SINGAPORE: Of all the acronyms I’ve heard thrown around in the first weeks of university life, “FOMO” probably tops the charts.
“FOMO”, or “fear of missing out” encapsulates a fear of missing out on exciting or important events which you know many of your peers are going for. It shows up over and over again in conversations millennials have, usually in the phrase “FOMO is real”.
In May this year, it was even heard in Parliament when Dr Maliki Osman mentioned it in his response to the President’s Address.
So what do millennials experience FOMO on? We experience FOMO on social gatherings, overseas experiences, events, forums, networking dinners, capturing “Insta-worthy moments” and the list goes on. Even a simple “Do you want to join us for lunch?” is enough to invoke FOMO.
To millennials and their friends and family, this is not news. In fact, it has been so widely discussed that it doesn’t really warrant a full commentary.
But consider FOMO in relation to the economic challenges millennials face: FOMO with regard to career opportunities in an age of disruption or what I call “the fear of missing out on a disrupted future”.
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FEAR OF MISSING OUT ON OPPORTUNITIES
Almost two weeks ago, the World Economic Forum released the findings of a survey of 42,000 youths across six countries in ASEAN. The survey showed that youths in Singapore are among the most pessimistic in the region about the impact of technology on their employment prospects and earning potential, though this can be partially explained by higher education levels and age.
Separately, according to the National Youth Survey released last year, youths are tentative about having sufficient opportunities in Singapore to achieve their aspirations.
While we should not jump to the conclusion that youths in general are pessimistic about the future, we can all agree that they face significant levels of uncertainty as they prepare to enter the workforce.
This should not be a surprise. Unlike their parents whose lives were affected by disruption, their lives will be defined by it.
Coming of age in an age of disruption, they are acutely aware that the jobs they are training for may no longer exist as they are in the future and that conventional signals of competence and potential (such as a degree, good grades or a strong internship track record) may no longer guarantee the stable employment it used to.
Faced with significant levels of uncertainty, millennials seek to reduce it. But because there are no clear strategies or formulaic steps for doing so, and because they know their peers may be doing even more, every event, project, initiative, gathering starts to look like a potential opportunity to gain that certainty they so badly want.
The perceived cost of not seizing these opportunities and missing out on increasing one’s chances of personal and professional success skyrockets as well. The fear of missing out rears its ugly head once again.
THE COSTS OF FOMO
So why exactly is a fear of missing out a bad thing? Well, the first word says it all: fear. Yes, as with any dreaded emotion such as stress or anxiety, having a little of it is not necessarily bad – it spurs one to work hard and be clued in on potential opportunities.
But perhaps it’s no longer such a good thing when about 8 in 10 young professionals in Singapore suffer from a quarter life-crisis, according to survey by Linkedin released in May this year.
On a national level, this could translate into a second education arms race, which I discussed in an earlier commentary.
Such a race would be detrimental – university students would focus on securing internships, overseas experiences, leadership positions and the like for the sake of doing so, rather than focusing on value-adding and developing mastery, precisely the key ingredients needed for a resilient economy of deep capabilities.
Faced with such a situation, it is easy to look to the Government again for solutions.
However, we must remember that the Government can prepare for, but never guarantee, the future, even as it remains fully committed in preparing young people for a disruptive one.
What this future will be like will always be beyond the reach of the Government. This is especially so for small states like Singapore, which have limited control over global trends and situations.
Given that macro-level solutions are already being extensively implemented with more in the pipeline, we should, for now, turn our attention to individuals instead.
How do we millennials better cope with such uncertainty? How can we prepare ourselves to seize the uncertain future? I’m not an expert, but I have three pieces of advice to offer my peers and, well, myself.
First, we should recognise that the certainty that we so badly seek is right there – just in a different way than we thought. Uncertainty stems from not knowing what comes next, but if what comes next has yet to be defined, that means we have at least a chance to shape the future and determine what goes into the blanks, something our parents might not have been able to do.
And unlike our parents, the world truly is our oyster. Never before have so many opportunities abroad lay so closely within our reach, a global playing field so open and accessible.
Second, with everyone seizing some form of opportunity to advance themselves, it may be tempting to do so too just for the sake of. But there’s really no need to.
Instead of fretting over what the formula for success is and constantly comparing ourselves to our peers, we should stake out our own career paths and educational trajectories, bearing in mind that an unconventional combination of conventional actions can lead to productive, even better-than-foreseen outcomes.
For each of us, that combination will be different because each of us are different, and even a difference might be useful in differentiating ourselves from our competitors, including those from abroad.
Third, even if our fears materialise and we have to settle for a job which we did not want, it might be more constructive to see this not as the end but just the beginning of our exciting professional journey.
Settle down, build on it, work hard – and seek out new opportunities, which might present themselves more frequently precisely because of continued disruptive changes.
So yes, disruption can be scary and uncertain. However, it has also gifted us with unprecedented opportunities to find new pathways and forge fresh outcomes for ourselves, one that isn’t limited by our own knowledge and expectations at this young age.
Thus, over the next few years of university, I hope I can begin to see a shift from a narrative of fighting uncertainty to one of hope, hope that we can seize disruptive opportunities, chart our own course and remain resilient in the face of setbacks.
Now that’s something I wouldn’t want to miss out on.
Ng Chia Wee is a first-year undergraduate at the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Tembusu College.