Sunday, December 17, 2006

I actually read the Straits Times this weekend.

On Saturday, The Straits Times featured a special report on the plight of middle-aged PMEBs who were retrenched during the structural economic changes that occured over the last couple of years. Some of these poor guys can't find a job because they are over-qualified and too old. The lucky ones settle for jobs as taxi drivers, security guards or MLM salesmen. One of the interviewees lives out of cardboard boxes in a one-room rented flat because he has been jobless for 12 years.

The next day, the front page story was about young private bankers who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. These dudes are on call 24/7 and handle millions of dollars worth of transactions (that's alot of contract law involved le!) on a daily basis. However, banking is a crazy profession that is fraught with pressure and tension (like LAWR binder season). One of the guys talked about how he was back at work two hours after undergoing nose surgery.

Usually, I try not to think about serious stuff in my free time. I reserve my RAM (and you can bet it is random!) for stuff like "what's eating Britney Spears these days?" and "If you eat antipasta and pasta do they cancel out each other?"

Nevertheless, reading these two articles really set me thinking.

From the top of my head, I can think of two issues.

Firstly, why are we discriminating against workers on the wrong side of forty?

Secondly, why are we glorifying the success of a group of people who obviously do not lead healthy and balanced lifestyles?

It appears that age is a liability in our society. Despite Life Long Learner Awards being periodically "bestowed" to deserving senior citizens, ageism remains a very real evil in our society. Employees above forty are perceived to be slow, rigid and inflexible. In a "dynamic" (I hate this word!) and increasingly globalised world, this adversely affects the competitiveness of the business. Moreover, many of these employees are perceived by their employers to be "overpaid", to quote the Straits Times. When the company is undergoing re-org or streamlining, HR never fails to notice this issue, to the detriment of these employees. As a result, they are usually among the first to go in a retrenchment exercise. Even government scholars and senior civil servants are not spared. Reading The Saturday Report, it seems that the Iron Rice Bowl is not so solid after all.

To its credit, the government has recognised this problem and has taken active steps to engage older workers in the workforce. Subsidies, training grants, Life Long Learner Awards, Senior Citizen Of The Year Awards, you name it, we've tried it. At the same time, the media has been extolling the virtues of older workers through newspaper articles and TV programmes. The older worker has been portrayed as a mentor figure who is able to add value to an organisation through his years of experience.

Unfortunately, businesses are not buying that. Ironically, there is little the powers that be can do to solve the problem except doing what they are currently doing. Seriously, anything else would hurt our competitiveness in the long run. Can you imagine Parliament passing legislation to make it mandatory for firms to hire older workers? I can't.

In reality, firms tend to perceive the older employee's ability to add value through experience to be overhyped. I'm not suggesting that experience counts for nothing. Yet what is the worth of twenty years of experience if everything that has remained constant for the last twenty years has changed completely in two years?

In the last decade, the roles of various professions have expanded drastically to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of clients in the global market. Lawyers have to do arbitration, accountants do financial planning...even engineers have to be actively involved in business development, sales and marketing. New modes of communication have also emerged. Consequentially, working life has encroached into the personal lives of employees. Today, an employee is expected to be contactable, willing and able to solve the company's problems 24/7. Even as he or she is playing his role as a parent or friend after office hours. Sadly, loyalty to the company is seldom rewarded. When the company is forced to cut costs, older workers face a higher risk of being given the golden handshake. Often, retrenchment has less to do with their performance on the job and more to do with changes in the economic cycle. For instance, many middle managers in IT firms were retrenched in the dotcom crash in the late 1990s for reasons that were not related to their individual job performance.

Sometimes, a supervening event that happens without the default of any individual can lead to much frustration.

Is it fair to expect each and every older worker to keep abreast with all these changes? Even if so, how many actually have the means to keep up? What worries me is the fact that many of these retrenched workers do not even have the chance to find gainful employment because of their age and last drawn salary. In Singapore, it is dangerous to be on the wrong side of forty. Worse, if you were formally a PMEB who previously earned a respectable salary (I don't want to get bogged down defining this...) From what I observe, many middle-aged ex PMEBs were willing to take a pay cut when they were hunting for a job. Yet many employers refused to take this into account when considering the job application.

Frankly, I'm worried. After all, I'll be forty some day. What happens then?

Do I have to earn my keep by collecting empty drink cans from the dustbin? Simply because I am overqualified and too old to sweep the streets?


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