21 April 2019
In the movie The Intern, 70-year old widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) secures an internship with a fast-growing Internet fashion startup. This is still fairy tale to the elderly in Hong Kong who usually have a tough time landing a job.
In the movie The Intern, 70-year old widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) secures an internship with a fast-growing Internet fashion startup. This is still fairy tale to the elderly in Hong Kong who usually have a tough time landing a job.

Can Hollywood story The Intern happen in real life in HK?

In the 2015 Hollywood movie The Intern, a 70-year old widower, Ben Whittaker (played by Robert De Niro), secures an internship with a fast-growing Internet fashion startup and soon manages to impress his boss and win over co-workers with his ability and likability.

Can this sort of thing happen in real life in Hong Kong?

Well, it is happening already but not in such a dramatic way. Startups so far seem to be a restricted zone and open mostly to youngsters. But some companies have begun to show interest in hiring elderly workers in order to tap their expertise and experience.

However, their numbers are still small. 

For the practice to become more widely acceptable, several things need to happen.

First, employers need to realize and appreciate the fact that quite a few elderly people want to keep working beyond the usual retirement age.

Part of the reason is financial.

Life expectancy is getting longer, and it is the paramount fear of most retired people that their savings will be depleted long before they die.

When most of us can expect to live beyond 80 but have to retire at around 60, the paltry Mandatory Provident Fund (and its poor performance) is not going to give us much reassurance. Inadequate public retirement benefits also won’t do anything to put their mind at ease.

To be able to earn their own living means financial independence and dignity.

More importantly, some people need to work to lead a normal life. It’s a psychological need.

“Elderly who have work usually have better relationship with family. They also tend to be physically fitter,” said Joyce Mak, chief executive of catering group Gingko House.

Mak ran a depression hotline for elderly years ago and had observed how loneliness and a purposeless life can bring down a senior citizen, whereas recognition and social interactions in the work place are often the best therapy.

“Keeping them busy is an effective way to help them rebuild their confidence; the rhythm of daily life and the feeling that they are still okay” Mak said. That experience led her to setting up a social enterprise catering business with the primary objective of providing jobs to old people.

Like what Robert De Niro said in The Intern about his boring retirement life.

“I just know there is a hole in my life, and I need to fill it.”

Companies are profit-oriented. To convince them to hire more elderly, it’s crucial that they understand that there are merits in doing so.

Not all kinds of jobs suit the elderly, but for companies who have hired them, they generally find them to have good work attitude, in terms of being more punctual, loyal, responsible and disciplined.

Their rich life experience often equips them with better ability to understand a client’s needs and handle emergency situations properly.

Still, to unleash their potential, an employer needs to first of all put them in the right position and secondly give them some extra support.

In Gingko’s case, trolleys are provided to reduce the burden of elderly waiters. Large characters in menu and easy numbering system are used to help them overcome fading eyesight when taking orders. Their restaurants run three shifts a day, limiting the working hours of elderly staff to five each day. Sometimes, the roster is designed to match special needs of their aged workers.

“They may have to visit the doctor for regular check up, or they may occasionally want to spend some time with their grand children,” Mak said, adding that Gingko tries to accommodate and tailor the duty schedule accordingly.

Some Gingko staffers were in totally different business before joining. To help these ex-bankers, ex-clerks or ex-teachers adapt to a new career, Gingko has social workers in place to provide them with assistance.

It might be a bit demanding to ask private firms to follow Gingko’s support scheme 100 percent, but with only minor adjustments, numerous employers should still be able to benefit from a rich pool of experienced workers, something not to be taken for granted given Hong Kong’s rapidly ageing population and intensifying labor crunch.

On the government side, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will be able to bring a more meaningful impact on the lives of the elderly if he can introduce measures or incentives to promote elderly employment, and leave the minor planning like non-slippery floor installation at public toilets or lengthening of green traffic light time for senior citizens to his subordinates.

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EJ Insight writer

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