SINGAPORE (Oct 22): In the 2015 movie The Intern, an internet fast fashion entrepreneur, played by Anne Hathaway, is surprised and sceptical when a 70-year-old widower turns up in her company’s internship programme. The “senior intern”, played by Robert de Niro, is a retired senior executive at a directory publisher. Hathaway’s character is obliged to work with him and dreads it at first. But she soon comes to depend on him for his support and expert advice, gleaned from decades of work experience.

In the film, the internship programme is part of a community outreach programme that encourages companies to hire older people. In a way, it tries to address the issue of ageing, and ageism in the workplace. This is a subject that is cropping up more and more, particularly in places such as Singapore, where there is a rapidly ageing workforce.

As we discuss in this issue, people are expected to live longer, and the implications are manifold. According to a report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, Singaporeans will be among the longest-living people in the world. The average lifespan in Singapore is expected to be 85.4 years in 2040, the third-longest globally, and up from 83.3 years in 2016.

Pretty much everything else needs to keep pace with our longer lifespans. As the cost of living rises, the availability of fulfilling work, financial stability and quality healthcare, as well as supportive relationships and community becomes even more important in time to come.

Economists and other experts estimate that, for an average person to live till 100, he or she would have to earn a living until well into their 80s. If more people were staying longer at work, how would this change the make-up of the labour force? What does it mean for graduating students? How should employers and younger workers adapt?

Apart from the workplace, there are concerns about whether public services, and society at large, are equipped to handle much larger numbers of older people. Already, there are many elderly who are suffering from physical, mental, emotional and financial difficulties.

To be sure, the Singapore government has moved to address some aspects of the ageing population. For one, it has launched various schemes to help senior citizens from the lower-income groups pay for essentials such as transport and healthcare. There are also government-run social services that provide care in the community for the elderly.

In 2012, the government enacted the Retirement and Re-employment Act, which provides employees with some measure of protection against age discrimination. Since July last year, companies have been required to offer re-employment to eligible employees who turn 62, up to the age of 67. Under the Act, employers are not allowed to dismiss employees based on age. Employers are also given a Special Employment Credit if they voluntarily re-employ workers who are 65 and older, worth up to 3% of the employee’s monthly wages.

According to the Tripartite Guidelines on The Re-employment of Older Employees, the Public Service is leading the way by re-employing older but lower-wage public officers, such as clerks, at the same grade with their last-drawn salaries.

But private sector employers are given the leeway to adjust wages and other benefits for those who are rehired. These adjustments, the guidelines say, help companies “move away from seniority-based wage systems to job-based and performance-based wage systems”, as well as to manage the higher cost of medical and other benefits as a result of an older workforce. And, employees “are encouraged to be flexible” in working out new employment terms.

Importantly, as many observers have pointed out, these guidelines are not legally binding. And, the Act addresses only dismissals based on age, and re-employment upon reaching the statutory retirement age of 62. In fact, an employer could pay a rehired, older worker less than his or her last-drawn salary, even if he or she was doing the same job as before.

In countries such as the US and UK, age discrimination laws also cover terms of re-employment such as compensation and promotions. There are also vigilant industry watchdogs, such as Ofcom in the UK, which warned the BBC about how it was portraying older women in its programming. The broadcaster has come under fire for age and gender discrimination in recent years. In 2011, it was sued by one of its former presenters, who accused it of dropping her from a programme in favour of a younger presenter.

Older workers ought to be given more protections if, in the words of the tripartite group, “there is an urgent need to tap into the valuable skills and experience of older employees”. On the bright side, there are employers who value the contributions of older workers, as our reporters have found out. Experts and researchers are also pointing to the beginnings of a shift in attitudes towards ageing.

Still, the sense of helplessness and social isolation among the poorer elderly, particularly those without jobs, is growing, according to social services, especially as urban centres such as Singapore charge ahead on the back of technological advancements. This issue needs to be tackled, but not just by the government. Everybody ages, so it is actually in everyone’s interest to ensure society and the broader economy are equipped for the elderly.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 853, week of Oct 22) which is on sale now. Subscribe here