Singapore’s growing movement of seniors’ co-operatives

As the world’s population gets older, thanks to longer lifespans and a falling birthrate, it is facing new challenges. For those in work, the pace of technological change...

As the world’s population gets older, thanks to longer lifespans and a falling birthrate, it is facing new challenges. For those in work, the pace of technological change and adjustments to the labour market mean the old notion of a job for life is coming to an end. For those who have retired, there is increased competition for services in sectors ranging from leisure to care. These problems are all evident in Singapore – but its co-op sector is showing how to adopt a different approach to the provision of services for senior citizens.

The number of people aged 65 and above is expected to increase to 19% of the population by 2030, from 11.8%. With this ageing population comes a growing demand for services for the elderly. Co-ops are playing a key role in meeting this by offering a range of services across different sectors, from employment and healthcare to tourism.

One example is Singapore Professionals’ and Executives’ Co-operative (SPEC), set up by the Singapore Human Resources Institute in 2000 after the financial crisis of 1998, which sparked a wave of business restructures that left many professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) without jobs. PMETs accounted for 51% of the layoffs in 2014, according to the Singaporean Ministry of Manpower.

Other figures show that 57% of Singaporeans and permanent residents who lose their jobs are able to find one within six months – but when it comes to PMETs, the percentage drops to 49%.

For workers over 40 the re-entry rate is 53% – and often, when they find new jobs, it is on lower pay and in a different sector. Of those PMETs who manage to find new positions, only 40% succeed in getting a job at a similar grade and salary.

Another daunting challenge facing long-serving employees is the disruption caused by technology. SPEC aims to help them to adapt to these changes and stay resilient, whatever the future brings. As part of its work, SPEC is helping PMETs to change their mindset – for instance, by changing their lifelong expectation of working for only one employer to working for a range of organisations that require their services and expertise.

SPEC has also recently started helping employees working in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to grow their business, in addition to its existing role in helping employees working for multi-national corporations (MNCs).

“The opportunity for co-ops in Singapore to provide re-employment services is vast,” said SPEC’s executive director Kao Beng Lee.

He added: “With rapid changes in technology and continuous business restructuring, co-ops need to change and adapt to the new operating environment – just like any commercial organisation faced with challenges such as slower and negative growth, and evolving work requirements arising or the changing work environment.”

SPEC’s services include corporate placement, talent matching, career coaching and social networking opportunities to help displaced senior PMETs re-join the workforce.

“With the gig economy and flexible work arrangements, we can expect the traditional employment arrangement to undergo major change,” said Mr Lee. “Trade and craft grouping would need to review the needs for collaboration and co-creation of their activities.

“The challenges are not limited to a particular age group – this will also affect new job seekers and cut across jobs and skills sets. Thus, the need to adapt to the new operating environment is key.

“To meet the common objectives of SPEC and develop greater synergy, we need to partner trade and business associations, tripartite employers, labour unions and the government.”

The government of Singapore is also working to help mature PMETs back into employment. Through initiatives such as Adapt and Growthe Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) is encouraging employees to hire PMETs aged 40 and above.

The agency is also running professional conversion programmes to enable senior PMETs to learn new skills and take on other careers.

Companies that hire mature PMETs can receive enhanced salary support. Furthermore, senior PMETs can benefit from subsidies of up to 90% for WDA-supported certifiable courses.

Other co-ops like Premier Security Co-op and Co-operative of Singapore Civil Defence Force Employees (COSEM) employ retired police and armed forces officers to provide security services.

Premier Security Co-op was set up in 1984 by two major co-ops – the Singapore Police Co-operative Society and the Singapore Government Staff Credit Co-operative Society. It is now a joint venture of 11 co-operatives and has paid-up capital of US$3.5m.

COSEM Safety and Security Services is a subsidiary of the Co-operative of Singapore Civil Defence Force Employees and is managed and staffed by experienced ex-employees of the Civil Defence Force and other professionals. They provide consultancy on fire safety, training courses and supply safety and security products.

Similarly, in 2012 a group of active seniors formed Silver Horizon Travel Co-operative, responding to the need for tour packages specifically designed for fellow senior travellers.

The idea for a co-op was born after the members had contacted current chair, 64-year-old Helen Lim. She was founding partner and chief executive of Silver Spring, a social enterprise helping displaced professionals return to the workforce. After a series of discussions, they decided to establish a travel co-op by seniors, for seniors.

The founding members chose the co-operative model because they wanted a member-owned enterprise focused on providing high quality services, rather than a profit-driven business with shareholders. Seniors themselves are involved in planning, organising and leading the tours and related activities.

Members of Silver Horizon Co-operative during one of their trips.
Members of Silver Horizon Co-operative during one of their trips.

According to Nielsen’s Global Ageing Report, of the 35% of Singaporeans who plan to retire or are already retired before 60, 73% opt for travel as the main post-retirement activity.

Silver Horizons promotes suitable activities and well-paced itineraries and comfortable stays. Members get to travel in large or small groups and engage with like-minded seniors who share a passion for travelling. Their motto is “Design to enjoy”.

“While there is much potential in co-ops to provide relevant services for the silver market, it is uncommon that there will be more co-ops that will provide travel-related services as self-service online travel booking is prevalent,” said Ms Lim.

“A key belief of Silver Horizon is to collaborate with other co-operatives that are also keen to serve the needs of seniors so as to achieve economies of scale.

“Through the Singapore National Co-operative Federation’s effort in organising networking sessions for its affiliates, Silver Horizon has attracted two Institutional members from other co-ops to join the family.”

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