Monday 13 October 2014

Older need not mean less productive

With right motivation, training and support, workers can do well in their jobs even in their later years, says expert
By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 12 Oct 2014

Rosa Finnegan loved sharing jokes, giggled like a young girl and went to work every day in Needham, the small Massachusetts town she called home. When she finally retired late last year, the snowy haired great-grandmother of three was 101.

Born in 1912, the year the Titanic sank, Mrs Finnegan died in June this year, four months after celebrating her 102nd birthday.

She may have been old, but she was certainly not the odd one out at her company, Vita Needle. The average age of workers there is 74.

But the family-run business which manufactures needles and steel pipes is no social enterprise, says Professor Ursula Staudinger, who heads a centre dedicated to research on ageing at Columbia University in New York. "This is a profitable company that has discovered the value of older workers."

Vita Needle's success, in many ways, reflects the findings of numerous research studies that show that human beings can remain productive and engaged right till the end of their lives, says the distinguished professor of psychology who has spent more than a decade leading inter-disciplinary research on the productive potential of human ageing.

"Old age and productivity can indeed go very well together," Prof Staudinger told The Sunday Times. She was in Singapore at the invitation of the Tsao Foundation to deliver the charity's annual lecture last Thursday on the opportunities presented by ageing.

In a field dominated by negative narratives - think the proverbial silver tsunami - the psychologist's message is one of hope and promise. "We are not only living longer, but we are also healthier than ever before," she says. "Rather than fret about ageing, we must realise that we have this enormous gift of a longer life. And we must use it well."

An ageing population and fewer children will mean lower productivity only "if we continue doing things the way we have been in the past" by keeping labour market regulations and retirement age unchanged, for instance.

However, if people are encouraged to spend longer working lives, not necessarily in continuous employment, but with breaks for periods of further education and tending to family needs, then it is possible to be economically productive way past 70.

Companies and countries alike must begin to focus on "qualitative growth", rather than "quantitative growth", says Prof Staudinger.

She was born and raised in Germany which, barring Japan and Italy, has the highest proportion of older people in the world, with a fifth of its population aged 65 and above. Singapore's elderly population is set to nearly triple in 20 years, a feat that took Europe a century to achieve.

"By qualitative growth, I mean we must intensify the investment in each individual, we bring the health and educational level up and we change the labour market qualitatively so that people are motivated to work - and maintain their productivity."

This, she notes, is very different from a worker being forced to work because he cannot afford to retire.

Her research on ageing in the workplace has provided valuable insights into what makes older workers tick.

A study that looked at assembly-line workers at a car factory in Germany showed that workers who changed tasks at least three times over 16 years tended to function better cognitively than colleagues who did not, other things remaining equal.

"You have to have enough variability in what you do. The simpler the job, the more frequent these changes have to be."

A crucial determinant of productivity is the mindset of the company, and especially of supervisors.

"If everyone believes these workers are less productive and this is reinforced by supervisors and company leaders, then this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the end, the older worker believes what everyone else believes. If you are not entrusted, if you are not challenged, you will not live up to the challenge," she says.

Incentives from the state and changes in labour laws to keep the current cohort of older workers employable are one way forward, says Prof Staudinger, noting that the Singapore Government has taken several steps in this direction.

It is subsidising the wage bills of companies that hire older workers and announced earlier this month that, from next year, eligible public servants will be offered re-employment till they turn 67.

When they reach the statutory retirement age of 62, eligible workers are already offered re-employment up to the age of 65 under the Retirement and Re-employment Act which came into force in 2012.

However, current rehiring laws in Singapore give companies the option to reduce a worker's pay when they are rehired.

Prof Staudinger warns that care must be taken to see that state support does not end up being used against the interests of workers themselves.

In Europe, state incentives to companies that hire and retain older workers are tied to criteria that ensure the workers are not discriminated against. For instance, companies are required to pay older workers the same wage they would pay a younger worker for the same job. And strict minimum wage laws ensure older workers are not exploited as cheap labour.

"While crafting laws, you have to anticipate misuse and devise ways to avoid it."

- Vary the work scope. No worker can remain productive if he does the same job for 50 years. Varying tasks is crucial, says Professor Ursula Staudinger.
- Bosses' attitudes matter. A supervisor who motivates workers, sends them for training and believes in them will have more productive workers.
- A worker's motivation and belief in himself also count. Workers must feel motivated to stay in the workforce - and a fair wage is essential. Someone who is forced to work on a paltry wage because he is too poor to retire will not be motivated or productive.
- Older workers need flexibility. Many companies that offer flexible work arrangements find it gives them an edge over the competition in terms of recruitment and retention.
In a study last year of older workers in the United States, many cited arrangements such as a flexible schedule (72 per cent), the chance to work part-time (48 per cent) and the ability to work from home (36 per cent) as being absolutely essential parts of an ideal job.

Living longer, living well
The Sunday Times, 12 Oct 2014

Several scientific studies from Europe have yielded encouraging findings for countries with ageing populations.
- Human senescence - or senility - has been delayed by at least a decade. An 80-year-old today has the health and cognition of a 70-year-old from previous generations. This has been achieved by improving health.
- People are living longer and living well. In Denmark, one of the oldest nations in Europe, a man aged 75 has 91/2 more years to live, and will be dependent on others for only a third of that time.
- Chronological age cannot reveal much about the capabilities of a person. A high functioning 70-year-old may perform better cognitively than an average 35-year-old.
- The information processing capacity of the brain slows with age after peaking at 25, but experience can make up for it. In fact, it is even possible to reverse age-related deterioration of the human brain. Aerobic training for 40 minutes three times a week has been shown to increase the information processing capacity of the brain among the elderly.
- More education per person can compensate for declining birth rates when it comes to sustaining economic growth.
- In Britain, longitudinal studies have shown a decline in the prevalence of dementia from 1991 to 2011. Scientific projections show that, in 2042, Britain will be chronologically older but mentally younger. These trends have been attributed to the expansion of the education system, better health and more cognitively challenging everyday and work environments.
- Economic productivity is not the only type of human productivity. Emotional productivity refers to the way people contribute to their own and others' well being. Motivational productivity refers to how people can inspire and motivate others. So an older person can continue to be productive even after stopping work.

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