Repository logo

Ageing and Downward Mobility in Later Life: The Negotiation of Life Chances by Vulnerable Older Persons in Singapore



Change log


Suen, Johan Bin Mohd Zain Suen 


The proportion of persons aged 65 and older in Singapore has almost tripled within the last four decades – rising from about 5 to 7.2 per cent of the population between 1980 to 2000, and currently at almost 14 per cent in 2018. With the total fertility rate remaining low (1.16 in 2017), and life expectancy at birth continuing to rise (83.1 years in 2017), about a quarter of Singaporeans are expected to be 65 years or older by 2030. Older persons are also staying healthier for longer periods of later life which, taken together with other demographic ageing factors, have raised widespread concerns including the inadequacy of retirement funds and increasing costs of long-term care for seniors. For many older persons in Singapore, the post-retirement years have entailed downward socioeconomic mobility due mainly to the loss of earning capacity, lack of support, and higher financial precarity.

Using primary data obtained from qualitative interviews with 36 vulnerable older men and women from the three major ethnic groups in Singapore (Chinese, Malay and Indian), my empirical research investigates the multiple determinants and diverse scenarios of socioeconomic decline. I identify three different scenarios of vulnerability: perpetual vulnerability; deferred vulnerability and contingent vulnerability. Whether situations of older people become less or more secure – in the short- and longer-term, depends on their ability to undertake formal or informal work and the quality of their socio-family relationships.

Building on the relevant theoretical literature, this thesis demonstrates how crucial aspects of older people’s life-course trajectories lead up to their current situations of vulnerability. I illustrate how vulnerability is negotiated through a variety of survival strategies and coping mechanisms. In addition, in-depth qualitative findings reveal the systemic gaps and paradoxes of existing social policies that aim to support the elderly in Singapore. The perceptions and experiences of my respondents show how such policies can unintentionally serve to perpetuate and exacerbate vulnerability. I argue that policy improvements need to focus on empowering older persons, especially the working poor, to negotiate better life chances by structuring greater opportunities for them to generate resources within residential communities. One way this could be achieved is through collaborative efforts to initiate, build, and support the growth of neighbourhood-based enterprises.





Scott, Jacqueline


social mobility, life course, ageing, singapore, elderly, low income, social inequality, cumulative disadvantage, precarity, coping strategies, informal economy, retirement, employment, vulnerability, socioeconomic decline, financial security, means test, moral economy


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge