The Third Age is the Golden Age



Credit: Singapore Management University

SMU Office of Research & Tech Transfer – Within the context of population and demographics studies, the “Third Age” refers to the life stage when individuals ease off on full-time employment, often coinciding with a rise in leisure time. The ideal situation, if possible, is to stretch out the Third Age and minimise the Fourth (and final) Age of disability and death.

The assumption is that Third Agers will be healthy and free of economic pressures to not only pursue personal interests, but also give back to society. In Singapore, much work needs to be done to create such an environment.

“Our proposal aims to drive evidence-based propositions for redesigning society so that we will be better prepared to receive the Third Agers,” explains SMU Professor of Sociology Paulin Tay Straughan, referring to the project “Dynamic and Holistic Monitoring of the Well-Being of Older Singaporeans” which was awarded a Ministry of Education (MOE) Academic Research Fund (AcRF) Tier 3 grant. “Right now when we talk about the Third Agers, the only time they come up are in two conversations.

“The first is that they become a liability, such as in the context of the old age support ratio. It is very disappointing because it is a very crude evaluation of who is important in our society.

“The second time it comes up, and again not in a very positive light, is when we talk about retirement. Therefore, the way to prepare for an ageing society seems to be to just keep pushing the inevitable forward by extending retirement age.

“Money is important but that conversation then gives us false assurance that we have taken care of an ageing population.”

Building social capital, going beyond economics

Money is part of the “Economic” quadrant, which is one of four that make up overall well-being in Rowe and Kahn’s model, with the other three being “Social”, “Mental”, and “Physical”. Professor Straughan will build on the Singapore Life Panel (SLP) research done by the Director of the Centre for Research on the Economics of Ageing (CREA), Professor Bryce Hool, and his team.

“The first phase of the project was on retirement adequacy, and CREA did an excellent job,” Professor Straughan explains, pointing to the active panel of 11,000 Singaporeans aged 50 to 75 who are tracked monthly for their income, expenditure, health, work and housing choices.

A main area that needs exploration, Professor Straughan emphasises, is the study of evolving family ties, which has eroded long-held assumptions that the family is the primary source of social help and support. With an increasing proportion of people remaining single, this group of people will not have children to take care of them. Even for those who do have children, they have fewer of them and do so later in life such that they end up having to take care of both young children and elderly parents – the sandwiched generation.

“We have to then re-imagine, ‘How do you redefine family and social support so that we are not trapped in the traditional mould and as a result, resources are not directed where it’s supposed to go?'” says Professor Straughan, who is also SMU’s Dean of Students. “One proposition we have is, ‘Don’t just look at family, look at non-kin support.'”

She adds: “In the past, with limited appreciation of social integration and the dynamics of social integration, our questions were always focused on, ‘Are you married? How many children do you have? How often do you eat together?’ It’s all about filial piety.

“So now we turn on the other switch: ‘In addition to family, tell us about your friends. How many good friends do you have? How much time do you spend with your friends? Who do you call first when there is an emergency?’ And then you begin to see that actually the lights are lighting up. So if we know that community is so important, we put in resources to promote community, and we promote it in a way that makes sense and that has to be ground up.”

Assuming financial planning has been done successfully, Third Agers have plenty of bandwidth to contribute to social capital, Professor Straughan says. “They can be your faithful volunteers. We lament there are not enough volunteers in Singapore but we keep looking at people who are working nine to nine. How can you volunteer when you’re married to your job?

“You have this fantastic group who are looking for a social role and who want to show they are not dependents. Rather than always relying on the government to come up with a new policy or give subsidies and so forth, the sociologists that I work with have been talking about how we should actually step up on another important asset that we have under-utilised, and that is social capital.”

Given the project’s goal to lengthen an individual’s Third Age, the resulting societal-wide shortening of Fourth Age duration could translate to huge savings in the treatment of physical and mental ailments that tend to plague the elderly.

“The project will identify what are the challenges and then identify the facilitators so that we can then inform policy to say that, ‘Maybe we should have a social policy where if you can prepare a person well when they are still in the pre-retirement age.’

“For example, encouraging them to go for health screening because that is critical when you are at that age when chronic diseases are likely to start to flare up. Arrest those so that you can be prepared for a very healthy and engaged Third Age.”

Doing the work, doing it right

Among other things, the project will involve recruiting a refresher sample of 2,500 individuals aged 50-54 to continue the longitudinal study, as well as data modelling and dissemination of findings to academic, government and business groups. It will also bring together experts in psychology, sociology, and economics at Singaporean and international universities in New Zealand and the U.S.

While grateful for the heavyweight names and their expertise that lent crucial gravitas to the grant proposal, Professor Straughan had to curate the vast amounts of material to produce what she describes as “a giant jigsaw puzzle”. She also points out the speed with which the collaborators from foreign universities responded despite the time difference, which helped in putting together the final proposal.

Despite how everything appeared to be coming together, Professor Straughan was mindful that the previous year’s proposal had failed to get the green light and made sure nothing was left to chance this time.

When the time came to present the proposal to the Academic Research Council (ARC), the hard work paid off.

“It was a fantastic presentation in my perspective because everyone spoke,” Professor Straughan recalls. “We had very little time, a 10-minute presentation and a 20-minute Q&A. But in that 20 minutes, everyone was so charged up because they were so well prepared that everyone spoke and everyone contributed.

“I think the ARC could see that all hands were on deck. And it was a promising team based in Singapore that will be driving this project.”


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