At Chatters, a small café in the lobby of a hospital, the staff frothing cappuccinos and managing the register aren't your typical young baristas. That's because every employee must be at least 55.
"It keeps my mind moving," said Sally Chung, 72, a retired accountant, who manages the café and does the books.
The café's age requirement reflects a demographic trend this city-state of 5.6 million people is trying to confront: the population is getting old — fast.
In 2015, one in eight Singaporeans were over 65. By 2030, that number is projected to double to one in four. The coming "silver tsunami" will make Singapore's population one of the oldest in the world. The country already has one of the world’s longest life expectancies at 83 years old.
Singapore is trying to tackle the problem of skyrocketing healthcare costs, a declining birth rate and fewer younger workers with a comprehensive plan that may provide ideas for countries like the United States that face their own graying futures. The percentage of Americans over 65 is projected to rise from 15% of the population to 24% by 2060. That's 98 million people who will be draining ever more government health and retirement benefits that a smaller percentage of workers may be forced to shoulder.
While there are longtime programs such as Senior Community Service Employment Program in place, the U.S. doesn’t have a vision like Singapore’s, said Joseph Coleman, a journalism professor at Indiana University and author of the 2014 book, “Unfinished Work: The Struggle to Build an Aging American Workforce.”
“There still doesn’t seem to be a priority at the federal level to address (the aging population),” he said. “The burden in the (U.S.) is much more on the individual worker to fend for him or herself in the labor marketplace. You basically have to re-employ yourself.”
This lack of focus is a lost opportunity, Coleman said: “At a time when we would want more people participating in the labor force, we've got a relatively healthy, very educated, skilled section of the population that's being cut out of the workforce. This is a resource that's not being tapped into.”
Last year, Singapore launched a $2.2 billion program with over 70 initiatives on health, transportation, education and housing for the elderly.
Subsidizing skills retraining for older workers is one key part of the plan. Another is called “re-employment.” While retirement age is 62, if an employee wants to keep working, the company is mandated to keep him or her until 67. The scope of the job can also change, including less hours for lower pay.
“When you look at (the re-employment) policy, it is very sensitive to the fact that the biggest concern with older workers for employers is — to put it bluntly — whether employers think they will get their money’s worth,” said Walter Theseira, an economist at Singapore University of Social Sciences. The government is easing the burden by providing subsidies and tax credits for employers to retain older workers.”
Helen Lim, founder of Silver Spring, an employment agency for older workers, said employers should recognize that as the population ages, they’ll face a shrinking pool of younger candidates.
“So why not take some of these experienced older ones that can stabilize the company?” she said. “They've still got energy. It doesn't mean that when you pass 55 you are downhill. You may use all your experience and you can still contribute to the company. A bit of diversity, a bit of planning — I think companies are welcoming that kind of idea.”
Lim, 69, who also founded Chatters café, said job redesign is essential for companies hiring older workers. At Chatters, she's added larger fonts on cash registers and smaller deliveries to reduce the amount of lifting.
Singapore’s largest supermarket chain, NTUC Fairprice, has also focused on employing older workers, with roughly half of its employees aged 50 or over. They’ve added flexible or part-time hours and created positions for seniors such as customer service representatives, said Tan Kwang Cheak, the chief human resource officer.
“This practice allows us to draw on a wider, more robust and diverse pool of talent,” he said.
Singapore's unique position is increasingly becoming a source for other countries to study, said Bob Aubrey, chairman of the human resources committee at the European Chamber of Commerce.
“Singapore is a laboratory because it's small and the government has a lot of control, but you can start to look at what works and what doesn't work,” he said. “Singapore used to be an excellent adopter. They would go around the world and find best practice and bring it in. That's changed, and now it is, ‘We are leading.’”
For some people in Singapore, working into their golden years is necessary. It’s common to see people in their 70s and 80s doing physical labor such as clearing tables in food courts or sweeping floors at offices.
“We're all living a longer time,” said Chung, behind the counter at Chatters. “We should help society to think more positively and plan ahead more for the older people. Because it will be a problem everywhere.”