Home News SG Economy Why DPM May Be Wrong About The Younger Generation in Singapore

Why DPM Tharman May Be Wrong About The Younger Generation in Singapore

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By: Benjamin Loh
Have you ever looked (in disdain) at someone younger and wondered why is he (she) so much more different than you?
The way he thinks, feels and act — it’s as if this person came from a different galaxy altogether. You invariably start to compare how things were like in your times and theirs. And sometimes, you think you just had it tougher. You believe you probably had it worse and hence with the benefit of hindsight and experience, your judgments of people, situations and contexts are more precise than not.
But is it always all that true?

Our well-respected Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Shanmugaratnam spoke at the inaugural Singapore Teochew Entrepreneur Award dinner and made several remarks of the younger generation including how they are less hungry and more impatient. They do not stay on their jobs for long and fewer“believe in learning the ropes, taking time to develop skills on the job and working their way up”.

As a 20-something Singaporean part of the “younger generation” that DPM Tharman was alluding to, I couldn’t help but question how representative was that of my peers. He asserted while it was not based on hard data, “qualitative feedback” suggests that this is the case.

Don’t get me wrong. DPM Tharman is one of the local statesmen that I respect the most especially his most stellar representation at St. Gallen Symposium which floored the attendees and the Internet.

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But here are the three reasons why I believe DPM Tharman may be wrong in his judgments about the “younger generation”.

1) What The Data Actually Says — Impatient, maybe. But hungry?

Evidently, there still hasn’t been a meaningful study enough for the younger generation (typically 15–35 years old) in Singapore on their average tenure for their first job and why they actually do leave their first job. Plainly because there are too many variables in place — different sectors having their own unique challenges in attracting and retaining young talents, types of companies being surveyed, consistency and comprehensiveness of survey methods, veracity of what the respondents actually put out.

That said, I like to share two research sources about Millennials that can give a more nuanced picture of what the younger generation needs.

Universum – Understanding a misunderstood generation (2014)

In a survey conducted by Universum “covering 43 countries, having surveyed 16,637 people between the ages of 18–30 during May to August 2014” of which, 130 of them were Singaporeans, these were the 3 greatest fears of Millennials in the Asia-Pacific,

1. That I will get stuck with no development opportunities

2. That I won’t get a job that matches my personality

3. That I won’t realize my career goals

Yes, it’s very “I-focused” but before we start pointing the fingers, we need to recognize that the graduates entering the workforce these days have markedly higher career mobility than say, in the 1970s and 1980s in Singapore.

AIESEC YouthSpeak Survey (2015)

Likewise in another survey released by AIESEC, the world’s largest youth-led organization for 42,257 survey respondents ages 18–25 across 100 countries and territories in 2015, the top 3 career goals that were most important to Millennials in their first 5 years of their career are:

1. Global Opportunities (24%)

2. Constant Learning (16%)

3. Meaningful Work (15%)

While the younger generation may indeed be not staying as long as our predecessors on our first job and this can be seen as a form of “impatience” of sorts, the data hardly suggest that youths are “less hungry”.

If at all, our hunger may be channeled towards more individual professional growth and curating our career journey vis-à-vis scaling up the career ladder (what ladder, these days?) at a singular company.

It’s a different type of hunger, you see.

2) The Notion of Work And Mastery — Linearity, a Thing of Yesterday

It is especially important to be aware of the big themes and narratives of the times we live in. Buzzwords like disruption, innovation, entrepreneurship, flipped classroom, gig economy suggest that we no longer live in a flat traditional world or post-industrial economy.

The linear narrative of study hard, get a degree, apply for a job, stay on a job for 20, 30, 40 years or the rest of your life just does not apply anymore! Whether by choice or circumstance and at least not in Singapore.

These days, it’s also unsurprising to know of people making upwards of $10,000 a month eating curry and chicken wings on camera (mukbang in Korea), building a $84 million company by teaching people how to do make-up through Youtube (Michelle Phan) or playing video games and doing voiceovers for his reactions and making upwards of $7M (Felix Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie). Sure they are the “outliers” or “anomalies” whatever you call them.

But they are certainly, possibilities in the eyes of the younger generation.

Reid Hoffman, who recently sold off LinkedIn to Microsoft for $26B+ is also the co-author of the book, ‘The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career’. Hoffman’s book talks about how youths and graduates need to think of themselves as start-ups and be open and flexible enough to constantly pivot and reinvent themselves to meet the demands of a hyper-connected world.

One of the most memorable quotes from the book goes like this,

“For many people “twenty years of experience” is really one year of experience repeated twenty times.”

While there is merit in gaining mastery in a deep vertical over time, Hoffman seems to suggest that time on a job alone does not always translate to career mastery but it is the awareness of what are the critical skills of success in our world today, aligning your work to the development of those skills and constantly enhancing your capabilities and hence, employability.

Hoffman also quoted Dan Pink, who penned the best-seller, ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’,

“Professional loyalty now flows “horizontally” to and from your network rather than “vertically” to your boss, as Dan Pink has noted”

Can we then say that the concept of professional loyalty is dead? Yes and no.

Companies that are able to provide a breadth of experiences and developmental opportunities are what will then entice the younger generation to stay within the same company. Even major banks that used to be the dream companies for graduates are reinventing themselves and upping the ante in the employment game with a year-long break, community outreach programs et cetera.

Of course, not every SME in Singapore can afford to be a Citigroup. But one cannot deny that the war for talent is ongoing so if the big boy’s are doing what they can to lure young talents, can our local companies afford to just play passive?

Otherwise, why should we chastise our younger employees for leaving us when their career growth has seemingly plateaued? Furthermore, it is ludicrous to expect of professional loyalty from your employees whencompanies in recent times are laying off their people by the thousands (yes, I know ironically, the banks again too).

As a Millennial living in our world today, I sometimes feel perplexed and torn.

On one hand, we are asked to be aspirational and to engineer our best versions of ourselves. Yet on the other hand, we are asked to stick to the “old rules of success” and be boxed in rigid conventions with outdated expectations.

Do you see the double bind as I do?

3) Let’s Not Slip Down The Slippery Slope of Misjudgments

My final point revolves around how each and every generation is and has always been heterogeneous. Mine as with yours, DPM Tharman.

Sure, there are certain overarching characteristics of people that are generally shaped by key socio-economic factors, access to education and information et cetera, but to put out broad strokes about young people in Singapore, is hardly meaningful or helpful.

One of the excerpts from the Universum study that called out most to me,

“Having examined the views and preferences of Millennials across 43 countries, it’s clear Millennials are a heterogeneous generation. While commonalities exist, region by region Millennials are unbelievably diverse in their opinions and actions. Even country by country attitudes vary as widely as they do across regions. The Asia-Pacific region is perhaps the clearest example. Addressing Japanese Millennials the same way as you address Indian Millennials is bound to end badly, as these two groups are worlds apart when it comes to career decisions.”

It is sometimes easy to fall into labels and categories about people and objects that are different from us. Just as how we are quick to judge people by their differences (in terms of their nationality, race, gender, colour, sexual orientation etc.), how often do we stop to think of our similarities that cut across those diversity points?

In this context — do we not think that our young people do not yearn the same Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose (from Dan Pink’s Drive) in our careers as our senior counterparts? Yes, we may express our intentions and actions in markedly different fashion but I like to think that our younger generation did not just land into a new planet with our own unique world rules. We live in the world where the Gen-X and Baby Boomers are the ones who have shaped and designed conventions, no?

At the end of the day, it’s exceedingly easy to look at someone different (younger) from us and say, he is “less hungry”, “impatient” and fewer stay on the (same) job to develop those skills. But it’s harder to ask ourselves why they behave like that? Are their needs not fulfilled in our work? Are their career ambitions not being realized adequately? What do they need in a career that we don’t already provide? Of course, employers routinely ask questions about their employees on what they can offer to companies too — and they should.

But why is it when these questions are framed in the perspectives of younger generation employees, we are quick to write them off as being selfish, self-entitled and individualistic (and all the usual not-so-good adjectives being used)? Do we expect them to trade some of their best years of their lives and their associated loyalties and not expect them have a say in what they expect in those 40/50/60 hours work weeks?

To me, I think the most unfortunate thing when a respected leader like DPM Tharman puts out such subjective stereotypes about our younger generation is that the following host of cognitive biases and logical fallacies will come together to cloud our judgment even more, causing us to make irrational conclusions and hence, decisions involving people.

Some of them are:

Appeal to Authority

· Person A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.

· Person A makes claim C about subject S.

· Therefore, C is true.

(Example: (A) — DPM Tharman says our younger generation lack hunger (even though there’s no hard data saying so) and drive and they do not stay long on their first job . Hence, it must be true.)

Confirmation Bias — “phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis”

(Example: I see and hear more young people leaving companies in a shorter period. They seem to be disengaged and lazy. But I don’t know or care exactly why. But yes, it’s true for (A))

Recency Bias — “phenomenon of a person most easily remembering something that has happened recently, compared to remembering something that may have occurred a while back.”

(Example: Oh, DPM Tharman just said (A) on the news, so (A) must be more true than not even though… I know of younger people in my company being staunchly committed to us)

You see, it’s that easy to slip into lazy thinking and I don’t think this is the society we should be endeavouring towards. It’s a slippery slope of misjudgments.

Instead, we should actively mould a society where people, young and young-at-heart, can be seen, appreciated and respected for their individual talents and gifts they can be present to the workplace. To give them the benefit of doubt when it’s deemed appropriate because, we may just need it, often enough.

Again, I have tremendous respect for DPM Tharman for his astuteness and gravitas as a statesman and one of the finest economists of our times and globally, it is important we process his assertions with a moderate pinch of salt and a level of critical thought.

If anything, DPM Tharman, this young Singaporean still loves and respects you deep deep.

About the Author: Benjamin Loh is an Executive Public Speaking Coach, TEDx Speaker, Author and Professional Speaker on Millennial Matters. As the youngest Associate Certified Coach in Singapore and possibly, Asia-Pacific, he has coached over 100 corporate executives and entrepreneurs individually with over 750 hours of direct coaching and trained over 3,000 clients in high impact mass trainings in public speaking, presentation skills and leading the multi-generational workforce and Millennials. His work in entrepreneurship and public speaking has been featured on over 60 occasions on both local and regional media platforms like Channel News Asia (), Vietnam QKTV, BFM , Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), (ST), Business Times (BT) and News938 Live.

Listen to what some of his clients have to say about working with Ben as their Public Speaking Coach or Millennial Professional Speaker.


Republished with permission from Benjamin Loh’s entry in Medium.

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