Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The political economy of longevity

Jun 03, 2013


SINGAPORE should be less flattered that the World Health Organisation has ranked it fourth in longevity and more concerned about what is being done to prepare for it. While one can take pride in the rising quality of life here, particularly the standard of health care, longevity is not an unmixed blessing to the individual. Declining health, financial difficulty and possible family neglect or abandonment are part of the worries saddling seniors.

Average life expectancy at birth here - 85 years for women and 80 for men - has climbed rapidly in recent years. In Asia, Singapore comes after only Japan, which has the world's fastest ageing population and has to decisively tackle the implications of a silver tsunami.

At the macro level, longevity is associated with a larger public health bill, a greater demand for various subsidies for the elderly and a strain on social services. But this should not be the only way of looking at the huge numbers of ageing baby boomers. The longevity economy can also represent a source of growth, as expert commentators of the Milken Institute have observed. Americans aged 50 and over are said to account for nearly half of all spending and are "as likely as younger cohorts to experiment with new products", according to research firm Nielsen. Thus, seniors represent a global market that shrewd Singapore businesses and investors should look at closely.

Entrepreneurship is also being actively fanned among this group in the United States with millions embarking on so-called "encore careers". Here, however, the thinking appears to be far less positive. There is a tendency to see those hitting their 60s as a burden, with business organisations and their members still trying to look the other way when it is suggested that employers should not just dust their hands when workers reach the retirement age of 65. Not enough companies are studying how to creatively harness the skills and experience of seniors to improve their current operations and to explore new markets.

Clearly, changing mindsets remains the biggest task facing the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, set up in 2007 to spearhead a holistic response to the opportunities and challenges of ageing. In tackling the latter, Marine Parade is retrofitting itself to be elderly-friendly, with three other constituencies also helping to make Singapore "A City for All Ages". But elsewhere, one still sees from time to time objections among residents when new nursing homes and other elderly facilities are located in their neighbourhood. One way of changing such lingering attitudes might be to also give due emphasis to the opportunities that a growing pool of active agers can offer to the nation.


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