(Bloomberg) — Everyone calls her Auntie Helen. At 69, she’s one of the oldest employees at the food court at Raffles Place in Singapore, where office workers grab sandwiches and bowls of soba noodles in the lunchtime rush.
As she cleans and stacks cutlery, Helen Wong might seem to represent the workforce of the city’s past. For a government grappling with an aging population, rising costs and curbs on immigration, her generation is the future.
“Food, transport, medicine are all more expensive now,” said Wong, who works seven hours a day, five days a week in the canteen-like basement, where diners can choose dishes from more than a dozen vendors. “If I’m healthy and my body allows it, I’d like to work for as long as I’m able.”
In a culture that traditionally expects children to look after elderly parents, Singapore’s employment rate for those between ages 55 and 64 is now 66 percent, among the highest of the 34 nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The government has made it mandatory for companies to offer three more years of work to those turning 62, the official retirement age, and plans to extend that to five years by 2017.
“The earlier mindset that having elderly people working indicates a lack of respect by younger people has changed,” said Theresa Devasahayam, editor of “Gender and Ageing: Southeast Asian Perspectives” and a visiting senior research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. “There are fewer children to take care of the elderly.”
The trend in Singapore is a microcosm of what’s happening across much of the developed world as families shrink and people live longer, increasing the strain on government pension systems.
South Korea, with the fastest-aging population in the OECD, told employers to provide retirementplans for staff starting in 2016 after realizing that its state pension fund may go broke by 2060, when its population over 65 is set to triple. Germany and the U.K. plan to raise their retirement ages to 67 from 65, while Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey wants to increase the threshold to 70, the highest in the world.
Singapore has gone a step further. Rather than simply extending the working age, the government is encouraging companies to bring retirees back into the workforce. New registrations by those over 60 at state-run career centers, which help find jobs and retrain workers, almost doubled to 4,799 in 2013, from 2,494 in 2008.
“This is a huge change that has enormous social consequences that we haven’t fully grasped yet,” said Randolph Tan, an associate professor at SIM University in Singapore and a nominated member of parliament. “I’m not sure there’s much benefit to be had from raising the age any further.”
The push to hire older workers follows an attempt to increase the population by as much as 25 percent by 2030 through immigration, a policy that prompted a public backlash as the arrival of migrants pushed up property prices and strained public transport. More than 40 percent of the country’s population was born abroad.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong responded by tightening rules for foreign workers, warning that the cost may be higher taxes over the next two decades. In his New Year statement on Dec. 31, Lee said weak productivity gains for three straight years amid a labor crunch were “disappointing.”
“We need to employ all facets of labor of our very small workforce,” said Wai Ho Leong, a Singapore-based senior economist at Barclays Plc, who was previously head of the trade and industry ministry’s microeconomics unit. “Society is better off when older people are active.”
To help address the labor shortfall, a committee for the employability of older workers unveiled an advertising campaign last year showcasing a 65-year-old lifeguard, a 76-year-old assistant inventory manager and a 60-year-old salmon filleter.
“Tap Into a Wealth of Experience,” exhorted an ad plastered across the side of a bus driving through the central shopping district, featuring a 58-year-old assistant front office manager at Raffles Hotel. “Given the tight labor market situation, you actually would find many employers coming forward to say they’re willing to hire older workers,” Senior Minister of State for Manpower Amy Khor said in parliament in September.