The golden oldies

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Like any developed economies, the population and workforce of Hong Kong is ageing quickly.  With longer life expectancy and a diminishing workforce Anthony Wong looks into how forward-thinking companies are banking on the talent of elderly employees. 

Our population is rapidly ageing. As post-war “Baby Boomers” approach retirement age, Hong Kong’s population aged 65 or above is expected to surge from about 900,000 at present to 2.1 million by 2030 or about a quarter of the population according to the budget speech made by financial secretary John Tsang. By 2050, the city is forecast by the World Health Organization to rank fifth in the world for cities with the largest percentage of older adults – 40% of the population in Hong Kong will be 65 or above according to predictions.

The rapidly ageing population will bring tremendous pressure on the welfare and medical system and also means the city will have a diminishing workforce.

One of the most popular tactics to deal with an ageing workforce is pushing back the retirement age. In March this year, the Civil Service Bureau announced the retirement age would be pushed back from 60 to 65 for general civil servants. Retirement age for disciplined services such as the police will move from 55 to 60. The new arrangement will apply to civil servants recruited after 1 June this year.

In the private sector, there is currently no mandatory retirement age in Hong Kong. However, in practice the retirement age is usually 60 to 65. Not having a fixed retirement age doesn’t mean the corporate sector doesn’t have to worry about the challenges of an ageing workforce, and several forward-thinking employers have already rolled out plans to untap the potential of these savvy veterans.

The Langham, Hong Kong, which has been around for more than 25 years, with a number of loyal colleagues serving since the hotel opened, currently has about 27% of the workforce between the ages of 50 to 60. At the moment 4% are still employed by the hotel after reaching their retirement age.

The hotel’s HR director Jess Cheuk explains the need for retaining staff after they passed the retirement age.

“At our hotel, the official retirement age is 60 which is the industry norm. Because we support and recognise our long-standing colleagues, we welcome employees to continue working after their retirement age and offer full-time employment on a yearly basis,” she says.

Insurance is a concern for older workers. Cheuk says the maximum age for employee compensation and medical insurance coverage is up to the age of 70 so employees are free to work until then.

“Colleagues just need to ensure their performance is up to standard and are still physically fit to work,” she says.

Generally, the retired employees do not have any financial burden and can certainly enjoy retirement. The reason most continue to work is because they enjoy the company culture and get to be with their co-workers who are also their best friends.

“Everyone is part of The Langham family and over the years have built great memories together. Most of our retired staff like to continue working even at the age of 85. Having spent most of their lives at the hotel, they still want to contribute to their work family,” she says.

At our hotel, the official retirement age is 60 which is the industry norm. Because we support and recognise our long-standing colleagues, we welcome employees to continue working after their retirement age and offer full-time employment on a yearly basis
The Langham’s HR director Jess Cheuk.

She points out there are challenges in finding replacements for colleagues who handle the behind-the-scenes operations in departments such as engineering, housekeeping, laundry, kitchen and stewarding, which makes it sensible for the hotel to extend the service period with employees from these functions beyond the retirement age.

However, in the long run, she does not see getting current employees to work longer as the solution on manpower shortage.

“Our strategy is to recruit graduated students from vocational schools to do apprenticeships and to learn on the job from our experienced professionals, which is a great fundamental way to develop and learn multiple skill sets,” she says.

To attract young talent, the hotel needs to readjust its recruitment strategies. Cheuk notices that most students, who have recently graduated, are supported by their families and looking for a job that has a clear career path and work-life balance.

“In order to fill the necessary positions, we focus on those who have diplomas and provide guidance on their future growth and emphasise on employee benefits at the hotel,” she says.

Companies do not necessarily need to hire elderly staff who are savvy in their respective industries; HSBC has taken the initiative to offer job opportunities to the elderly who have never served in the banking industry.

In 2010, HSBC launched the “smart senior” programme to provide working opportunities for the elderly.

The “smart seniors” come from a diverse background, with retired teachers, civil servants, customer service managers and many others. They have responsibilities that include directing customers to the appropriate counters for different banking services, showing how to make the most of online services and promoting the use of ATMs among elderly customers.

New hires receive two days of training, which covers essential information about the bank’s background, structures and banking services, before being assigned to a specific branch. They are equipped with interactive touch-screen kiosks to provide customers with information about the latest community banking initiatives.

Results have been a success so far. In the first year of the programme 80 part-time staff were recruited to promote and manage the bank’s community caring corners, areas dedicated to looking after elderly customers and those with special needs.

As from July 2015 the number of smart seniors is now at 160. They serve in 76 branches throughout the city compared with 20 branches when the programme started.

Peter Wong Tung Shun, general manager of HSBC Group, explains the motivation behind the programme.

“Back in 2009 the bank commissioned TNS to do a survey on the elderly and found that many retirees felt depressed. In fact, more than half of the respondents said their self-esteem was lower and they felt frustrated after they no longer needed to go to work. As a financial institute that has grown with Hong Kong over the years, we have a responsibility to take care of the elderly,” he says.

The survey found that 63% of the 1,003 elderly respondents felt they had surrendered their career identity when they retired, and 71% said they had lost a sense of excitement about life. Furthermore, 52% indicated they would be willing to return to work by taking part in an employment programme tailored to meeting the needs of older people.

“The programme creates a four-win situation for the bank, our colleagues, retirees and the community. I am sure the elderly will find their lives more meaningful after joining the programme,” Wong says.

To attract more smart seniors, they are given the flexibility of having only to be on duty for nine hours a week. Allowing the elderly to work part-time on flexible working hours was a key in recruiting them.

The “smart senior”programme creates a four-win situation for the bank, our colleagues, retirees and the community. I am sure the elderly will find their lives more meaningful after joining the programme.
Peter Wong Tung Shun, general manager of HSBC Group

Research by Regus revealed that 86% of respondents in Hong Kong see flexible working as a critical factor in keeping older, experienced workers in the economy,

“Older workers often have caring responsibilities, potential health problems, and a desire to spend more time with their partner or family or to take up a new hobby or skill,” says Michael Ormiston, country manager of Regus Hong Kong.

“Flexible working, therefore, is an ideal solution for those who want to remain in the workforce past the traditional retirement age, but maintaining control of their schedule and reducing lengthy commutes to and from work.”

To help attract the elderly to return to work, leading retailer Dairy Farm Group is offering flexible working hours for staff in Singapore.

“We are aware that the older employees have commitments to family and prefer to work part-time with flexibility. We also offer them work at outlets near where they live to provide them with as much flexibility as possible,” says Trevor Blackman, group reward director at Dairy Farm Group.

Older workers often have caring responsibilities, potential health problems.  Flexible working, therefore, is an ideal solution for those who want to remain in the workforce past the traditional retirement age.
Michael Ormiston, country manager of Regus Hong Kong

On the Mainland, corporates are more strict about getting employees to leave their jobs when they reach retirement age – 55 for women and 60 for men.

Joanna Lee, head of human resources at Bauhinia Coatings Group, Yip’s Chemical, which operates several factories on the Mainland, points out the importance of picking the brains of the veterans to develop young staff.

“We have a mentor and mentee scheme for younger staff to learn from staff in their 50s. It is true that young people who are more tech-savvy have an advantage in today’s technology focused workplace, but they still have a lot of industrial knowledge to learn from the experienced employees. The scheme has done wonders in terms of helping the young and older generations in the company to work as one,” she says.

Lee says with China being a communist country, the government takes up a lot of responsibilities in retirement plans, but that doesn’t mean corporate should not participate in helping employees lead a comfortable retirement life.

“We are proactive about educating employees to plan ahead for their retirement life. Every year we give each employee a total-reward report to inform them of the pension, training and other investments that the company has made on them besides salaries and bonuses. The group also has its own caring fund to help needy employees after they have retired,” she says.

Case study

Going into retirement can be bittersweet for some Hong Kong people who are used to the hustle and bustle of work, compared with the slow and uneventful life of a pensioner. This is especially so as many retirees believe they are still capable of having a meaningful career and contributing to society.

To help retirees revitalise their career, The Langham has provided an option for staff to work beyond their retirement age if they want to.

Yu Chi Keung, building and decoration foreman in the engineering department at The Langham, Hong Kong, has just celebrated his 60th birthday and is still going strong. The official retirement age at the hotel is 60, but he has no intention of retiring.

He thinks it is a good idea for him to work after retirement because he is still very much capable of doing his job.

“I’m still capable of working physically and my extensive knowledge in the past several years is valuable. I feel it’s a win-win situation for both the hotel and myself,” he said.

Having spent 26 years at The Langham, Hong Kong, his family is completely supportive of his decision to keep working.

“I am able to continue to provide financially for my family and I get to see my best friends at work who have also been with the company for as long as I have. I really love working here,” he said.

His main duty is to uphold the maintenance work that needs to be done to the hotel and ensure each task is executed efficiently. After his team has completed the task, he will review the finished product to guarantee the job meets Forbes’ five-star standards and requirements.

When asked what are the greatest benefits of working beyond the retirement age, Yu says to pass on his experience to the younger generations.

“Ingenuity is something I’ve learned to become through my years of experience. As a problem-solver, I have to be innovative and inventive and I can teach my knowledge to others,” he said.

Image: Shutterstock

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