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The Big Read: For youths, will pragmatism or passion rule as COVID-19 gives pause to rethink life’s priorities?

The Big Read: For youths, will pragmatism or passion rule as COVID-19 gives pause to rethink life’s priorities?

Based on findings of the inaugural annual TODAY Youth Survey, youths have a different take on what success in life means. No longer is it defined by the 5Cs – cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club membership – that were once deemed as the ultimate Singapore dream by an earlier generation. (Illustration: TODAY/Anam Musta’ein)

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched on long enough for young adults here to reshuffle their priorities.
  • Some see the turbulent times as an opportunity to pursue their passions, while others see the need to be pragmatic and protect their livelihoods.
  • Another group that has anecdotally grown in numbers recently is determined to quickly expand their wealth and retire early.
  • Experts and employers agree that whichever path one chooses has its pros and cons.
  • As employees slowly grow to accept hybrid work and home arrangements, employers should adjust their policies to suit such preferences.

SINGAPORE: When the COVID-19 pandemic struck early last year, 29-year-old Fiona Loh found herself working for up to 20 hours a day, juggling her day job as a technology product manager at a bank and baking pastries at home for sale.

Ms Loh, who has a passion for baking, saw a boom in her home-based business when hundreds of orders streamed in during the "circuit breaker" period from April to June last year and beyond, with the bulk of the demand coming from customers who were working from home.

She soon found herself working through the night until 5am baking brownies and cookies, and waking up before 9am for her day job at the bank.

Ms Loh then had to make a decision – to continue her juggling act, or to turn her side hustle into her main career.

“That was when I took a step back and had to rethink what it was that I really wanted to do.”

She then made the calculated risk to turn her baking passion into a full-time career in June last year, and opened Whiskdom, her own bakery.

Ms Loh has not looked back since, with demand for her bakes continuing to stay strong, and she now has four full-time and two part-time employees.

Twenty-nine-year-old Fiona Loh turned her baking side hustle into her main career after she saw a boom in her home-based business during the "circuit breaker" period. (Photo: TODAY/Ooi Boon Keong)

While Ms Loh has taken a leap of faith career-wise, 29-year-old Anthea (not her real name) prefers to play it safe even though she is not happy with her work situation.

Anthea had largely enjoyed her work in the marketing department of a public relations firm, until it began to take on more projects amid the raging pandemic last year. While she normally ended work at about 8pm pre-COVID-19, she found herself staying up to the wee hours working to meet project deadlines, as working from home had blurred the lines between office and rest hours.

“After a while of working overnight, I just felt burnt out and that it was no longer worth it,” said Anthea.

However, she stuck it out for more than a year – before leaving the company in July this year – for very pragmatic reasons: She needed the money to pay her bills and did not want to dip into her savings.

Anthea is presently working in a contract marketing role at another firm that pays about the same salary but has better working hours. But she no longer enjoys working in the industry, and feels “stuck” in her current role.

“After a while, I feel no purpose in what I am doing,” she said.

For yet another millennial, 25-year-old Terence, the pandemic has led him to embrace the “Fire” movement, whose mantra is “financial independence, retire early”. Proponents believe that this can be achieved by saving hard, investing well and living frugally from young.

Having graduated from university last year, the bleak economic outlook at that time – as COVID-19 decimated one key industry after another in Singapore and elsewhere – nudged Terence into subscribing to the movement seriously, starting with saving his money.

“There wasn’t a major impetus to spend on anything … we couldn’t travel, and any plans I had such as graduation trips were out of the window,” said Terence, who wanted to be known only by his first name.

His difficult job search after graduation made him more determined to be frugal with his spending, even after he finally landed a position with a consultancy firm in August last year.  For instance, he would hold off upgrades, such as getting a new laptop, preferring to use his current model.

When the stock market bottomed out at the height of the pandemic last year, Terence, in line with a key “Fire” tenet, took the opportunity to invest, and has made healthy gains as the economy recovered.

“I think even before COVID I always knew I would try my best … to climb the corporate ladder,” he said. “While the motivation is still there, a big part of it is now to achieve ‘Fire’ as soon as possible.” 

While Ms Loh, Anthea and Terence have responded differently to the pandemic on the career front, they do have something in common: This once-in-a-generation crisis has forced them to re-evaluate or reshuffle their priorities in life, perhaps much earlier than people of their age were wont to do had COVID-19 not changed the world, literally, as we knew it.

And their respective choices –  take a risk to pursue one’s passion; stick to a job even if you don’t like it for the sake of financial stability; or find ways to enhance one’s wealth quickly to make early retirement possible – largely mirror that of other young adults, aged between 20 and 30 years old, interviewed by TODAY recently.

Indeed, based on findings of the inaugural annual TODAY Youth Survey, youths have a different take on what success in life means. No longer is it defined by the 5Cs – cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club membership – that were once deemed as the ultimate Singapore dream by an earlier generation.

The TODAY Youth Survey 2021, which polled 1,066 respondents between the ages of 18 and 35 in early October, found that when asked what was the top indicator of material success, 59 per cent of respondents said it was to have enough money to retire early.

Meanwhile, 52 per cent hoped for passive income from financial investments, and for 48 per cent, the ability to travel twice or more a year.

The survey also asked the youths what were the most important factors in their working lives.

Having good colleagues or bosses, work-life balance and financial rewards were the top three factors mentioned, with almost nine in 10 respondents indicating that these were either “important” or “very important”.

In comparison, good advancement prospects and a sense of purpose were the answers given by a slightly smaller proportion of the respondents.

The survey results suggest that a pandemic-forced period of introspection for many young people – arising from social distancing measures which have restricted gathering of friends, and having to work in isolation from home – had given them time and space to think outside of their careers, said some human resources (HR) experts.

“It seems that COVID has made more young people think about what they really want to do in life and in having a more purposeful career … more than just (to focus on) money,” said Ms Angela Kuek, director of the Meyer Consulting Group.

Veteran HR practitioner Adrian Tan said that COVID-19 has also led to youths confronting the ugly reality of how a crisis can destroy livelihoods and industries, and this can hit close to home for some.

For instance, with families spending more time at home together during this period, young adults may be more privy to the financial struggles of their parents or close relatives during this period, and feel more motivated to avoid the same plight in the future.

“If my father owes the bank half a million dollars and has to slog himself at work and I barely get to see him, I (wouldn’t want) to be like him when I grow up,” said Mr Tan.

Agreeing, the National Youth Council’s (NYC’s) chief executive David Chua noted that young people here are well aware of how external factors can influence employment and career opportunities in an open economy like Singapore. 

“The pandemic’s protractedness and concerns about pay cuts, job loss and the lack of jobs could have led more youth to save and want to manage their finances more prudently,” he said.

FOLLOWING ONE’S HEART

While the pandemic has provided many millennials with an opportunity to follow their passions, the journey comes with its own set of challenges.

For Whiskdom’s Ms Loh, she had been getting a “relatively well-paying” salary at her previous job, though she declined to reveal the amount. Starting her own business meant that she is taking home just 20 per cent of her original income.

“I only allowed myself to draw an allowance, and everything else I poured back into growing the brand, be it hiring more people, or expanding into a new space,” she said.

But Ms Loh was not one to pursue her passion blindly, without first understanding what she was in for.

To ensure that her business would be viable, she had calculated that excluding revenue from the sales, she could afford the operating costs of her business for two years by just relying on her savings – the time frame she had given herself to see if she could succeed.

For instance, she now works on her business for almost all her waking hours, seven days a week, up from the usual five-day work week. Her social life now consists of her friends visiting her at work.

Amid these sacrifices came a growth in her business. She had first launched a stall at Alexandra Central Mall in June last year, and expanded last month to another stall at Havelock Road.

“I am more prudent in managing my expenses by proactively tracking my expenditure, cooking more often at home and eating out less, and cutting down on drinking sessions,” she said. “Right now, my entire worldview has shifted from work-life balance, to work-life integration.”

For others such as Ms Buena Araral, the pandemic has introduced a new passion even as it forces her to put her first love on hold.

The 20-year-old had long dreamed of becoming an arts director or creative director in the theatre scene.

But after graduating from Singapore Polytechnic with a Diploma in Applied Drama and Psychology in May this year, she knew that it would remain an elusive dream for the foreseeable future, with COVID-19 restrictions putting a damper on the performing arts industry.

Instead, Ms Buena decided to take a gap year before continuing her studies, and is currently working as an intern at a media firm as a podcast producer. She is involved in much of the production process, from the sourcing of profiles to hosting them on the podcasts.

Through her new role, she has developed a passion for podcasting.

“With the current job, I realise it is not the same as what I wanted, but ultimately I am still telling stories and it is still a creative job … so this is actually a job that I could be happy with.

“While it is sad that my dream was always to do theatre and that was not what I ended up doing, I don’t consider that to be a loss,” said Ms Buena.

While Ms Buena has found a new passion via her job, another youth, Mr Thaqif Ismail, has yet to find his.

After graduating from the National University of Singapore with a political science major early last year, he was “rushing to get a job” at a time when companies were shedding or freezing their headcount.

Mr Thaqif Ismail, who graduated from the National University of Singapore with a political science major early last year, says he needs to “work in a job that I believe in and I am passionate about”. (Photo: TODAY/Ooi Boon Keong)

The 26-year-old’s first full-time job was with a media analytics company, which was not his ideal career choice. Instead, Mr Thaqif had set his heart on taking on a more public-facing media role, such as working for international or regional organisations, or a journalism outfit.

After working about one year in the media analytics role, he decided to quit in June and pursue further studies, with an eye to getting his ideal job later. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Asian studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University.

“(A job) is more about just getting by, I need to work in a job that I believe in and I am passionate about, it’s something that helps me get up in the morning, and it is a necessity for any future job,” said Mr Thaqif.

The search for a better job fit was also a journey with several detours for Mr Marshall Too, who had graduated in 2019, shortly before the pandemic. He had wanted to join the finance industry, but had not yet found a full-time job in the industry by the time the first coronavirus infections were reported here in January 2020.

With job opportunities across most sectors drying up, Mr Too had to grapple with the limited range of jobs on offer. He ended up becoming a consultant at a financial institution even though he felt it was not an ideal fit for him.

“I felt pressured to commit to a 70 per cent situation whereas if COVID didn’t exist, I could have waited out to find an 80 or 90 per cent fit,” he said.

After working for a year, he took on a new job as a risk analyst in another financial institution in April, which he described as an “85 per cent fit”.

Finding fulfilment in a job is a process of growth, rather than a goal achieved in a single step, he said.

“It is an ongoing process of what you want to change (in your job) and defining that for you will take time.”

Mr Marshall Too, who had graduated in 2019, shortly before the pandemic, ended up becoming a consultant at a financial institution even though he felt it was not an ideal fit for him. (Photo: TODAY/Ooi Boon Keong)

Is 2021 the year when employees take back control over work amid predictions of a great resignation wave? HR experts discuss on CNA's Heart of the Matter:

PRAGMATISM HAS ITS LIMITS

Those who have chosen to hunker down in their less-than-ideal jobs to pay bills are ready to move elsewhere if the opportunity comes along.

Anthea, the marketer, said she had thought of a mid-career switch to sales, an industry she envisions herself having a greater interest in.

However, the risk of the unknown has been holding her back from making the leap.

“I am not doing it yet because of the uncertainties,” she said. “What if I switch to this brand new industry, and struggle with all the unknowns and end up not hitting sales targets?”

Mr Quinn Caleb Lim, who has worked for three years as an IT support engineer, is no stranger to the struggles of trying to be financially stable.

The 26-year-old has been doing odd jobs, such as retail assistant and hotel housekeeper, since the age of 16 to pay for his education, daily allowance and other expenses.

Despite his working experience, nothing could prepare him for the first few months of the pandemic, when more people were hired in his company and he had to assist them with preparing laptops and other IT equipment.

His workload increased and he found himself staying in the office for two consecutive nights. After that episode, the workload continued to be heavier than usual for the next two months, partly because he had to help with IT issues during his company's transition to working from home.

While his employer actively discouraged working overtime, the increased workload gave Mr Lim little choice for most days during that period, which added to his stress. At that time, he found himself gaining weight and not sleeping well.

“I had changed my perception of what to prioritise in general,” said Mr Lim. “Before 2020, I would give it my all at work, but after 2020, I realised that I really need to take care of myself.”

Like in Anthea’s case, the pandemic-induced toil has dampened his enthusiasm for his job, and has led him to wonder if there are other opportunities out there that would better suit his interests.

He now has plans to look for job listings in the near future that will give him a better sense of progression, and has started to think of what other industries would interest him, while his current job helps to pay the bills in the meantime.

While he still does not know what would interest him yet, he said that the pandemic has at least spurred him to think deeply about it.

“If not for COVID, I would be clueless as before, as I did not have much aim and I did not know what I want to do in the near future,” he said.

26-year-old Quinn Caleb Lim who has worked for three years as an IT support engineer, found his workload increased during the first few months of the pandemic, which added to his stress and dampened his enthusiasm for his job. (Photo: TODAY: Ooi Boon Keong)

LIFE IN THE FIRE MOVEMENT

For those pursuing the Fire movement, gaining financial independence is not just about saving or making enough money to make early retirement possible. It is also about making a conscious effort to stay debt-free, so that one has the flexibility to make career changes without having to worry about where the money will come from for the next debt payment.

Terence, the Fire follower, concurred with the findings from TODAY’s survey that the most popular indication of material success is to have enough funds to retire early.

He said that he had only chanced upon the Fire movement one month into his job, because more people online were talking about it during the pandemic and he found that its goals suited his mindset towards work and retirement.

His approach to financial independence is to immerse himself in his work to jump up the ranks to receive bigger paychecks.

His motivation to give it 100 per cent in his job is so he can “utilise the energy in (his) youth to climb as fast as possible and accumulate wealth as fast as (he) can”.

“I’m going to be diligently working at my main job, and try to get as many pay increases as possible, and lead as frugal a lifestyle as I can while being comfortable, and invest what I have (in stocks),” he said.

For 30-year-old Chris Chong, he has been subscribing to the Fire movement for about four years since 2017, when it became more popular.

The pandemic has emboldened his drive to pursue the Fire movement, and also encouraged more young people to try out the movement, he said.

“There’s definitely a stronger focus on (Fire) as people want to really take charge of their finance so that one day, if they ever get retrenched from their job, there is still hope for them, that they still have other kinds of income sources, and their savings are enough,” he added. 

Mr Chong, who is an analyst in the manufacturing industry, aims to gain financial independence by the time he is 35 but has no intentions to fully retire.

Instead, he wants to be a self-employed content creator, and aims to do this by expanding his existing YouTube channel Honey Money SG, which doles out financial advice to young adults.

He envisions himself making enough to pay off his basic expenses, while still receiving passive income from his financial investments.

“My motivation is to be a self-employed person so I don’t have to answer to my bosses,” he said.

HR EXPERTS, EMPLOYERS WEIGH IN 

While there is no one right approach to career planning amid the pandemic, whichever path a young person prefers to take has its pros and cons, said HR experts and employers.

For people who are passionate about their jobs, they do not usually feel that work is separate from their lives, since they derive direct satisfaction from it, said Ms Kuek from the Meyer Consulting Group.

“Why must work and life be different compartments? When you are doing something that you really enjoy and it is your passion and you derive a lot of satisfaction from it, then it is part of your life.”

She added that people such as Ms Loh and Ms Buena have been successful in their career choices, not necessarily because they are earning the most income compared to their peers, but because they are able to find purpose and meaning.

“To me, a high salary is not a defining standard for success,” she said.

However, employees with passion do not always stay long in the company, since they are constantly looking to upgrade their skills and learn new things.

Mr Adam Piperdy, founder of events company Unearthed Productions, said that in the creative marketing industry, there are many youths who enter with a “decent amount of passion” but who only stay for two to three years.

“I don’t think they are looking for a career, but are looking for projects,” he said. “They come in and they contribute, and when they find that they have reached their personal ceiling, then they would want to move on.”

While this practice – some call it job-hopping – may have been frowned upon in the past, Mr Piperdy acknowledged that this is a norm among the younger generation, who are interested not in growing within a company but developing their own skills and interests with different portfolios.

“We encourage them if they feel they have maxed out their potential in the company and so they should move on,” he said. “For employers, we have to be ready for this new workforce.”

Surveys conducted by NYC have also shown that acquiring new skills and knowledge have been top life goals for young Singaporeans, said Mr Chua.

For those who have prioritised pragmatism above passion in their careers, Mr Tan, the HR practitioner, said that the ability to find work that serves their pragmatic needs differs from case to case.

For instance, a young adult who happens to be a software developer will be in high demand and will continue to receive handsome paychecks during the pandemic tech boom. However, someone who works in the hotel industry may be forced to switch careers in order to remain pragmatic.

Employers say that they empathise with employees who appear to be disgruntled in their jobs but are staying put due to the uncertain economic situation.

Mr Kelvyn Chee, managing director of apparel retailer Decks, said that some of his employees who have chosen to stay in the company to ride out the pandemic are often demoralised when they see how the retail industry has been hard hit.

“As an employer for apparel and retail, it is hard for us to give them a clear direction as to what the future will be like,” he said. “Even we are not sure how this pandemic will turn out, so it’s very hard to motivate them.”

However, he added that most of his employees would grit their teeth and would often ask him what they could do to help make the business more profitable.

To help some employees stay motivated, Mr Chee said the firm creates “profit-sharing” projects, where employees involved can have a share of the profits.

For instance, when Decks was one of the companies hired by the Temasek Foundation to supply facemasks to Singaporeans, there was a project created to customise some of the masks, and the profits were shared between the mask designers and the salespersons.

“This helps even some of those who are fatigued about the pandemic to work hard to reach the level (of motivation and remuneration) that they want,” he said.

For those who subscribe to the Fire movement, experts said that while it is feasible, one should exercise caution to avoid burnout from working too hard at such a young age.

Mr Tan said that the movement has resonated with a growing number of people during this period with more workers losing their livelihoods and saddled with debts.

He likened the double whammy to being in a “financial jail”.

“For any of us who have been in financial jail, you have to do things that you hate and it is really very painful,” he said. “You have to make sacrifices, and it’s not the kind of torture I would want my kids to go through.”

However, Ms Kuek said that the movement is based on the theory of “suffer first, enjoy later”.

“You’re only young once, and you will be spending your youth to slog,” she said. 

She said that while people are entitled to choose the kind of life they want to live, she would advocate for a more balanced lifestyle.

“There’s nothing wrong with finding purpose with what you do and slowly building up your savings,” she said. “You don’t have to save 70 per cent (of your income) and retire at 40, you can save 30 to 50 per cent and retire at 50 while not being so hard on yourself.”

The findings of the inaugural annual TODAY Youth Survey suggest that a pandemic-forced period of introspection for many young people had given them time and space to think outside of their careers, said some human resources (HR) experts. (Photo: TODAY/Ooi Boon Keong)

WORK- LIFE BALANCE, GOOD OFFICE VIBES STILL A PRIORITY

Mirroring the survey results, most of the young adults spoken to said that work-life balance and their relationships with their bosses and colleagues have become the top concerns in their careers – a shift also brought about by the pandemic.

Mr Daniel Farhan, 26, who had just started his job at a bank in August, said that having to work from home led to the usual issues for some of his colleagues, such as a lack of face-to-face interaction, a sense of isolation and the lack of demarcation between work and home, which led to feelings of burnout.

They were quick to adapt to the situation, however.

“What we try to do is demarcate specific blocks of time to make sure we have time to ourselves, rather than be stuck at our desks,” he said.

Mr Chua reiterated that youth increasingly care about having work-life balance amid the pandemic. Noting that COVID-19 has blurred the lines between work and personal life, he said: “Young Singaporeans who have increasingly prioritised work-life balance are now more deliberate in maintaining a healthy balance and positive outlook for their overall well-being.” 

From an employer's perspective, Mr Piperdy noted that at his firm, the young adults looking to join often ask about company culture and work hours, questions that were not asked as much before the pandemic.

“I do feel like those (aspects) are more important (to young adults) because they know that money can be earned in other ways … money is one of the last few things they discuss about, they are asking more about benefits, diversity and welfare policies.”

Ms Kuek added that companies will have to rethink how they want to restructure the workplace, and adapt to a hybrid work arrangement, even when going back to the office is allowed.

“People are very used to having a hybrid model of working from the office and working from home, so the young working adults like that and are used to it,” she said. “There will be a lot of lethargy going back to the office.”

“Companies will have to think a little about how they want to structure their workforce after we emerge (from the pandemic).”

This story was originally published in TODAY.

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