Home News COVID-19's victims: A "Lost Generation" in the making in Singapore

COVID-19’s victims: A “Lost Generation” in the making in Singapore

DPM Heng fears that those in this generation might “ see their skills, employability, and incomes permanently affected, even after the world recovers from the pandemic"




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By Jillian Colombo and Misaki Tan

Recently in a round-up speech of the Fortitude Budget on June 5, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat spoke of the need to prevent a “Covid Generation” of workers and students. He likened this “Covid Generation” to the “Lost Generation” found in the United States of America after World War One. 

The term “Lost Generation” was first used to describe the aimlessness and disillusionment of those returning from the war. The war-time experiences of these individuals left them pessimistic and full of anguish about their future.

Dr Tan Ern Ser, Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore (NUS), defines “lost generation” in the contemporary context as “a cohort facing disruptions and missed opportunities which derail them from an otherwise promising trajectory from graduation to retirement, and at risk of not being able to ever get back on track”. He continues by arguing that more broadly, “with all the disruptions going on in the world, most generations are to different degrees ‘lost’.”

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Across Space

Going by Dr Tan’s definition of a lost generation, we find examples of such generations in different parts of the world at different times. Other than the youth in a post-WWI world as raised by DPM Heng, a severe case of a lost generation can be seen close to Singapore, in Myanmar. The ethnic wars being waged in Myanmar, in particular in the Rakhine state, saw more than 909,000 people becoming refugees and fleeing into nearby countries like Bangladesh or Malaysia.

The children in these refugee camps do not have access to education, and with their future uncertain, it is likely that they will grow up in the refugee camp. Without having any opportunity to build skills that would make them employable, they would possibly never have a source of steady income in their lives. This would mean the entire Rohingya refugee population is “lost”.

The government in Myanmar has no plans to help the transition of the Rohingya back into Myanmar, and with the refugees’ own home country refusing to acknowledge them as its citizens, there is little hope that any other country will be willing to do so. Although vastly different from the problems that the “COVID Generation” will face, it is a stark reminder that there are other lost generations in the world, independent from the crises the pandemic has brought about.

Some have also argued that millennials of today, those aged 18 to 33, are a “Lost Generation”. Today, we see higher rates of depression, suicides and stress in this generation compared to their predecessors. The norms and expectations of today such as educational attainment and a faster pace of life, have changed the way millennials view their own success and thus have contributed to this creation of a “Lost Generation”.

Across Time

Zooming into local context, Singapore’s pioneer generation can be seen as a “Lost Generation”, according to Dr Tan. He explains that “the pioneer generation, for instance, with its low education and low income, is lost to the extent that it has not been able to save enough for retirement”. This is exacerbated by the fact that rapid technological advancements have changed the world drastically, and the pioneer generation face more difficulties in adapting to these changes. 

The government has tried to prevent the pioneer generation from becoming a lost one. They  have rolled out the Pioneer Generation Package that about 450,000 people have qualified for. This is an attempt to ease the burden of healthcare for the generation who may not have been able to save for their retirement due to the hardships they faced in their younger years. Life-long learning has also been advocated by the state to encourage the pioneers to be more mentally active and be equipped with new skills should they desire to continue working.

Amidst the Pandemic

Going back to the “Covid Generation” raised by DPM Heng, he fears that those in this generation might “ see their skills, employability, and incomes permanently affected, even after the world recovers from the pandemic”. This has led to much effort by the government in job-creation, with an approximate S$72 billion set aside to preserving jobs and businesses.

One of the plans that the Singaporean government is rolling out is the setting up of satellite career centres in all 24 Housing Board towns. These centres have partnered with the National Trades Union Congress’ Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), social service offices, community development councils, and self-help groups. There are currently five such centres islandwide. The website MyCareersFuture.sg is also open to help match job seekers to potential jobs. The government aims to generate 100,000 new jobs in the next 12 months, and through incentivising the digitalisation of companies, the government aims to generate more jobs in the infocomm sector as well. This is in hopes that people who are currently unable to find jobs will be able to find employment as soon as possible.

Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS, has also raised concerns over a “lost generation” in light of COVID-19. Gupta believes that DBS has a responsibility to not only prevent the loss of jobs during the pandemic, but also create more jobs to help Singaporeans pull through this trying period. He commented: “In particular, we want to do our part to avoid having a ‘lost’ generation of young graduates in Singapore whose career prospects are jeopardised because they are unable to find jobs due to the pandemic.”

Singapore is not the only country currently fearing a “Covid Generation”. Young job seekers in Japan are also at risk of being part of the “lost generation” in light of a recession in the country, a worry that has existed since the “Lost Decade” from 1991 to 2001. COVID-19 has exacerbated this worry in the country.  Likewise, Hong Kong’s class of 2020 can be said to face the same risk, with the city’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate having increased by 4.2% in the January to March period. Many of the individuals of class 2020 have seen their internships and employment opportunities withdrawn due to the shrinking economy.

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