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Tuesday January 23rd 2018

Working less now to work longer later (Sunday Times 15 Nov)

Shefali Rekhi

Working five days a week and retiring in your 60s is the norm in many societies.

But leading researchers of life expectancy at the Ageing Research Centre of the University of Southern Denmark are calling for a change.

A study of life expectancy trends in the past century shows that many people can expect to live longer and the majority of those born after 2000 will likely cross 100.

Based on this, Professor Kaare Christensen and his colleagues are suggesting that people should have the option to work fewer hours during their prime years, have more time for family and leisure, and the opportunity to retire much later.

With technological and medical gains, those growing older in the current generation will be more active than earlier generations and will likely suffer much less disability, they project. Besides, working longer may even contribute to their life expectancy and health, they add.

‘Very long lives are not the distant privilege of remote future generations – very long lives are the probable destiny of most people alive now in developed countries,’ the researchers write in their paper. Titled Ageing Populations: The Challenges Ahead, it was published in The Lancet medical journal last month.

Their suggestions will mean a rethink of the way societies organise their manpower needs and individuals their working lives, an issue that Singapore and other countries have been focusing attention on in recent years.

Current work practices requiring people to work five days a week, eight hours or more a day, till perhaps their mid-60s date back nearly half a century.

France experimented with a 35-hour week under a Left government some years ago, but given the manpower needs in a growing economy, variations were introduced, making it possible for people to work longer hours.

By around 2000, especially in the West, campaigns for shorter work weeks picked up momentum, essentially driven by concerns that working parents were not spending enough time with their children and ageing parents. But sentiments dampened following the recession, with companies implementing shorter work weeks largely to cut costs.

The issue of an appropriate age for people to retire has also become more dominant in recent years.

Singapore’s approach is multi-pronged. Initiatives include measures to cut Central Provident Fund payments for older workers to make it more attractive for companies to hire them; a recommendation to companies to opt for a performance-based, flexible pay system for older workers; and free health screenings for those growing older.

Retirement age will be pushed back, with plans in place for a new re-employment law by 2012 that will require companies to offer to rehire those aged above 62, though not necessarily at the old jobs and salaries.

Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong told The Sunday Times that this new law will also help overcome some of the resistance that some companies may put up, for it will make it feasible for them to negotiate the scope of work and pay with the older workers.

‘Maybe the companies will want to encourage the younger workers to take up leadership positions so some of the older workers may have to go back to the line function…and companies may need the flexibility to be able to do so.’

Workers, however, will benefit. They will have the option to increase their retirement age from 62 to 65. Later, the Government will look to move this from 65 to 67, he said.

Only 67?

‘Slowly…,’ he said.

No doubt, making the change will not be easy. But if the research is anything to go by, there will be a need for more.

In a telephone interview from Odense, Denmark, Prof Christensen told The Sunday Times that in the years to come there should be no problem with people working till their 70s and 80s as well, if they are medically fit.

His research, he said, suggests they will be.

While the 1920s saw significant improvements in infant and child survival, the 1950s were marked by effective control over the spread of infectious diseases. Thereafter, gains have been made in terms of disease prevention systems and early detection.

Prof Christensen added that it is important to begin the rethink now.

Most babies born after 2000 in France, Germany, Italy, Britain, the United States, Canada and Japan will live to celebrate their 100th birthday, the study reports.

Researchers said that if their suggestions are implemented, productivity issues would be automatically addressed in the redistribution – because many people in their 60s and 70s would prefer part-time work to full-time labour. This will open up part-time work opportunities for younger people.

‘The average amount of work per year could stay at about the same as it is at present,’ the researchers said, emphasising that it will mean a net gain for society.

Prof Christensen said: ‘We have to think about making place for three, if not four, generations in the workplace.’

Mr David Ang, executive director of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, observed that much work will have to be done first to understand the needs of different generations of working people. Perhaps a lot more attention will need to be paid to the training needs of older workers, he suggested.

He cautioned, however, that because Singapore is still in the early stages of making the changes, it may not be practical to think now about shorter work weeks.

Some observers The Sunday Times spoke to pointed out that just increasing the retirement age is not a complete solution for societies facing ageing populations, for it would take care of only those in the formal work sector, who account for a fraction of the total number of the elderly in any society.

Still, there are those like Professor Mukul Asher, a National University of Singapore professor who specialises in social security issues, who feel that a rethink is in order.

‘In most low- and middle-income countries, such opportunities are available primarily to retired military personnel and to civil servants. But they need to broaden such participation given the changing realities.’

There are questions to address of whether individuals would be willing to work shorter work weeks given that it might mean a smaller compensation – and whether they would want to work longer.

Even the researchers believe that there could be resistance.

‘For sure there will be challenges,’ Prof Christensen said.

‘But this is a new situation that is staring at us. New situations require new solutions.

‘Besides, it is happening gradually, and we are talking about making a change gradually.’

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