Commentary: Amid economic uncertainty, Singapore’s millennials face a disrupted narrative
The Class of 2019 will graduate at a time of economic uncertainty, with ripple effects for students in higher education, says Ng Chia Wee.
SINGAPORE: Growing up, the Class of 2019 must never have imagined that this would be how their formal education journey ends.
Study hard, get good qualifications, get a good job, so went the narrative. As long as you put your mind to it, there’s nothing you couldn’t achieve.
But as they near the finishing line, they find that this narrative has very much been disrupted.
The Class of 2019 will graduate at a time of economic uncertainty, amid fears of a looming recession driven by trade tensions, compounded by the accelerating disruption sweeping across industries.
Students like myself, waiting in the wings for graduation in a few years, are watching these developments closely.
After all, with trade-related tensions setting in for the long-term – Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said that "Singaporeans must be prepared for the long haul" – and disruption only set to intensify, the resulting uncertainty will not be going away anytime soon.
For fresh graduates, the need to get a job quickly leaves little room for much choice and discussion.
But what about students who still have a few years left in higher education? Should we be making any strategic adjustments? How should we cope with this disruption to our narrative?
THE TEMPTATION TO BE RECESSION-PROOF
A recent edition of The Big Read detailed the experiences faced by fresh graduates as they dealt with this new reality. These experiences include short-term contracts, multiple rejections or non-replies to job applications, lowered job and salary expectations.
READ: The Big Read - As headwinds grow, fresh grads adjust job expectations, embrace short-term contracts
Seeing their seniors having to settle for less, current students may engage in knee-jerk actions to avoid similar fates. They might be tempted to try and be “recession-proof”, especially if their desired industries will be badly hit.
Knee-jerk reactions may also be more likely given the anxieties many young people already face about the adequacy of their tertiary education.
In a 2018 poll by Youth.SG, a portal supported by the National Youth Council, seven in 10 youths were unsure or did not think the tertiary education they received in Singapore prepared them sufficiently to join the workforce.
In their bid to be recession-proof, or plug the perceived inadequacies in their formal education, students might employ fast ways to try and stand out from their peers – signing up for more CCAs, trying out for more leadership positions, signing up for exchange because their peers are doing so, going for internships for the sake of, volunteering for inauthentic purposes, just to name a few.
Such actions are not dissimilar to those generated by a fear of missing out (FOMO) on job opportunities and an ensuing second education arms race in which nobody can win.
Such a race to have it all would detract from the need to develop the skills and mastery needed to thrive in the future economy of deep capabilities.
The cost to mental health should also not be dismissed, especially with recent discussions of burnout.
The unfortunate irony would be that knee-jerk reactions to make one more “future-ready” might cause one to be less so.
WHAT REALLY MATTERS
If the knee-jerk reactions spelt out above are undesirable, then what responses might be more appropriate?
Firstly, if we truly wish to stand out from our peers, we need to focus on creating value, not merely adding value, in line with the changing expectations of Singapore’s labour force.
Soon after he became Finance Minister, Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is now also Deputy Prime Minister, had said that Singapore needed to shift from a being a value-adding economy to value-creating one.
At a Singapore Business Federation Conference in 2015, he said:
If we are simply producing what the rest of the world is producing, we will not be able to command a premium, or sustain our competitive edge. We have to produce what the rest of the world is not producing, or at least, not much of.
More CCA participation, leadership titles, exchange experiences and the like may make one’s CV look better, but it’s just incremental value-adding to existing activities, and just more of the same of what others would be putting on their CVs.
According to Minister Heng, a value-creating economy competes on special capabilities, by building deep capabilities and linkages.
So what might a value-creating job candidate look like? In my opinion, such a candidate would be someone who made use of both academic and non-academic insights to contribute to solving a real-world problem.
This candidate might have managed to see a gap between two fields, say, public health and climate change, and created an app to increase awareness of that gap. Or maybe it’s someone who managed to reconcile opposing community groups and put forth solutions which gained traction in the community.
There are other possibilities, but one should always start by thinking: What problem can I solve?
If this seems much harder than value-adding, it’s because it is. That is why we must be much more selective about what activities we do participate in, so that we have enough time and energy to engage in deep learning and build deep mastery.
Secondly, facing an uncertain, disrupted future, networks matter more than ever in seizing opportunities.
According to a 2018 LinkedIn survey of over 11,000 respondents across the Asia-Pacific region, knowing the right people or having the right connections was ranked the second most important factor overall to getting ahead in life, trailing closely behind hard work.
Such findings hit close to home, given the work I am engaged in of addressing opportunity gaps for under-served secondary school students, as part of a ground-up organisation (Access Singapore).
For students in tertiary institutions however, the issue takes on a new urgency.
As a knee-jerk reaction, would-be graduates may network excessively, believing that name cards are keys to opportunity.
Given the limited time students have, what might be more effective is finding a locksmith who can show students the way to open their own doors – a mentor.
Besides helping students navigate uncertain terrain, mentors can help them access useful networks, easing their journey of getting ahead.
To this end, students should tap on mentorship programmes their institution offers. Alternatively, they could also seek out their teachers as mentors too.
THE CONCLUDING PLOT TWIST
The final insight deals with the disorientation one might face in having their narrative disrupted.
In times of disruption, businesses and individuals alike naturally seek a new stability. But this new stability could be attained by simply reframing the way disruptive changes are perceived.
While the old narrative has been disrupted, the new narrative of constantly responding to change could be seen as not all that different.
Study hard? That’s still applicable too, but now in the context of lifelong learning. Get good qualifications? Sure, but it’s now about a far wider range of qualifications.
By seeing the links between the old and new, one can more easily cope with a disrupted narrative of life.
And with a clearer outlook, we will see that the most important part of the old narrative might yet hold true.
Maybe, just maybe, as long as we put our minds to it, with the help of mentors and by striving to create value, we could still achieve more than we ever thought possible.
Ng Chia Wee is a first-year student at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Tembusu College. He is also Director (Strategy) at Access Singapore, a ground-up organisation which seeks to provide mentorship and externship opportunities to under-served students.