Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Why pity older workers?

Seah Chiang Nee wrote an interesting piece about growing old in Singapore. He notes that “despite economic prosperity, more and more elderly Singaporeans past retirement age are working as cleaner or toilet attendants, instead of playing with grandchildren.”

The anecdotal examples from Seah’s column suggest that many elderly Singaporeans are working because (1) the cost of living in Singapore is too high and (2) they have not saved enough to retire. It is easy to jump in and agree with Seah’s conclusion, but a more objective study suggests otherwise.

A 2005 cost of living survey puts Singapore as (only?) the 34th most expensive out of 144 cities. (Admittedly, in other countries, if you find the city expensive, you have the option of retiring in the countryside). Data from ADB indicate that Singapore actually enjoys one of lowest inflation rates amongst Asian countries. (Here, you would have to factor in that Singapore, as a city-state country with no significant oil/agriculture resources, would actually be more prone to inflationary costs than most other Asian countries). So when put into context, the argument that the cost of living in Singapore is high is actually quite weak.

I would agree with the second point. For whatever reasons, there are definitely a group of elderly Singaporeans who have not saved enough for retirement. There are individuals who have not saved enough for their retirement. It may be because they are low-skilled workers who had always found it difficult to make ends meet. They could include the middle classes who sought short-term gratification (car, private property etc) at the expense of their retirement plans. There might also be some who have fallen victim to addictions (like gambling) or illnesses.

Hence, unless they have savings or children to provide for them, many will have to go on working.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? I am of the view that working keeps one healthy. Seah himself, from his picture in The Star, appears to be well into his 60s and still maintains his column and blog. I hope to be like him when I am at his age.

However, not everyone has Seah’s talent for writing. Some will be taxi drivers, some will be tour guides, and some will be toilet cleaners (restroom enhancement specialists if you like). There is no shame in any of these jobs.

I come across elderly cleaners around my home and at my work place. I have spoken to them. The work is not always easy or pleasant, and the pay is meager. Some work is made easier with the right tools (carts and extensions – so they don’t need to bend, vacuums, cleaning aids etc). When I greet them, they reply with smiles and the usual jiak pa buay (have you eaten)?

Elderly workers need not be pitied. With a little help from their employers and the rest of us, working past 62 can be enjoyable.

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