Preparing for Malaysia’s future older workforce

KUALA LUMPUR — Having retired after working for 33 years, Vijay Nadarajah, 61, wants nothing more than to return to work.

It has been almost two years since he moved back to Malaysia from overseas, where he had spent about 18 years in countries like Indonesia, Oman and Pakistan working for a Hong Kong-based international port management company.

Under company policy, he had to retire once he hit 60, the same as in Malaysia. He spent the first six months of retirement visiting his twin daughters in Canada with his wife. But once back home in Shah Alam, Selangor, filling his days playing golf and travelling was not an option.

“I mean, I understand that, you know, (my former company) has this (policy of mandatory retirement age at 60). But I just feel you still have a lot of capacity to deliver, especially these days,” he told Bernama.

As such, he scoured available job postings and applied for anything and everything that looked good. He hired a headhunter to find him a job. He took classes to improve his skills and stay up to date. He signed up with a recruitment portal that connects senior citizens with prospective employers.

Like many his age, he does not consider himself ready to be put out to pasture, feeling that 60 is the new 50. Thanks to advances in healthcare and improved living standards, Malaysians are living longer and healthier lives. Add to that the declining birth rate and the fact that the average age of a Malaysian worker in the future is expected to be older than the current 25 to 29 years.

And yet, there has not been enough focus on trying to help retirees find employment although a few – such as HireSeniors, the recruitment portal for people above 50, and TalentCorp – have started the ball rolling.

HIRING SENIORS

Malaysia hit ageing nation status in 2021 with seven percent of the population aged 65 and above, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DoSM). Come 2030, it will likely increase to 14 percent, making Malaysia an aged nation. The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) said projections suggest that people above 60 will reach 7.3 million by 2040.

New 60-year-olds in Malaysia can expect to live another decade or so, with an additional 18.2 years for men and 20.9 for women, according to DoSM.

At the same time, the fertility rate has been trending downwards, hitting a low of 1.6 children per woman in 2023. Economists say a 2.1 birth rate is needed to replace the current workforce. To make up for the shortage, older people would likely have to remain in the workforce for much longer.

“People are recognising that we are, you know, becoming an aged society and therefore we, the employers, have to be more open about this and know that they have to rely on the seniors as well,” said Siew Eng, human resource director at HireSeniors.

“So, they should not just drop the idea of hiring seniors because I think seniors offer a huge wealth of experience.”

But despite the acknowledgement that the average age of people in the labour force in the future will be older, there has not been much chatter regarding job opportunities for senior citizens. Instead, most of the discussion seems to be centred on improving and increasing healthcare facilities and services for the elderly as well as the importance of saving for retirement.

What few available services to connect seniors with jobs remain limited or very new.

For instance, the government-linked Talent Corporation Malaysia Bhd (TalentCorp), which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Human Resources, has several programmes to assist Malaysian seniors in finding jobs. The programmes include the Career Comeback Programme for returning Malaysian expats.

TalentCorp Group chief executive Thomas Mathew said the government is also actively involved in the National Ageing Blueprint (NAB) study, scheduled to be completed in 2024. The NAB is a comprehensive policy framework for addressing the multifaceted issues and challenges that the elderly face.

“Seeing this, TalentCorp has taken proactive steps since June last year to ensure these senior employees may obtain employment and continue to contribute meaningfully to the country. Although on a small scale, the first step is always to change the future and provide for their economic needs,” he said.

TalentCorp forged a collaboration with the Ex-Servicemen Affairs Corporation (PERHEBAT) this year. PERHEBAT assists veterans of the Armed Forces of Malaysia with a second career.

As for HireSeniors, Siew Eng said she believes they are the only recruitment portal catering specifically to seniors for now and their services are only available in the Klang Valley. 

OVER THE HILL IS GOOD

One of the reasons there seems to be a disparity between the acknowledgement that older people will comprise a bigger chunk of the workforce in the future versus the lack of senior-focused employment opportunities and connections could be age discrimination against the elderly and the belief that the elderly have outlived their usefulness.

Experts told Bernama ageism is absolutely prevalent in the Malaysian job market. They said many companies place age limits when recruiting employees, such as excluding candidates above 40 years of age.

MEF vice president Farid Basir said it is a shame as many retirees and senior citizens have a wealth of experience and wisdom they can share with the younger generation and help with the knowledge transfer.

“By keeping them in the workforce longer in Malaysia, we can retain these skills and prevent potential knowledge gaps that may occur due to the mass retirements,” he said.

Research by the Malaysian Research Institute on Ageing (MyAgeing) at Universiti Putra Malaysia found many companies are reluctant to hire seniors, with some job advertisements frequently excluding candidates over 40.

Head of MyAgeing Medical Programme Prof Dr Chan Yoke Mun said it is important to establish a supportive environment to help seniors prolong their working years, such as implementing flexible work arrangements and policies aimed at combating age discrimination.

One way is requiring seniors and younger generations to undergo educational training beforehand on fostering age-inclusive practices.

“It is imperative to ensure a smooth transition to an ageing workforce and maximise the potential contributions of all age groups,” she added.

While Malaysia does not have specific laws against age discrimination, existing labour legislation, namely the Industrial Relations Act 1967 and Minimum Retirement Age Act 2012, ensures employees some job security.

Vijay told Bernama he faced age discrimination while job-hunting, saying he did not receive a single callback when he applied to companies directly. He then used headhunters to help him secure a job.

“Headhunters admitted it would be a challenge for a person of my age because companies are looking for younger applicants,” he said.

Siew Eng said luckily, some companies prefer to employ senior citizens in certain capacities like consultants or drivers. Not only do seniors have a lot of experience, they are also more stable and dependable, less likely to take time off from work for family emergencies and less concerned with the rat race.

Despite the benefits, there are some jobs that seniors will not be able to do such as hard labour. And like it or not they do face health issues more often than their younger counterparts.

THINGS TO CONSIDER

Other than the benefits to the economy, having seniors working can also help keep them healthy, especially mentally.

“So it has positive effects on mental and physical health. This is from an HR perspective. It provides individuals with a sense of purpose, social interaction, the inclusion. Can you imagine the isolation if you stay at home constantly?” asked Farid, who is also chief people officer at MBSB Bank Bhd.

He added the mandatory retirement age should and will likely be increased to respond to the demographic changes, but added it should be up to the workers if they want to continue working.

Dr Chan said working past retirement age can bring significant benefits to both the employees and society. She said it offers seniors a sense of purpose, the opportunity to stay active and engaged, and the chance to contribute to their communities and families.

“From the health perspective, prior research has suggested that the transition from work to retirement can lead to reduced cognitive stimulation, which may have a deteriorating effect on a person’s cognitive health and indicate an increased risk of dementia. Hence, to continue working and retire at a later-than-average age of retirement can help to mitigate the risk of dementia,” she said.

She added this could help minimise the government’s healthcare costs as seniors would still be earning and able to pay for their care.

Working after retirement age also gives seniors a chance to replenish their Employment Provident Fund (EPF) coffers as not all Malaysians have enough funds in their EPF accounts to sustain them in their golden years.

In March, EPF was quoted as saying that only 33 percent of members have RM240,000 in savings, which is the amount needed to retire comfortably. As of December 2023, EPF had 16.07 million members. 

ISSUES

Experts are quick to caution that working past retirement is not a one-size-fits-all solution for seniors. For some of them, continuing to work fits their needs while for others, retiring and travelling is a better option.

Dr Chan said early retirement should not be viewed as a negative event impacting one’s health status. Retirees who have planned ahead for their retirement often have more opportunities to increase social engagement.

“They can spend more time with family and friends and pursue leisure activities or hobbies that they were unable to undertake during their full working years. As a result, they age actively and maintain a fulfilling lifestyle,” she said.

Vijay can attest to the benefits of being a working senior.

After 10 months of looking for a job, he told Bernama he landed an HR position with Genashtim, a multi-national company that works with marginalised communities and focuses on e-learning, digitalisation and ESG (Education, Social and Governance) services.

He is satisfied with his life and is intent on contributing all he can for as long as he can. The only thing that needed retirement was the idea that life was pretty much over after 60.

“You know, you don’t have to, like, oh, just because you’ve reached 70 now, you have to take it easy … I think it’s very individual, you know, it has to be very individualised in that sense,” he said. — BERNAMA / pic TMR FILE