unlearn.

Some "corrective" work is already being done. Employers such as McDonald's try to deploy older staff better. Civil society organisations such as the Tsao Foundation for Successful Ageing work to help older people enhance their physical, financial and emotional well-being. These initiatives are essential, but nonetheless only pieces of the puzzle.

Much more remains undone. For instance, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices addresses cases of workplace ageism and helps affected employees seek redress. But deterring future cases may require more action, including, if necessary, more precise legislation and persistent, prominent enforcement.

The People's Association marshals considerable resources and networks to promote active ageing in the heartland. But becoming "ageless" is more than about how many seniors sign up for zumba; it is also about engaging the young, to foster a universal welcome of the value-add of seniors in every sector of life. Making the jigsaw whole requires a more holistic, expanded effort to prepare society for a different demographic landscape.

The world is only recently coming together to tackle this global issue. The First International Conference on Age-friendly Cities was held in Dublin, Ireland, in September last year, to advance thinking to make cities more age-friendly and strengthen the World Health Organisation's Global Network of Age-friendly Cities.

If Singapore were to commit officially to joining this network, it would add overall cohesiveness to the many paths on the journey towards an "ageless society", as well as engage with the growing desire among Singaporeans, young and old, to be affiliated with larger, worthy causes. Making the world more "ageless" challenges the small-mindedness behind the "Nimby" (not in my backyard) mentality that has surfaced in the social sector.

Becoming "ageless" is an area in which Singapore could even aspire to be an example to other countries. As Minister of State for Manpower and Health Amy Khor said at the "Ageless in Singapore" conference last month, Singapore can be the catalyst for creative urban solutions to improve society, and an excellent urban laboratory to test ideas to solve social and economic problems.

She said: "We can build a true ageless city only when our population respects, cares for and embraces seniors as integral members of our society."

To address the root causes of "aged thinking", myths and misperceptions need to be eradicated. Forty is not old. Retirees are not useless. Young people cannot live as if they will be young forever.

The movement against gender discrimination has seen decades of growing public support, thanks mainly to the work of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware). It is about time to create similar awareness about age discrimination.

Just like sexism, ageism will never be eradicated. But combating ageism is not about helping a few old people now, but the unending task of enlarging the total space for everyone to achieve their own goals later in life.

One thing is for sure - many more will live to taste the fruit of working towards an "ageless world".

The writer is co-founder of the "Ageless in Singapore" social movement for a more conducive world for an ageing population. The Facebook page is at

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