Hong Kong’s ageing workforce and society: meeting the challenges

Professor Alfred Chan, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission

Sign reading: "Time for change. We're hiring."

Hong Kong’s ageing society poses multiple challenges and opportunities for employers.

Government projections suggest that by 2064 more than a third (36%) of the population will be aged 65 or above – a significant increase from 15% in 2014. The median age of Hong Kongers will be 50 in 2034, up from just under 44 in 2014.

As people are living longer, they are maintaining better health and vitality, as well as strong social and professional networks. Many want to continue working past the traditional retirement age. Yet they often face discrimination and other age-related barriers to job opportunities.

That is bad news for employers. With the labour force getting progressively smaller – contracting by roughly half a million over the next half-century – companies need to make the most of the talent that is available. We simply cannot afford not to tap into this already experienced and skilled labour pool.

Workplace discrimination in Hong Kong

To gain deeper insights into this issue, including its impact on employers and employees, we commissioned an ‘Exploratory Study on Age Discrimination in Employment’, published earlier this year. The study involved a telephone survey with 400 employed persons as well as in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, including SME employers and employees.

The survey confirmed that a large majority of Hong Kong employees wish to continue working past the retirement age. Over three-quarters want to be re-employed in an equivalent or higher position after retirement, such as in a freelance or part-time capacity. More than 60% of the employed persons surveyed did not agree that there should be a mandatory retirement age.

Yet the findings suggest that age discrimination at work is commonplace. According to the survey, 35% of employed persons have experienced some form of workplace age discrimination in the last five years. Over a third perceived the problem in Hong Kong as either ‘serious’ or ‘very serious’.

Mature workers, especially those aged 50 and above, report being particularly vulnerable to age-discriminatory treatments. Almost a quarter said they had been denied a job promotion due to their age. Other common forms of discrimination include receiving lower salaries and being targeted for redundancy in organisational re-structuring.

This may be caused, in part, by negative stereotypes of older workers. Over half of employed respondents felt employers would have concerns about older workers being less productive (54%) or coming into conflict with younger employees (52%). More than one in 10 workers aged over 50 reported having been mocked or rejected by colleagues.

Age-smart workplace management

As part of a feature article on age discrimination and age-smart workplace initiatives in the EOC Journal last year, we spoke to Professor Randy Chiu, Director of the Centre for Human Resources Strategy and Development of Hong Kong Baptist University.

Professor Chiu observed: “Organisations that hire and retain older employees tend to benefit from decreased turnover and increased productivity. They can also gain from having in place long-term succession planning and enhanced institutional memory as well as increased knowledge.”

Age-smart workplace management begins with creating age-friendly employment policy statements, with clearly defined, consistent criteria for work and advancement opportunities. Another important step is to institute flexible retirement policies and family-friendly practices, including flexible working arrangements in line with the company’s business needs. Indeed, this can benefit employees of all ages.

On a practical level, the workplace environment can be made more accommodating of older workers through simple improvements to accessibility and addressing ergonomic issues, providing assistive facilities where needed. Work processes can be reviewed, and where necessary revised.

Equally important is addressing the workplace culture. The value of experience and age should be understood by all employees. Establishing continuous, multi-generational skills development training and education programmes, including two-way mentoring between different ages, can help shift attitudes while facilitating knowledge transfer.

Finally, it is critical to understand and respond to any changes by monitoring the success of these measures and updating programmes appropriately. This can feed into companies’ disclosure of employment and labour standards under GRI reporting or the (now mandatory) HKEx ESG reporting requirements.

Support for government intervention

The Government can help to support age-friendly workplace measures in a number of ways. One is set an example by creating part-time or job-share posts in Government departments. This would act as a pilot scheme and possible model for other sectors for the re-employment of mature people.

Various countries have introduced legislative protection for older workers. In Australia, the Age Discrimination Act 2004 prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in many areas of public life, including employment, education, accommodation and the provision of goods and services. Singapore’s Retirement and Re-employment Act requires employers to provide re-employment opportunities after the official retirement age of 62.

Our study indicated that support for similar legislation here in Hong Kong is already strong: 70% of employed respondents, across all age groups and educational levels, agreed that wider legal protection is necessary.

Another key area where the Government could have a positive impact is by working with the business sector and relevant regulatory bodies to ensure that existing practices do not inadvertently discriminate or deter mature workers from re-entering the workforce.

For example, one of the factors underlying discriminatory treatment of mature workers is the practice of insurance companies charging premiums three or four times more than those below the retirement age (i.e. 60 or 65 years). The Government can cooperate with the insurance industry to tackle specific hurdles such as this.

Mirroring the aforementioned ESG reporting by companies, both Government and industry associations could play a role in monitoring workplace discrimination and any changes in business practices through regular surveys and research.

First steps

Given current demographic changes and their impact on Hong Kong’s society, there needs to be a shift in the way we approach age in the workplace. When the vast knowledge and experience of mature colleagues is not effectively utilised, it is a loss for us all.

We have to remove age-related barriers to job opportunities, particularly those faced by older workers. And it is simply unacceptable in this day and age that some older workers face still negative stereotyping and discriminatory treatment.

It is time to address age discrimination in the workplace, take steps to ensure an age-inclusive society – and, more importantly, build the positive recognition of mature talent which our elders surely deserve.

The views of guest contributors do not necessarily reflect those of HKCSS, the Caring Company Scheme or Sustainable Business HK.