Leveraging an older workforce in Singapore
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Skilled for 100? Leveraging an older workforce in Singapore is an Economist Intelligence Unit white paper, commissioned by Prudential Singapore. It is part of the Ready for 100 programme of research, which examines the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for Singapore’s residents, employers and government as people live and remain healthy for longer.


Executive summary

Singapore’s workforce is visibly greying. If government policies aimed at extending careers are successful, that process could accelerate. The reward, however, would be a greater contribution from older generations of workers to sustained economic growth for the city-state.

Singapore’s older residents appear up for the challenge. The labour force participation rates of older age groups have been rising for several years. Indeed, no more than 5% of residents aged 55-64 surveyed by The Economist Intelligence Unit state the desire to retire soon.

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Employer reluctance looks to be a bigger obstacle to realising the vision of a productive older workforce. This report finds that far from all Singapore organisations are proactive about retaining older employees. Relatively few (16%) respondents in our workplace survey believe their organisations adequately support the aspirations of employees looking to extend their careers into their 60s and 70s. Experts interviewed for this report suggest that many employers are merely paying lip service to the goal of extending careers.

Recognition of the need to change, however, is clear. Almost nine in 10 respondents (88%) believe their organisations must do more over the next decade to accommodate and leverage their senior cohorts of employees.This study is based on a survey The Economist Intelligence Unit conducted of 200 executives of private and public-sector organisations in Singapore, as well as a series of in-depth interviews with executives, government officials and other experts. Other findings from the research include the following: To get a clear picture of how organisations are looking to leverage older talent, we identified a leader group which isolated respondents in the survey whose firms are most receptive to employing older workers. The 104 members of the leader group (52% of the sample) all indicate that their firms devote resources specifically to retaining older employees.

Singapore’s workforce is visibly greying. If government policies aimed at extending careers are successful, that process could accelerate.

Leaders want their veterans’ professionalism to rub off on younger hires. They further view their senior employees’ greatest strength to be their work ethic, including punctuality and attitude toward work. One HR director interviewed for the report says that the work ethic of its older employees considerably outshines that of its younger ones.

Longevity is associated with loyalty. A large majority (88%) of leader group respondents believe that their older employees are more committed to the organisation than younger ones. In an age when labour mobility is growing and talent retention is getting tougher, loyalty is highly valued by employers.


Mentoring will feature prominently in redesigned roles. Playing the role of mentor to younger employees is among the most effective contributions veterans can make to the business, as cited by 64% of executives. Another is a role in training programmes, cited by 45%. Upholding company values and leveraging established networks of contacts are other important contributions, particularly for respondents from SMEs.

Older employees’ creativity may be undervalued. Little more than one-third (35%) of respondents in the overall sample perceive creativity to be among their oldest employees’ strengths. Amongst leaders, however, the figure rises to 50%. Leaders similarly have a higher estimation than the wider group of their veteran workers’ flexibility and receptivity to feedback. The majority (57%), however, have concerns about older workers’ ability to master new technologies, but interviewees suggest such fears may be overstated.

More flexibility, rather than more money, is older employees’ chief motivator. Offering flexible work schedules and other means to foster a better work-life balance, along with re-training, are the chief measures leader organisations are taking to extend their older employees’ careers. These are more common than offering financial benefits, and indeed jibe with the paramount importance Singapore residents themselves place on achieving a better work-life balance as they extend their careers.


The policy and business challenge

Like most developed countries in the world, Singapore faces stark challenges posed by an ageing population. Residents aged 65 and older accounted for 14% of the population in 2017, up from 9% in 20071, and that figure is expected to continue rising2. Keeping the economy expanding to support an older population requires a highly productive workforce. This will be all the more challenging as workforce growth is slowing. Koh Juan Kiat, executive director of the Singapore National Employer Federation (SNEF), expects flat workforce growth over the next decade after a 1.9% annual increases in the previous one.

In this context, leveraging an older workforce is viewed by the government as a strategic challenge of the first magnitude. “Maximising the productive potential of an older workforce is a key priority in the context of an ageing workforce and stagnating workforce growth,” says Lee Pak Sing, director of the Workplace Policy and Strategy Division at the Ministry of Manpower. Consistent with this view, for at least the past six years the government has been taking active policy measures to support older residents who wish to continue working, and to encourage employers to facilitate it.

The policies may be a factor in a rise in the labour participation rate within older age groups evident since around 2010 (Figure 1). Singapore’s labour force participation in older age groups is among the highest in the developed world (Figure 2).



Fertile soil

The government’s policies have a receptive audience as far as individual residents are concerned. In a survey of Singapore residents conducted for the first part of the Ready for 100 study, no more than 5% of respondents in the 55-64 age group state the wish to retire as soon as possible. On the contrary, most profess to enjoy their work, and believe they have the skills needed to work as long as they want.

This is no surprise to Stephen Sidebottom, who was previously the Singapore-based global head of HR for investment banking at Standard Chartered Bank. Singaporeans are not only living longer, they are also healthier for longer, and they of course have financial needs that must be met into older age. But he also points to cultural values as a factor. “Part of it is the Confucian framework where elders are respected and valued, so there isn’t any expectation that older people will become invisible,” he says. “Elderly people here are visibly working and respected by their colleagues in a way that is not the case in some Western countries.”

Singaporeans are not only living longer, they are healthier for longer, and they of course have financial needs that must be met into older age.

Kanwaljit Soin, who is a septuagenarian orthopaedic and hand surgeon at Mt Elizabeth Hospital, and a vocal advocate of measures to support the extension of careers into older age, points out that senior residents in Singapore are expected to be self-reliant. “The government has drilled this concept of self-reliance into our psyche, and many older people want to continue to work,” she says. Despite the government’s policy activism, however, older residents often find their path blocked by a persistent strain of ageism. Our research appears to confirm this on the part of many Singapore employers.

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Digital for 100
Harnessing technology for longer lifespans
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Ready for 100
Preparing for longevity in Singapore
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Healthy for 100
Healthy care in Singapore
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Re-imagining 100
The pandemic’s impact on longevity
Read more
Saving for 100
Financing longevity in Singapore
Read more
Skilled for 100
Leveraging an older workforce in Singapore
Read more

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