One of my colleagues and I like to describe ourselves as being in the “past the sell-by date,” club. For me, it’s simple. Most of my working life was freelance, and I only got “properly employed” at 40 in a standard office job. Given that I switched modes “late in life,” it was clear that there was only going to be so much I could achieve in the context of corporate Singapore and as long as I can pay bills, I take what I can get.
My colleague is in a different situation. He has worked for a multinational in a “sexy” department (finance) and the proof of his competence is found in the fact that he was sent around the region by his former employer as a “troubleshooter”. There is, however, one fatal flaw to his CV, which cancels out whatever knowledge and experience he may bring to the table – he’s over 60.
Like it or not, ageism is a problem in Singapore, a society that proclaims that it has “Asian Values” or respect for the elderly. For many, the reality of decent old age is clearing trays and flipping burgers at Mcdonald’s. While the “homeless” in Singapore may seem small compared to other places, most, if not all, are old.
These sights may be the most visible example of the horrors awaiting anyone growing old. However, age discrimination is also more subtle. The fact is that anyone past 45 struggles to get a new job, no matter how qualified they may be for the said job.
However, as with the case of other “isms” in Singapore, whenever someone says that an “ism” is a problem, there will be an equal or greater number of people trying to justify that “ism.”
In the case of “ageism” we had Members of Parliament voicing concerns that employers felt that being able to be sued for “age discrimination,” was a bad thing laws against age discrimination were a “concern.” It took the president to inject common sense into the discussion.
However, laws on their own aren’t going to change things. Culture needs to be changed and given how pervasive the influence of the government in society is, the government should lead the change.
Unfortunately, a government stuffed with “brilliant” people has proved unable to move beyond existing paradigms. Everything seems to centre around inviting the global one per cent and their minions to buy expensive housing in Singapore, even when it comes to the lack of babies. The government’s argument is that since people are not reproducing despite the government throwing money in subsidies at the maternity ward, it becomes necessary to attract the one per cent and their minions to keep the nation young.
However, the reality is, you can’t force people to have kids if they don’t want to and as a few letters to the press have pointed out, people who are constantly stressed from paying for the world’s most expensive properties, don’t make babies.
Singapore’s manpower planners should look at our water policies, which have been brilliant. We managed to maximise and recycle every drop of water to the extent that nobody feels that Singapore is in fact water scarce. Why can’t we do the same with our manpower?
Sure, I get that people under 40 may appear fresher and may be inclined to work for less. However, those of us over 40, bring certain advantages to the table. One of the greatest gifts we bring is the fact that we understand our strengths and weaknesses. The young are looking for what they want in life and need the space to experiment. We, the proverbial oldies, know what we can get done.
The example that comes to mind, is the story of George Foreman, who at the age of 45, became the oldest man to win the Heavyweight boxing championship when he knocked out the 26-year-old Michael Moorer.
Foreman was officially “past his prime,” in a sport that involves getting hurt. He was slower than the likes of Evander Holyfield and less “explosive” than Mike Tyson. However, the “old” Foreman knew his strengths and weaknesses and used them to give himself a far better game plan than his opponents. As the link below states – the Foreman past his prime was in some ways better than the prime George Foreman.
Big George Knew How to Fight with what he had.
Instead of trying to force everyone not to sack the uncle in the corner or to be a bit nicer to the aunty carrying trays, let’s listen to what the “uncles” and “aunties” and try to design job scopes that utilise the things they can do most effectively.
Sure, redesigning jobs is not going to be easy, but it would be a worthwhile investment if you can maximise human resources. People who get a second chance often prove to be exceptionally motivated and effective.
George Foreman could reinvent himself as a boxer in his forties to win a title. The Public Utilities Board (PUB) ensures that every drop of water used in Singapore is maximised.
Why can’t we do the same for the human resources that want to be useful?
A version of this article first appeared at beautifullyincoherent.blogspot.com