Super-Workers In Their Sixties: Technology And Older Workers

An ageing population and advances in technology will change the way both young and older people work. Challenge looks at how technology can help older workers in particular to continue contributing to the economy.
main-article (2)

The number of elderly citizens in Singapore will triple in 15 years. This will affect every one of us in different ways — there will be a greater need for caretakers, policies for integrating the elderly in the workplace, and practices that tap the wisdom of senior citizens, to begin with.

For the elderly themselves, continuing to work and generate income will be increasingly important. Already the percentage of older workers is growing faster than any other age group: more than 40% of people aged 65 to 69 are now working, compared with 24% in 2006, for instance, and the numbers continue to rise.

The growth in older workers, Civil Service College researcher Cindy Tan found, is happening not just because more companies are allowing employees to work past the statutory retirement age. Older people are also motivated to work because of financial reasons and the desire to stay active.

In labour-short Singapore, having more older workers in the workforce benefits both the public sector and private companies, and their income can reduce the financial burden on younger people as the proportion of those aged 65 and above compared to working-age citizens goes from about one in five now to almost half by 2030.

Changing practices

At the same time, hiring older workers requires changes. Older workers may not be as strong as their younger counterparts and may work differently, so managers will need to assign them tasks appropriate for their capabilities or develop ways for them to perform their tasks more easily.

That challenge is compounded by the types of work older workers actually do. Data from the Ministry of Manpower shows that about half of them have physically demanding jobs as cleaners, labourers, machine operators, or service and sales workers.

side-box (1)

These older workers face myriad societal challenges as well, not the least of which are perceptions of limited capabilities and a preference by many employers for younger workers. Older workers are typically perceived as slower, less productive and more resistant to change, as Ms Yvonne Arivalagan, a research assistant at the National University of Singapore, described in TODAY.

The reality is radically different. Research by Wharton School Professor Peter Cappelli, for example, showed that older workers both in the US and elsewhere have less absenteeism, less turnover, superior interpersonal skills, deal better with customers and use fewer sick days than their younger counterparts.

A boost for all with tech

To take advantage of the benefits that elderly workers bring to the workplace, private companies as well as the Public Service can leverage technology that benefits both older and younger employees.

Change is already happening in the National University Hospital, which has installed an automated trolley system in its pharmaceutical department so that medicine can be transported in bulk, resulting in higher productivity and jobs that are less strenuous. Another example is the robotic cleaners from Intellibot Robotics that can scrub and vacuum, covering three times the area cleaned by a typical worker every hour.

Technology advancements also provide opportunities for job redesign. For instance, instead of having older workers do the grunt work, they can now be in charge of the robots.

Companies and individuals may also begin to use human augmentation, which integrates with the human body and can restore impaired functions or enhance human capabilities.

As technologies evolve, the journalist Chris Farrell writes in Forbes, solutions such as exoskeletons that support the body and related robotic technologies can overcome the disabilities that prevent many older people from working.

Lightweight exoskeletons — already being tested by Lockheed Martin — allow operators of heavy tools to handle them as if they were weightless, boosting worker productivity and reducing the risk of injury.

Augmentation can also include bionic implants that can improve sensory perception and functional foods or drugs that can enhance cognitive capabilities.

The developments would also require workers of all ages to continue to upgrade their skills, so that they can take advantage of such technologies and stay ahead of how jobs might change in the future.

The elderly in the community

Along with having an impact on human resource practices at companies, the ageing population will have an impact on the community.

One element that the NS2035 will explore is how an ageing population may shape the national mood and communities’ way of life, notes Ms Melissa Khoo, Director, Strategic Planning and Futures, Strategy Group.

Some considerations, she says, include: “Would the elderly of the future prefer Singapore to remain unchanged so they can age in place, and in a familiar environment? Might they become a source of wisdom and new economic demand with new technologies and platforms that enable new forms of work?”

As for the public sector, which hires mainly Singaporeans and Permanent Residents, its workforce will closely mirror Singapore’s ageing population, says Ms Low Peck Kem, Chief Human Resources Officer, Public Service Division .

“We have to view work aspirations from different demographic segments. Gen X is keeping an eye on SkillsFuture to ensure that they remain relevant… while some baby boomers may be prepared to wind down and others would like to contribute at an advisory level.”

Untapped potential

To leverage the skills and resources of seniors, the Public Service can take steps such as redoubling efforts to educate people about the capabilities of older workers, supporting implementation of technologies that make working easier, and setting policies that reduce discrimination against older workers.

    May 11, 2016
    Richard Hartung
  • link facebook
  • link twitter
  • link whatsapp
  • link email