Many elderly work out of need, not out of choice

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The National Survey of Senior Citizens showed that senior citizens did not consider retirement an option, contrary to the myth that the elderly work to keep fit or stay active.

The survey found out in 2011, more than 50 percent of elderly people continued to work to meet their living expenses. 20 percent mentioned concerns about future financial security, less than 11 percent chose to work in order to stay active, and only 6 percent said they were looking to occupy their time.

Table source: National Survey of Senior Citizens 2011

This survey result was brought up by Ng Kok Hoe, assistant professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Mr Ng wrote his opinion on this subject in The Straits Times on 18 May.

Mr Ng wrote, “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 showed that less than 10 percent of elderly persons had a monthly income less than $500, from all sources such as the CPF, family support, and public assistance.

Table source: National Survey of Senior Citizens 2011

Mr Ng said, 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,” he pointed.

It was also revealed that demographic trends indicate older people will have fewer working-age children to rely on for financial support in the future. 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, Mr Ng wrote.

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

“Work for many older people is more insecure and less rewarding than for younger people,” he stated.

The figures in the survey showed 23 percent of older workers hold low-paying service jobs such as cleaners and labourers, 10 percent had clerical works, and 30 percents worked in sales and service. Less than 30 percents had senior official and managerial positions, professional and associate professional  occupation, plus self employment.

Table source: National Survey of Senior Citizens 2011

In the end, it is a mixed picture, some elderly people regard work as a source of social connectedness and personal fulfillment, Mr Ng said, but 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,” Mr Ng stated.

Prominent economist and social analyst Lam Keong Yeoh lauded Mr Ng for his writing on his Facebook.

Me Yeoh wrote, “Excellent article by Asst Prof Ng Kok Hoe putting to rest the myth that the elderly work to keep fit or stay active.”

“Or that we are doing anything close to enough to help or honor our poor elderly pioneers. Disgraceful,” he cried.

Many Facebook readers were also in line with Mr Yeoh, as shown in their comments on The Straits Times Facebook post of the article:

Freddie Seah wrote, “When I look at the billion dollars lost that GIC can afford but government not even willing to give a better monetary welfare to our senior citizens. Everything increase did the MCYS increase the Monetary welfare. With these, you can see how well the government take care of their citizens and how emphatic they are towards their citizens.”

Dave Tan wrote, “Definitely there are elderly who chose to continue working in order to stay active. But it is only a very small portion of them. Face the fact, most elderly work in order to survive. Thus it is totally meaningless to discuss on those who work to stay active. Instead should study why most elderly need to continue working in order to live.”

Tennas Than wrote, “In Singapore... Middle and low income earners work for the need. There are not really much choices. Unless the government says a multi millionaire started to collect plates at hawker center.... then that is a choice.”

Wanggee Lim wrote, “Of course most of the elderly today when life was a struggle in Singapore, without much or even no education and living in a poor city after World War 2, how much can they save for old age now. No one like to toil and work fingers to the bone at 70s or 80s unless out of necessity. Some out of pride may say they work to keep themselves sharp. In realty, they are toiling to keep alive. Why don't the government do a survey and see how these section of the old and forgotten can be helped.”

Inom Chua wrote, “The authorities should give its citizens the benefit of a doubt that they are discerning enough to know the difference between:
PROPAGANDA : Elderly prefer to work to stay active n healthy. i.e. Aging with Empowerment.
REALITY : Elderly at their stage of health prefer to be taken care of without feeling beholden to anyone i.e. Aging with Assistance & Care.”

Dennis Teo wrote, “This is contradicting to what some minister said that they are doing it for exercise.”

However, some readers also stated that not working is not a good exercise:

Cecilia Oh wrote, “Staying at home without working you die faster within 5 years so says my retired goverment servant friend. She passed away within 3 years while my boss gave me a 5 years extension. I’m 68 years and 16 days to be exact. Hahaha. An old lady of 97 once commented ‘banyak kerja tak boleh mati tidak ada kerja cepat mati’ hahaha.”

Siti Nor'aini A S wrote, “Depends on individual... if you don’t have savings at that age, no one to support you, no choice have to work to support yourself for food, medical and other bills... but there are others who have savings but don’t like to stay idle at home and choose to work to kill time... but sadly at that age, for some, such jobs are only available for them...”

Janis Tang wrote, “I think it is good to stay active mentally and physically after you reach retirement age. I'd not want to do a demanding job in my advance years - just do the work and leave without any worry about deadline.”

David Teo wrote, “Everyday in the morning I see a few uncles sitting at the void deck either staring at one another or sitting all alone or walking around aimlessly. Won’t it be better if they have some work to do than waiting for the dreadful day to arrive?”

The old vendors at Sungei Road also feel that it should be the way forward for old folks like themselves. While they earn little for their daily expenses, they feel that at least time is easily spent plying their trade at the Sungei Road Market and they would likely die earlier if they were to just hide inside their HDB flat.

And some readers viewed the subject from different angles:

Joseph Hiew wrote, ”I enjoy doing electrician work although I have no certification, even though I retired as a school headmaster. I would love to work in one of the Changi terminals maintaining the light fittings. No reports to write or submit to the MOE, no admin work, bliss!”

Poh Wah Eric wrote, “Straits Times should show the positive image as well as honour these elderly contributing to keeping our facilities clean and tidy aka better hygiene for all while at the same time making themselves financially independent. Such articles does not help especially those who had not been as fortunate as most in securing their rice bowl because firms for their image would turn to other sources for workers. By the way, I come across these workers who demonstrated pride and passion in doing their job.”

Aaronringo Chow wrote, “Asians used to treat their elderly with great respect. Now, our culture has lost that respect. The elderly is considered unproductive n burdensome.”

And a reader of Mr Yeoh Facebook post asked a question which should set us to think:

Loy Cheow Chew wrote, “Many people know, and surely their Meet-the-People sessions reveal the reality. Yet officially and ministers' comments seem to imply otherwise. Why is that so?”