Opinion

3 Ways Work in Singapore Will Change in the Next 20 Years

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Joanne Poh

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Let’s be honest here. The only thing pleasant about working in Singapore right now is the fact that the better paying jobs actually pay quite decently, even relative to the high cost of living.

But everything else is, well, not great. We work some of the world’s longest hours, yet our productivity is low compared to developed countries where technology is advanced and people work far fewer hours.

Burnout is becoming frighteningly common amongst young professionals, and we also have some of the least engaged employees in the world. Most of us dislike our jobs, and the majority view work as nothing more than something that keeps them from starving.

That’s pretty bleak, but there might be hope on the horizon. The nature of work in Singapore is changing, little by little. It might take some time for us to catch up, but we will get there—probably later than the rest of the developed world, and probably only after the current batch of baby boomers retires, but it will happen. Here’s what’s in store.

 

Remote working and telecommmuting will become much more common

Thanks to the internet, there’s really no need for so many employees to show up at the office every single day. Some employers, including certain stat boards, already allow their employees to work from home a few times a month. As time passes, this is something that will become more common.

The main reason more people aren’t already telecommuting is mostly because many local bosses still place a premium on face-time—they don’t trust their workers and are reluctant to let them work from home, thinking they’ll be skiving.

But several startups have already come under the spotlight for letting their staff work remotely most or even all of the time. I still get a little shocked when a friend tells me their boss lets them work from home, but at the same time this is great, because it shows things are changing. Eventually, more SMEs will have no choice but to consider remote working wherever possible or risk not being able to attract talent.

Maintaining a remote workforce will also enable Singaporean employers to hire overseas candidates more easily, since they’ll be able to stay in their home countries.

Many of the issues which make Singaporeans so miserable at work relate directly to the need for face-time. The terrible work-life balance, waiting around in the office for the boss to leave, commuting in overcrowded MRT carriages, and inflexibility of schedule would be vanquished in one fell swoop if people no longer had to go to the office at 9am.

 

Frequent career changes will become more common

Right now, many Singaporeans avoid making career changes until they finally get retrenched and are unable to find someone who will hire them at the same price as before.

They are then forced to take on work that has nothing to do with their experience or qualifications and that pays a tiny fraction of their former salary, simply because they are bogged down by loans and desperately need to make some cash fast.

Part of the problem is that many of these older workers have mistakenly viewed their rice bowls as an iron one, when they were actually eating out of disposable paper plates. They never bothered to think about their next career move, how they could upgrade themselves or whether they’d like to do something else at some point.

And so when the rug is pulled out from under their feet, they are totally clueless as to how to proceed.

Thankfully, it looks like things are going to change with this generation. While job-seekers are still largely conservative, more young Singaporeans are doing some soul-searching and venturing off the beaten path, making career changes so they can do something that’s more in line with their values and their interests.

There are more and more stories of millennials who’ve quit their boring office jobs to start businesses, to the point where there is now a thriving start-up ecosystem. There is a growing freelance workforce, and more people are now not only willing to move overseas for work, but have made it their goal—many of my friends from my school days in Singapore have either relocated abroad or done temporary overseas stints.

Partly because of changing values and partly out of necessity, it looks like Singaporeans are going to become more and more open to career changes. Life will no longer just be about getting that professional degree and then working your way up the career ladder.

In fact, the career ladder will change for a great many. It will no longer be a linear path to the top, where you toil away year after year in exchange for salary increments.

I have many friends whose salary trajectories have resembled the STI Index—they might be earning big bucks in the corporate world one year, and then nothing the next as they go on sabbatical, only to start a new venture the next. Never thought it would happen in conservative Singapore, but things are quietly changing.

 

Careers which are a springboard to entrepreneurship will be more sought after

Traditionally, Singaporean A level and poly grads have always tried to get into one of the professional degree courses like medicine, law and accounting. Even if they have only a vague interest in these courses of study, zillions of students apply anyway, for the money, prestige and to make their parents proud.

The professions are traditionally viewed as offering what is seen as an iron rice bowl and a ticket to a relatively high salary.

But more and more young Singaporeans are realising they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives working for somebody else, even if that means they’ll rise to the upper echelons of their firm.

Becoming an entrepreneur is now seen as more and more attractive. That could partly be because long working hours and autocratic workplaces have become so stifling that millennials no longer want to work for others.

Whatever the reason, courses of study and entry-level jobs offering a window into the world of entrepreneurship look set to become a lot more popular. Heck, kiasu parents are even sending their kids for coding classes, okay?

Many local startups are starting to offer competitive pay packages, and with their “hip” working conditions and more informal environments, are finding it a lot easier to attract candidates than SMEs run by ah peks. Everybody wants to know how a startup works, because someday, somehow, they may be able to put these skills into practice by running their own.

It’s very telling that Google and Apple topped the list of companies Singaporeans wanted most to work for in a survey earlier this year. Conversely, big names in finance like Citibank and Goldman Sachs were nowhere on the list.

Perhaps, one day, Singaporean parents will tell others with pride that their kid is trying to get their start-up off the ground or working as a freelancer, rather than hope everybody focuses their attention on their other child who became a doctor or lawyer.

What are changes do you foresee in the future of work? Tell us in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.