Monday, 1 May 2017

Age of golden workers: Many seniors working into 80s and 90s to stay active

Many seniors are working into their 80s and 90s in a bid to stay mentally and physically active
By Benson Ang, Lifestyle Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 30 Apr 2017

Mr Henry Lim, 81, hangs out by the swimming pool and tennis courts four to five days a week, but instead of lounging around, he is working.

A facilities assistant at Mandarin Gardens condominium in Siglap, he registers residents who want to use facilities such as the gym, swimming pool and tennis and squash courts.

“I like my job because it lets me meet people. I treat my colleagues and the residents like my friends and I like to make friends,” he says.

In the past, he was a transportation and taxi coordinator as well as an operations assistant at a local sports club. The grandfather of three and father of two daughters started his current job in November. Mr Lim, whose wife, 78, is retired, says: “I work to keep myself busy. I don’t need the money.”

Like him, many seniors are working beyond retirement age – some into their 80s and 90s. While some need the money to survive, others work to stay mentally and physically active.

Currently, the retirement age is 62, but employers must offer re-employment to eligible staff who turn 62, up to the age of 65.

From July, the re-employment age will be raised to 67 to provide more opportunities for workers who want to continue working as long as they are healthy.

The workforce in many countries is getting older and Singapore is no exception. According to Ministry of Manpower figures, the number of employed residents aged 70 and older has risen from about 16,000 in 2006 to about 43,000 last year.

The Sunday Times found six people aged 80 and older who are still working. Among them are Madam Goh Gwek Eng, 93, a McDonald’s employee; Mr Seng Lee Fong, 90, a part-time bartender at Tanglin Club in Stevens Road; and Madam Chan Woh Hoong, 88, a kitchen assistant with restaurant chain Han’s Cafe, who joined as a cleaner about 30 years ago.

The seniors who agreed to be interviewed said they did not need the money and chose to work because they wanted to stay active.

Non-governmental organisations, however, highlight that some elderly workers might, in fact, need the income to get by.

Ms Julia Lee, director of the department of social work at Touch Community Services, says: “From our observation, there are many seniors who are still working because they may need the money to supplement their little savings and to keep up with the rising costs of living.” She adds that many of them work as coffee shop assistants, hawker centre cleaners and security guards.

Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Social and Family Development, tells The Sunday Times: “There will be elderly who work because they actually need to, but prefer to say they are doing it not for money, but to keep themselves occupied.

“Some give their answers because of pride. Some are indeed not being supported by their children, but prefer... not to approach them for help.

“Some do not want to turn to social service offices or family service centres for help. And certainly, some just shy away and do not want to be interviewed.”

This group, however, is probably not very large , he adds. “Most people who need help are being assisted by various agencies, such as the Government, charities and religious organisations.”

Figures from the Ministry of Social and Family Development suggest that the number of needy elderly in Singapore is rising.

From financial year 2012 to 2015, the number of elderly households – with main applicants aged 70 and older – receiving short- to medium term assistance from ComCare rose from 1,627 to 2,464.

ComCare’s short-to-medium term assistance provides financial help for a temporary period to individuals who are unable to find work for some time.

Over the same period, the number of elderly households receiving long-term assistance from Com- Care also rose, from 2,310 to 2,585.

Such assistance – also known as public assistance – helps people who are permanently unable to work and support themselves, as well as have limited family support.

Casual worker Lim Swee Ee, 90, is fortunate and does not fall into this group. In fact, she refuses to accept a salary. The Singaporean, who has been serving customers at the Khian Guan Goods trading store at Albert Centre in Bugis for the last 20 years, says: “I’m old, what can I do with money? I will accept only food as my ‘salary’.”

She adds: “I am very happy interacting with customers – finding out what they want and helping them.

“I know I can retire, but I don’t want to. If I stop working, I think my brain and body will shut down.”

Doctors say that from a medical, standpoint, there is no research to suggest an age at which it is advisable to retire. Whether one should continue working depends on one’s physical and cognitive functionality, and the type and intensity of one’s work, they say.

Dr Pang Wee Yang, a consultant who specialises in geriatric medicine at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, says: “There is no reason to believe a person suddenly loses his ability to function effectively on the stroke of midnight on his or her 67th birthday.”

Associate Professor Reshma A. Merchant, head of National University Hospital’s division of geriatric medicine, notes that of people aged 65 to 69, only 3 per cent are considered “frail” and 63 per cent are considered “robust and healthy”. This is based on her research on the prevalence of frailty in the western region of Singapore. Of those aged 75 and older, only 9 per cent are considered “frail”.

“A few of my patients continue to, mwork in hawker centres and have remained relatively healthy in their 80s.”

One of them, in his 90s, even learnt a new language, she adds.

Ms Helen Lim, founder and chief executive of Silver Spring, a job matching site for mature workers, says there are benefits to working beyond 80. “Working helps them keep dementia and loneliness at bay. More m importantly, it gives them a sense of purpose and independence.”

While doctors generally agree that employment contributes to better physical, cognitive and psychological well-being, some qualify that such positive effects are not exclusive to working.

Dr Pang says: “Such effects can just as effectively be reaped from non-work activities. It really boils down to what, or where, one finds meaning in life.”


Working since he left school at Primary 2

Since September 2015, Singaporean Koh Kow Yin, 83, has been working at Third Place cafeteria in Tuas. He is a full-time catering assistant there.

"All my friends are dead or retired. Many ask me why I am still working. I tell them it just makes me happy.

"I am not short of money. But if I do not have a job, I will have nothing to do and would feel so restless.

"I currently work five hours a day, from Monday to Friday. I cut and prepare fruit - such as watermelon, papaya and starfruit - for customers.

"This cafeteria is operated by Select Group, a company that provides food services, and I also prepare fruit platters for other staff cafeterias under the group.

"I am a grandfather of three and have two sons, aged 60 and 59, and a daughter, 57, with my first wife who died six years ago.

"My second wife, Madam Ong Ah Sim, 65, is a dishwasher in the same cafeteria as me.

"We live in a one-room Housing Board flat in Boon Lay.

"Since leaving school at Primary 2, I have always been employed.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, I worked at an army camp canteen. In the 1970s and 1980s, I was a mechanic, fixing and maintaining machinery used for carpentry and aeroplane parts.

"When I turned 67 in 2001, my then-employer let me go because its insurance no longer covered me.

"I then became an office cleaner for 14 years, after which I was again let go because of my age.

"That was when I came to Third Place for a walk-in interview and was hired.

"I am back to preparing food for customers. And I like it.

"I guess whether to work or not really depends on whether it makes you happy.

"I think most people my age would not want to work. But for me, being employed helps me stay active and keeps me occupied.

"My eyesight is poorer than before and my movements are slower, but I have no health problems. So as long as my body lets me, I want to keep working."

Ploughing on: The faces and insecurities of Singapore’s elderly working poor

The poverty rate has been rising among the working elderly, one study shows. Why do seniors here feel the need to work for long hours and low pay, despite the help schemes available for the needy?
By Kane Cunico, Yvonne Lim and Jade Han, Channel NewsAsia, 7 May 2017

They get taken for beggars sometimes as they poke through the trash, by people who exclaim “eiyuh!” in disgust. Impatient drivers honk as the duo push their laden trolleys along the road.

“My brother cannot hear the cars horn,” said the man who asked to be known as ‘Eddie’. “When I tell them he cannot speak or hear, most say sorry. Others curse and say, ‘****, lah, I don’t care’.”

The 63-year-old has long since learned to swallow his pride and let such comments slide, over 20 years of doing what he must to look after his deaf-mute brother, who is 68 and diabetic.

This includes scrounging for odd jobs, in between forays to pick and sell cardboard around their Serangoon one-room rental flat, in any weather.

“We’ve collected in the rain. I got sick. It's okay when (my brother) falls sick; I cannot fall sick, because I am basically his ears and head, so he’s in trouble,” said Eddie, who pushes a trolley stacked with cardboard higher than his 1.5-metre frame.

A good day is when the brothers collectively make about S$20. That’s with a haul of nearly 200kg, depending on price fluctuations. Said Eddie: “After a long time, our bones start to ache. It really hurts.”


Life had looked a lot different, once.

Back then, Singapore, like Eddie, was young and the economy booming (“if you wanted jobs, there was one for you,” as he put it). Earning steady money as a factory worker, construction labourer, driver and printer, he built up a family and a comfortable nest egg over the years.

Eddie was left to care full-time for his deaf-mute brother, which meant he could no longer hold a steady job. His brother’s life as a cardboard-picker became his own. “No choice. Back then there weren’t all these concessions for the elderly, or Pioneer Generation card; we had only ourselves to rely on.”

As Singapore ages, the number of seniors who work into their silver years is growing too – especially among the lower-income group, for whom retirement is an alien concept.

In recent years they have become more visible as food court cleaners, servers, security guards, tissue-sellers and scrap collectors. Given Singapore’s plethora of help schemes for the needy – such as the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP) and Silver Support Scheme for the old – why do the elderly poor feel the need to work for long hours and often low pay?

Do the jobs that the elderly poor do, as well as society’s safety nets, offer them adequate sense of security and quality of life in their old age?


In a 2015 paper on elderly poverty in Singapore written for the Tsao Foundation, Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy made one surprising observation – while the poverty rate among elderly persons not working had fallen over the years, that for elderly persons in the workforce appeared to have actually increased dramatically.

The poverty rate among the working elderly jumped from 13 per cent in 1995, to 28 per cent in 2005 - to 41 per cent in 2011.

“This should be a strong reminder that work cannot be relied upon as the only, or even the primary, response to income insecurity in old age,” Dr Ng wrote.

According to Manpower Ministry figures, in 2016 about 23 per cent of persons over 65 in the formal workforce were earning less than S$1,000 a month. That’s less than the 36 per cent in 2013, and 57 per cent in 2003, indicating that earnings for elderly workers have been rising.

But inflation and wages in the rest of society have also risen. And Dr Ng’s calculation draws the comparison between the elderly and the general population. It uses 40 per cent of the median population work income as a “convenient poverty line”, and compares that to elderly individuals’ incomes (which, besides work, could include sources such as children and state assistance).

Overall, Dr Ng has estimated that 6 in 10 elderly people in Singapore in 2011 were poor by that measurement.

He acknowledges that what is considered poor “is debatable”, and notes that a project commissioned by the Tsao Foundation is looking into how much elderly households actually need for a decent standard of living in Singapore. (Singapore has no official statistics when it comes to elderly poverty, or poverty for that matter.)


“In Singapore, no money how to live?”, is what Mr Ong Hock Soon says if asked why he is working long hours as a hawker’s assistant at the age of 69.

But in the same breath, he’ll tell you that he has turned down offers of social assistance, and would rather be self-reliant and “work until cannot move”. That mentality of independence is something that crops up repeatedly among the working elderly.

Ms Nurasyikin Amir once thought like most people – that seniors should stop going around collecting heavy loads of cardboard. “Like, rest at home, you’re old, retired already,” said the volunteer with the Happy People Helping People Foundation, which assists cardboard collectors like Eddie.

“But what we came to realise is that when they collect boxes, they feel more empowered; they are earning their own money, even though it’s not much, maybe S$2, up to S$10 a day. Who are we to stop them, right?” she said.

Some don’t want to be a burden on their children. Like food-court cleaner Wong Yeow Kee, 85, who works a 3pm to 11pm shift.

Even when he’d chalked up hefty arrears, Mr Ng Teak Boon, 85, never thought about asking agencies for help. Estranged from his five children, he has been selling ice cream for 20 years from a pushcart, living on roughly S$950 a month from earnings and Silver Support payments.

“I will sell ice cream until I die,” he said. “It’s better to go outside. If you stay at home and watch TV, you will fall sick.”

Indeed, there are those receiving financial assistance who still do the occasional odd job to “find meaning in life”, said Mr Ng Koon Sing, head of COMNET Senior Services under Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre (AMKFSC) Community Services.

But yet others do it out of “insecurity” and fear that “the money will run out”, he also noted.

Many would have worked at low-paying jobs most of their lives, with modest or hardly any savings which illness and vices like gambling can quickly wipe out.


And there are those like Eddie, who seem to fall through the cracks.

These days his brother gets Public Assistance of S$500 a month and the PGP, so they need not worry about the cost of treatment for his high blood pressure and diabetes.

But Eddie himself has no such benefits. He is working, but not consistently enough to qualify for the Workfare wage supplement. He can’t access his CPF funds until he hits 65. And the fact that he has a son makes qualifying for certain social assistance tough.

His son, who works as a salesman, is able to give him “S$100 here and there” but his income is inconstant, Eddie said.

Dr Ng calls this “a classic case of how there are various gaps (in the system) that I think we can do better at patching”.

(Note: Since being alerted to Mr Ng’s and Eddie’s cases, the Ministry of Social and Family Development says its Social Service Offices have reached out to them.)


Those kinds of limited job opportunities for an elderly person with little education is what concerns observers.

The older they get, those who previously held blue-collar jobs would find themselves even lower down the workforce rung, noted Dr John Donaldson, who has written on poverty in Singapore.

“One could have been a welder in their younger years, but today, they have to downgrade and become a cleaner,” said the Associate Professor of Political Science at the Singapore Management University.

Mr Ong, the hawker's assistant, had a good gig going in construction for 35 years - a job he had held since leaving school after Secondary 2. Though tough work, the skills he honed paid off. “It was good money,” he said.

“There was less work to be had. We could not compete,” said Mr Ong, admitting that he’d also gambled away whatever money he had made, and was estranged from his family.

Starting over as a food stall assistant, he soon found that getting a position that paid adequately was tough. Jobless at one stage, he resorted to free food handouts.

Eventually, the Community Development Council helped place him in a job that now pays S$1,000 a month – enough, he says, to live on.

But wheels have been in motion to bolster the earnings of older workers. The Government’s roll-out of the Progressive Wage Model has scaled up incomes in the cleaning, landscape and security sectors –where low-wage older folks tend to gravitate.

Mr Liew Sue Weng, 67, had been working since the age of 13 in jobs like construction and shipyards. He picked up landscaping at the Employment and Employability Institute and now draws S$1,300 a month, working a five-day week as a gardener.

The irony? He says he’s been asking his boss to lower his pay – because he’s afraid he might get a reduced subsidy on his S$50-a-month rental flat.

Then there is the Workfare supplement, paid by the State to top up the wages of eligible low-income older workers.

The hitch? Those doing informal work like Eddie, who don’t work for a full month, don’t benefit. And manual jobs carry the element of uncertainty, often depending on health, noted Dr Ng: “I may have enough for tomorrow, but I have no way to plan for next year and the next.”

Take Madam Lee Yuit Mei, 67, who has osteoporosis. She used to earn S$800-S$1,000 as a full-time cleaner, but after breaking her wrist in a fall in 2010, she switched to working part-time.

She now makes just S$350 a month working three-hour days, four times a week. But with savings squirreled away over the years, she can meet her living expenses, she says.


For those less lucky and in need of temporary financial aid, there is the ComCare Short to Medium Term Assistance scheme. Those aged 55 and over made up about 35 per cent of applicants in 2015 – up from 29 per cent in 2012.

Indeed, the problem in Singapore is not the lack of schemes to help the elderly poor – as, say, compared to other countries in the region featured earlier in this series (read the full series here.) 

Said Mr Simon-Peter Lum, assistant manager of COMNET Senior Services under AMKFSC Community Services: “We’d be hard-pressed to find seniors who are the abject poor, compared to other countries.”

For instance, those on Public Assistance may not get a lot of cash upfront, which has often been noted by critics - but, Mr Lum pointed out, they get many other subsidies (such as for medical treatment) and fee waivers (such as rental).

The problem, rather, is that there are too many targetted help schemes – with varying criteria and limiting conditions attached, observers say. This creates two types of problems.

One: Confusion and lack of understanding, which might explain why some elderly poor would rather just carry on working than attempt to seek support. Said Dr Ng: "Researchers don’t understand the schemes fully, civil servants don’t often understand all the schemes available, so how would those people know where to get the help?"

He continued: “If I am collecting cardboard, am I going to spend time figuring out how the schemes work, and then test out each one to see if I qualify; or am I going to work so that I can secure tomorrow’s expenses? I am going to work!”

Two: Having to jump through hoops to meet criteria, means that some will fall through the cracks.

Take the requirement that applicants don’t have children who can support them. Said Ms Nurasyikin: “Just because they have kids, it doesn’t mean that they are taken care of… But (applicants) don’t get the assistance just because the database shows that they have kids.”

The further danger, said Dr Ng, is that such rigorous means-testing would “discourage others who might actually qualify if they tried”.

Ms Wong Yock Leng, a senior social worker with Tsao Foundation, said: “When you ask for ComCare assistance, they will check for everything… That’s why a lot of people don’t apply anymore after that. It’s so daunting, the whole process.”


But the future face of Singapore’s elderly poor may not be today’s low-wage worker that social safety nets typically serve.

Said Ms Wong: “The one-room flat, low-income group, they have a lot of support. But it’s the three- or four-room flat, the middle-income people, who will bring their problems into their old age. And we have a lot of clients like this – asset rich and cash poor.”

She said the “real urban poverty” is this group which are “neither here nor there”. They may earn S$4,000 or S$5,000, but taking care of two elderly parents can drain their cash fast. “At the end of the day you won’t have much left for yourself.”

Then there is the growing number of childless Singaporeans. It is estimated that by 2030, there will be only 2.1 working-age citizens for each one aged 65 and above, compared to around 5.4 currently.

On top of that, the growing gig economy means that incomes will be less stable, while the decline of industries based on manual skills disadvantages the low-skilled worker, said Dr Ng. He added: “Technology has thrown a huge spanner into the works. Now whole industries, like taxi drivers, can disappear just like that, and no government has a solution for it.”

What does this double-whammy of population and job trends mean?

"Traditionally, you have three sources of income for retirement. You have the state that can provide for you; your family; or your younger self – your savings and so on.

But if work is going to be unstable and uncertain, if families are becoming smaller, then what else? Even in a country that’s so conscious about social spending, the Government has no choice but to look into public support schemes - so your Silver Support and your Workfare,” said Dr Ng, who also threw in the possibility of exploring a universal basic income.

SMU’s Dr Donaldson remains positive about Singapore’s ability to adapt, noting the great improvement over a short time in a country on the frontline of an ageing challenge.

He arrived in Singapore in 2005, and has co-authored several research papers and findings on poverty and the elderly.

“It’s now 2017, so if you think about change over time in terms of plugging these gaps, it is a completely different game. They – not just the Government, but society and families – are much more aware, much more focused on plugging those gaps and innovating,” he said.

This granny delivers food on foot
70-year-old UberEats 'walker' makes up to 12 trips a day delivering food in the CBD
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 15 May 2017

Under the hot midday sun, a woman wearing a funky cap and green exercise tights swiftly crosses busy roads and navigates the maze of tall skyscrapers in Tanjong Pagar to slip into a takeaway store called YOLO.

A young staff member passes her a steaming order of salmon steak in a plastic box, and teases her about being a "wonder woman".

But there is no time to banter. After pausing briefly to check her phone, she strides purposefully down two streets to enter AXA Tower in Shenton Way. Then she takes the lift up 43 storeys and arrives at the office - all within 20 minutes.

Madam Teo Yoke Lan is not a millennial yuppie who just popped out for a takeaway lunch. This 70-year-old delivers food to time-pressed office workers a third her age.

And the septuagenarian does it on foot most of the time.

In January, UberEats - the food delivery arm of ride-hailing service Uber - started signing on "walkers" to deliver food in the Central Business District. It is the only major delivery platform in Singapore that pays people to deliver food by walking.

UberEats said it has "several hundred" walkers in its network and most are students. The minimum age to be a walker is 18 and Madam Teo is among the oldest. UberEats was unable to verify if she indeed is the oldest.

Madam Teo said in Mandarin: "I don't find it tiring at all. I like it because the hours are flexible and I get money for exercising."

She has four children who are supportive of her job. She earns $1,000 to $1,500 every month, which she uses to buy things for herself and her two granddaughters, such as clothes, milk powder and diapers.

Over the last four months, Madam Teo has done over 300 deliveries in the Raffles Place and Tanjong Pagar area. The former beautician clocks in between six and 11 hours of work almost every day - that is about six to 12 trips a day.

UberEats pays up to $16 an hour, as well as up to $2 for each trip made, depending on whether it is during peak mealtimes. These rates are slightly less than what it offers its motorcycle and bicycle delivery partners.

"I applied to be a cashier at a convenience store and as a dishwasher, but none of (the companies) got back to me," she said. "It's wonderful that (UberEats) does not discriminate against the elderly."

She is not worried about facing irate customers annoyed with late deliveries as UberEats optimises the radius in which a walker can pick up and deliver food. This is to ensure that consumers get their food within 35 minutes.

UberEats declined to reveal the dispatch radius due to competitive reasons.

"Delivering food by walking is very viable in Singapore due to the density of restaurants and residential areas," said an UberEats spokesman.

It was Madam Teo's son, an Uber driver, who told her about the walking scheme. Initially, the granny, who only studied till Primary 6, feared using the mobile application and getting lost while making deliveries as she does not understand much English.

But she familiarised herself with the technology and street names so well that now, she rarely needs to refer to the Global Positioning System. She can zigzag through the area via small lanes and shortcuts.

"Other teenage deliverymen ask me how come I can walk and deliver faster than they do on a bicycle. I share with them tips on where to park and walk because there are shortcuts you can take on foot," said Madam Teo, who is one of UberEats' top delivery walkers in terms of the number of trips made.

Last Thursday, she did six trips over eight hours, delivering everything from bubble tea to salads.

Ask her if she is tired and she replies "no" with a quizzical look, as if such a possibility has never crossed her mind.

Instead of worrying about getting tired, her bigger concern is wasting time when jobs do not come in fast enough. During lull periods, she goes shopping or takes a coffee break.

One month ago, her children gave her a motorised scooter as an early Mother's Day present. She now loads her shopping items and other miscellaneous things, such as a helmet, raincoat, water bottle - she guzzles three a day - and three battery packs, on the scooter. For short-distance delivery trips, the scooter doubles up as her "walking stick", she joked, because she pushes it alongside her as she walks.

"Some relatives and friends say I am so old, I should just enjoy the good life and look after my grandchildren. Others say they are old and useless and they can't do this," said Madam Teo, who has tripped and fallen twice so far during her delivery runs.

"But age doesn't determine what you can or cannot do. Anything is possible if you want to do it. I am happy to do this for as long as possible because I feel younger and more alert when I move around."

Many working out of need, not out of choice
By Ng Kok Hoe, Published The Straits Times, 18 May 2017

Working in old age evokes two opposing images. One is of vulnerability and need, of elderly people who make a living clearing tables at hawker centres and collecting cardboard. Then there is the image of productivity, active ageing and choice, of older people who continue to work because it gives meaning and a sense of independence.

So which image better depicts the experiences of older workers?

This question has gained increasing interest as population ageing prompts measures to retain older workers, but the public remains concerned about the work conditions some elderly workers face. Ongoing debates in the news and social media disagree on the motivations of work in old age.

In a recent report, several elderly persons who were interviewed said they were working to stay physically and mentally active rather than to meet their expenses ("Age of golden workers: Many seniors working into 80s and 90s to stay active"; ST, April 30).

However the report also quotes a Member of Parliament who observed that elderly workers do not always admit that they need the income. Some even avoid seeking help because they prefer to depend on themselves.

There are reasons to be upbeat about the future. In the long run, due to better educational and economic opportunities, there will be fewer people in physically demanding manual jobs from which workers normally have to retire earlier.

Greater income accumulation in the younger years will mean that more people can make a choice about work in their later years. Central Provident Fund (CPF) coverage and account balances have been rising steadily.

However the elderly population, like all other age groups, is diverse.

When the National Survey of Senior Citizens asked elderly people in 2011 why they continued to work, more than half said that it was to meet their current living expenses.

Another 20 per cent cited concerns about long-term income security. Just 12 per cent chose to work in order to stay active, while 7 per cent were looking to occupy their time. Quite clearly, many did not consider retirement an option.

To understand this, one must consider whether elderly people's income situations allow them to make a genuine choice about employment. Despite improvement over the years, the elderly population still has fairly low incomes. The 2011 survey found that one in four elderly persons had a monthly income of $500 or less, taking into account not just income from work but all possible sources such as the CPF, family and public assistance.

It is sometimes suggested that elderly people do not need active income sources because they own assets - especially housing - that can be converted into equity when necessary, or that they may turn to their family in times of need.

But elderly people who are poorest in terms of income are also least likely to own housing. Currently almost 25,000 elderly people live in public rental housing. These tenants have no housing asset set aside for a rainy day.

Demographic trends indicate that, in future, older people will have fewer working-age children to rely on for financial support. This is worrying as adult children have traditionally been the most important source of income in old age. Already, co-residence with adult children, which helps to defray elderly parents' costs of living, is falling rapidly.

Policy developments in the last few years show that policymakers are keenly aware of these issues. A new Silver Support Scheme was recently introduced to provide up to $100 a month to elderly persons with low lifetime CPF contributions. There has been periodic tinkering around the edges of the CPF. The reach of public assistance under the ComCare programme has widened considerably. Under the terms of short- to medium-term assistance, elderly applicants are required to continue looking for work - there is no question of choice here.

Even when they are in the workforce, elderly workers cannot take economic security for granted as they tend to earn much less than younger workers.

Last year, the median monthly work income of persons aged 60 and above was $2,000, compared with $3,500 among the general population. About 13,500 of these older workers earned less than $500 per month. Measures such as the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) Scheme and the Progressive Wage Model provide critical starting points for addressing this problem.

Lower work incomes reflect the work conditions that elderly people experience. Figures from the Ministry of Manpower show that older workers are three times as likely as the average worker to hold low-paying service jobs such as cleaning, and twice as likely to work part-time and on term contracts.

Work for many older people is more insecure and less rewarding than for younger people.

In fact, as work continues to become more flexible and less secure across the economy, even younger workers will be affected, especially those who are less educated. Part-time and contract work had risen in the past when economic conditions tightened.

In the end, it is a mixed picture.

Some elderly people regard work as a source of social connectedness and personal fulfilment.

For many others, basic financial security is uncertain and staying employed is likely to be non-negotiable.

Much remains to be done so that more elderly people can make a meaningful choice about work.

The writer is assistant professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Lonely and 'waiting to die', Singapore's elderly poor find hope in many helping hands

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