The Big Read: Singapore's oft-maligned millennials face their first crisis
Among the more than a dozen millennials, those who have lost jobs or business revenues in the past few weeks said the old adage of “saving for a rainy day” has acquired a new importance for them.
SINGAPORE: In February, final-year undergraduate Bianca Chua thought she was all set for the working world after starting her internship as a headhunter at a human resource (HR) firm.
The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) business major secured the internship in December, and she had been told verbally and over email that she would be automatically converted to a full-timer when she graduated in May. At that time, the 23-year-old was over the moon at securing a full-time job before most of her peers did.
“Everything went fine” for about a month after her internship began, she said. Then, things went pear-shaped quickly.
The COVID-19 outbreak, which originated in China and had rattled Singapore since January, has morphed into a full-blown pandemic.
The coronavirus can lead to severe respiratory problems and even death. As it spreads its tentacles all over the world, leading to hundreds of thousands of cases, travel restrictions turned into border closures.
In just a few months, the interdependent global economy has taken a pummelling.
With Singapore expected to go into a full-year recession, companies began to announce pay cuts and hiring freezes. Some, like Ms Chua’s company, even began to lay off workers.
On Mar 26, the firm told Ms Chua that it would be laying off “half the team”, including herself and several full-timers. She was told to pack her things and leave on the day itself.
“It feels bad ... suddenly my whole plan was derailed,” she said.
If Ms Chua is among those who have the misfortune of graduating amid a looming recession, the millennials who are working in industries which have been battered by Covid-19 are faring no better.
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A Singapore Airlines (SIA) air stewardess, who wanted to be known only as Ingrid, was last rostered on a flight in mid-March. Since SIA announced on Mar 23 that it would be cutting 96 per cent of capacity due to vanishing demand, she has been grounded, earning little more than S$1,000 a month in basic pay, about one-fifth of her usual salary.
Ingrid then reached out to her aunt, who works at a hawker stall selling Muslim food, but was told that there were no vacancies.
“Before this I went out on all my days off and would sit with my friends over brunch at overpriced cafes, but I can’t afford to do that now,” said the 25-year-old, who is currently cooped up at home scrolling through job-hiring sites.
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Then there is Mr Dave Lim, a freelance photographer and videographer, who frequently does events photography. Since Covid-19 has virtually wiped out large-scale corporate events across the island, he has seen his earnings fall by 50 per cent.
The 26-year-old said that he is attempting to switch to filming advertisements, which remains in demand. However, he is finding this a challenge, as he is not as well-established in the advertising scene and has difficulty finding clients.
Like Ms Chua, Ingrid and Mr Lim, the majority of those in their early 20s to mid-30s — commonly referred to as millennials — are facing a crisis of global proportions for the first time in their adult lives. And as far as crises go, they do not come much bigger than what the world is currently experiencing.
With millennials often dismissed as the “strawberry generation” — easily “bruised” when faced with societal pressures or made to do some heavy lifting — will they be able to handle a crisis that has been dubbed as a “once-in-a-generation occurrence”, and one that could turn out to be the worst global upheaval since the Great Depression in the 1930s?
Among the more than a dozen millennials, ranging from soon-to-be university graduates to workers in their mid-30s with families to feed, those who have lost jobs or business revenues in the past few weeks said the old adage of “saving for a rainy day” has acquired a new importance for them.
While some used to lead lavish lifestyles which included frequent shopping and dining at higher-end establishments, they have since stopped all unnecessary spending and started to save money for the tough times ahead.
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Due to changing attitudes and the pervasiveness of the gig economy, many of those interviewed said they have no qualms about taking up odd jobs in sectors such as retail and food and beverage, should no other options be available. While these industries might be looked down upon by their older counterparts in higher-ranking jobs, the millennials said they do not mind biting the bullet to ride out the storm.
The younger millennials appear to be in a slightly better position — most are not yet expected to take care of their parents and do not have children of their own. In fact, some said that their parents would help them to stay afloat if there was no other choice. However, most are reluctant to depend on parental support, with one final-year student saying she “cannot fathom the thought” of living off someone else once she graduates.
However, for some older millennials - those who have children and elderly parents to support - there is less of a safety net.
They said that compared to a decade ago when they faced the 2008/2009 global financial meltdown - triggered by the United States sub-prime mortgage crisis - in their early 20s, they now have greater responsibilities and a lot more to lose if they are not able to save up and earn a living.
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HOW ECONOMIC SITUATION DETERIORATED
In February, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) slashed Singapore’s economic growth forecast for 2020 from between 0.5 and 2.5 per cent to between -0.5 and 1.5 per cent.
At that time, the COVID-19 outbreak was still concentrated in China, with most of the cases occurring there. However, the uncertainty at that time was already enough for MTI to warn of a full-year recession.
On Mar 26, the ministry further downgraded Singapore’s economic growth forecast for the year to between -4 and -1 per cent. By then, the global situation was vastly different than the one in February, with the virus having infected hundreds of thousands across the globe, and at least US$12 trillion wiped off world stock markets.
That same day also saw Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiling a S$48 billion Resilience Budget to help workers, businesses and households. This comes on top of the S$6.4 billion support package unveiled during the Budget in February.
In the financial markets, Wall Street’s Dow Jones and S&P 500 had seen 22 per cent and 20 per cent slumps respectively in the first three months of this year. During the Great Depression, in comparison, the record quarterly drop for Wall Street was 40 per cent.
In Singapore, though there have been no reports of widespread layoffs thus far, a few well-known companies, such as SIA, property developer CapitaLand and transport operator SMRT, have begun to slash wages or freeze the pay of its senior staff.
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With many companies following suit to implement such cost-cutting measures - most of the millenials interviewed said their employers had already taken similar steps - the National Wages Council (NWC) on Mar 30 issued guidelines on how they should cut wages responsibly.
Among other guidelines, NWC recommended management teams of struggling companies to “lead by example” when considering wage cuts, and to keep the salaries of low-wage workers intact.
While many industries are already suffering from the effects of the general downturn in the economy, the aviation sector is among the hardest hit as many countries have imposed travel bans. Singapore, for instance, has barred all short-term visitors from entering or transiting through the country.
OPEN TO ODD JOBS
An air steward with a regional airline, who wanted to be known only as Kevin, has been spending the last three weeks working at a retail store in Orchard Road instead of serving passengers on flights.
Now that Kevin is no longer rostered for flights, his pay has been reduced to about S$1,000 a month in basic salary. He gets about S$350 on top of that each month working three times a week at the store.
He has also been selling cakes which he bakes himself at home, earning him about S$100 a month at most.
All in, he makes less than S$1,500 a month these days - less than half the S$3,500 he used to earn.
While Kevin’s new part-time gigs might seem like a downgrade for many, the 28-year-old is open to doing them.
Kevin added that young people who are more willing to do odd jobs, like himself, “have an advantage”.
But he added: “Some might be particular about job options as the pay could be 30 to 50 per cent lower than their current income.”
For Ms Alvina Koh, a final-year National University of Singapore (NUS) student, the months leading up to her graduation in May had been a far cry from what she had envisaged.
“My seniors who had already graduated told me (last year) it would be very easy, as long as I send out job applications, employers will get back to me,” said the 23-year-old political science major.
“Now, it seems like the entire job market is not hiring. When I talk to my friends … They tell me that they applied for jobs but no one has gotten back to them.”
Ms Koh added that the sudden downturn has left her disappointed and anxious. She also feels for her parents, who are “quite concerned” about her job search.
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Agreeing, final-year NUS student Val Alvern Cueco Ligo, 25, said that when COVID-19 began to make its presence felt around the start of the year, many of his peers “took for granted that things would be smooth”, and most did not “expect it to be so bad”.
Having applied for four jobs so far, the communications and new media major has not heard back from any prospective employers, and is bracing himself for the worst.
Likewise, Ms Koh said that she would settle for odd jobs such as being a private tutor, or working in restaurants. “I can do all of that just to cope with it, even though it may not be the most ideal situation.”
On the stigma that may be attached to lower-paying jobs, Mr Cueco Ligo pointed out that there is growing recognition that workers in these roles provide essential services during a crisis.
“Especially now, people are really facing the fact that a lot of these (lower-income) jobs are very essential … when everything stops (workers in these jobs) are the ones that keep (society) moving.”
THE LUCKY ONES
But not all soon-to-be graduates are facing an uncertain future. Some, who had secured job stints months before the COVID-19 crisis surfaced, are counting their blessings.
Several accountancy majors from NUS, NTU and the Singapore Management University said they had secured full-time employment with the Big Four accounting firms: Deloitte, Ernst & Young (EY), KPMG and PwC.
Rachel, an NTU accountancy major who declined to provide her full name, said that many of her friends had secured positions at the Big Four firms since late last year, as the recruitment process had started as early as August last year.
To have secured a job before the recession is something that Rachel said has put her in a “privileged” position. However, she has mentally prepared herself for any bad news, as “now a lot of things are changing”.
Responding to queries, Deloitte, PwC and EY said they have not rescinded any job offers or terminated any internships.
Deloitte said that the firm would be maintaining its staff numbers in Singapore, while PwC said that here, “the recruitment cycles and the number of available positions for those onboarding in 2020 have remained largely the same as previous years”.
EY said it would be continuing with its recruitment efforts here “in a considered and calibrated manner, mindful of the economic circumstances”.
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OUT GOES THE S$10 SALAD BOWL
The YOLO (you only live once) attitude which characterises many millennials have led others to perceive them as having a cavalier attitude towards financial prudence.
Millennials who had been less than thrifty with their money in the past said the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them realise the need to be more prudent from now.
Ingrid, the SIA stewardess, said that apart from frequenting higher-end cafes, she also has the expensive habit of taking ride-sharing services wherever she travels, even though an MRT station sits right in front of her residence.
“I will be making a more conscious effort to take public transport when I go out,” she said.
While she saved only about 20 per cent of her salary in the past, she now plans to put aside “a good 35 to 40 per cent”.
Another millennial, who wanted to be known only as Victoria, has already started to alter her spending habits amid concerns that she may be let go by a beauty retailer.
While the 24-year-old had joined the company as a contract staff, she was told that after a year, she would automatically be converted to a full-timer. But at the end of March — on the day she was supposed to become a full-time staff — she was told that there would be a two-month contract extension instead, with no more promises of a conversion.
Due to the uncertainty, Victoria has begun sending her resume to prospective employers in her free time, and has also been saving up in case she loses her job.
She now eats S$2 lunches at hawker centres instead of indulging in S$10 salad bowls, takes public transport more often instead of cabs, and has cut down on unnecessary spending on shoes, accessories and cosmetics, Victoria said.
While she did not set aside a fixed percentage of her income as savings before, Victoria plans to do so in the future with a savings account.
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Mr Lim, the freelance photographer and videographer, said that while he has already been prudent with his spending pre-crisis - saving up to 60 per cent of his earnings, he will now be more willing to invest in himself.
This includes buying equipment that would be useful for his craft, as well as signing up for workshops to learn new skills.
“This will allow me to generate more income or jobs by diversifying the services I have to offer,” he said.
Similarly, Kevin, the air steward, will be using his spare time to pursue a Workforce Skills Qualifications course to train to be a barista. He believes that in tough times, diversifying his skill set is the best way forward.
“(The downturn) could be a time to see any areas that we can improve on for our future employment (prospects), such as taking on a new skill set, instead of watching Netflix (shows) every day,” he added.
CONCERNS OF OLDER MILLENNIALS
For 33-year-old Sarah Cheng-De Winne, her concerns about a floundering job market are compounded by the fact that - unlike many younger millennials - she has two children aged four and 13 to feed.
Ms Cheng-De Winne, who with her husband owns a brand design company called Relay Room, said that their revenue depends largely on whether they have a stable clientele.
She recalled an incident where her teenage daughter dropped and broke her laptop recently, at a time when the company was still sourcing for new clients.
“I looked at her and asked her ‘where are we going to get S$215 (the repair cost) from? This is not a time to be careless’,” she said. “We were in transition (between getting clients), and we did not know when the next project would be."
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Such anxieties also bother Travis, 37, who declined to give his real name. Though he and his wife do not have children, he is an only child and has to support his elderly parents.
With the pandemic hitting the hospitality industry hard, the employee at a regional hotel chain has seen his company lose much of its revenue. Capacity at some chains is as low as 10 per cent, he said.
Travis, who is in middle-management, has taken a 20 per cent pay cut, and will not be receiving year-end bonuses.
“(The crisis) does add to the anxiety but we have been saving for a rainy day, so we can weather a few months of unemployment without much difficulty,” he said.
He has also bought “plenty of insurance” so that if anything happens to him, his parents will not have to worry about their finances.
Having been through the 2008/2009 financial crisis as a fresh graduate, Travis has this advice for his younger counterparts: Find different ways to contribute to their company and add value to it.
“(Employers) will naturally remember that you actually contributed quite a bit during the tough period, and that would put you in a much better position when things get better,” he said.
Ms Cheng-De Winne also advises younger millennials to diversify their skills within the industry and find new means to create value.
Last November, she founded a separate e-commerce start-up called Taizjo, which sells handphone slings and lifestyle accessories. This has helped her earn some extra income, as the sales have not been affected during this period when people are being encouraged to remain at home.
“I am not afraid that there will not be opportunities to create value ... But of course, you have to search for it, it doesn’t come out of the blue,” she said.
For millennials who find themselves out of work, HR experts said it was important for this group to keep busy while searching for employment.
Ms Carmen Wee from the Institute for Human Resource Professionals said that while employment opportunities may be hard to come by, spending time doing odd jobs and volunteering at charities would be better than being idle at home.
“Future employers will ask (what you did) when the market was slow,” she said. “When you spend your time productively (during the downturn) and do something meaningful … It will demonstrate a lot of character traits and qualities that employers will look at, more than just a degree.”
Neither should one be afraid that employers may look down on odd jobs if one had to take them up to survive, she pointed out.
“It’s all about how you explain (to prospective employers) the economic necessity, and what you learned out of it,” she said. “The ability to step down and be humble and pull through helps to build resilience and maturity, and that helps your career prospects.”
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While there is value in taking up gigs and odd jobs, career strategist Adrian Choo, founder of Career Agility International, cautioned against being over-reliant on them.
“If it’s a short-term thing spanning one or two years, it’s OK, but if you want to be a permanent ‘gigster’, it’s going to harm your career in the long run because you are not developing domain expertise and are not developing any particular skill,” he said.
As the millennials go through what could be the defining crisis of their generation, they were confident that they would come through it stronger.
Commenting on the “strawberry generation” label that has been pinned on millennials, Victoria, the employee at the beauty retailer, pointed out that just like every generation before them, maturity and resilience can only come from hardship - and the COVID-19 crisis will provide a stern test of their mettle.
“Maybe in the past some millennials had (extravagant) lifestyles, but now that we are all working, we see how tough it is … And definitely a lot of us would change our lifestyles,” she said.
“We have to adapt to this crisis. We have no other choice.”