Do Singapore's young workers really have poor work attitude?
June 14, 2014
Sometime back, the Straits Times surveyed 500 people to ask them how they felt the job prospects are of our young workers. Many had mixed feelings, largely due to competition from foreigners and a poor work attitude of the young. I read that with some disbelief. Do our young really have poor work attitude? Or is it that they are working differently from the way we do? Maybe it's just differences in opinion? In this article, we reframe our thinking to look into the question, "Do Singapore's young workers really have poor work attitude?"
Different is not necessarily bad
We judge by what we know. We apply our own standards to assess good or bad. But has anyone ever stopped to think that maybe our standards are wrong? Maybe they are outdated? Many people who pass judgement on our young are the very people who raised them up! (More on this later). We Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers grew up in an era where there was no Internet, no mobile phone and pagers were the rage (I remember people carrying a pager on their belt with no connection, just to look cool!) Knowledge was reposited in the library and there was significant information gap. Those who took the time and effort to learn certainly went further than those who did not. Yet in today's world, our children have all the information at the press of a button. As they say, Google knows everything. So they now don't have to work as hard as we did when we were young to get ahead. In fact, the Internet has been such a game changer that it has shifted the way work is being done. Unfortunately, we older workers can't quite grasp that concept. We think in the old way, and we pass judgement based on the old way. And we label the work attitude of our young as "bad". They are different, not bad.
Jumping from job to job is not a bad thing
One pet peeve of today's young workers is their penchant for jumping from company to company, many times at the drop of a hat. That's really bad for continuity, isn't it? Well, yes it is. But there is a bigger picture that is missed in this line of thinking. Today's world is changing very fast and the way to deal with that is to have a huge repertoire of experiences and skills under our belt. How will we develop that if we were a one-company career person? How much diverse views and experiences can we get if we only saw the same cubicle for the last 15 years? Job hopping is not as bad a thing now as it was when we were young. Back then, we valued loyalty. And our employers valued loyalty. We grew up thinking that if we gave everything to our employer, they will ensure our job security. There is nothing further from the truth right now. In fact, long-term employees may even be looked upon as a liability - old in their thinking, drawing a high salary, and resistant to change! A ripe recipe for the chopping board the minute a rough patch hits the company. So maybe we should learn to embrace the uncertainty by being more accepting of moving talent, because that is shaping up to be the new normal.
Wanting to be treated as an intellectual equal
I know how difficult it is for us. We spent many years slogging away at the same job, learning to do things better, grinding our teeth, and sucking in all the snide remarks to reach where we are today. And then along comes this young twenty-something or thirty-something, pushing all the wrong buttons, driving their own agenda, and questioning the very notion of your existence. Sounds terrible, doesn't it? But the fact of the matter is, our young colleagues do know much more than us. And they know how to do things better than us. And faster. And cheaper. They are not afraid to question the status quo - your very essence - because that was what they were taught to do in school. They have grown up in a learning environment far different from ours. We were taught to fear teachers and policemen; they were taught to challenge them, so as to challenge themselves. So now they take that very same idea into the workplace, they get slapped for it. And that is causing some confusion in their mind as well. They have done everything they know to be treated as an intellectual equal, but what they get in return is contempt. I don't think it is unfair for them to demand being treated as an intellectual equal, because they are! So rather than place so much negative energy against them, creating roadblocks and playing office politics to show up their naivete (and they are naive), help them grow into their own. And you will then help the company grow. And that will make you relevant for the future!
We reap the havest that we sow
But what's to really complain about? After all, if the Baby-Boomers or the Gen-Xers are complaining about the poor work ethics of our Gen-Ys or Millenials, we are really complaining about the way we brought them up in the first place! And some of us are still maintaining their lifestyle, paying for their expenses, giving them everything they need or want, because we can. And then we go to the workplace and complain about them? Where's the logic there? We have brought up our children to be the people that they are, we gave them a long leash to go find themselves, to question the status quo, to tread the unbeaten path, to blaze a trail. They did all that while growing up. And we now turn around and say, "Gee, these guys don't know how to tow the line? They have really poor work ethic!" Get up and smell the coffee, guys! The time has come for our children the lead the way; to lead in businesses, to lead in organisations, to lead in life. Let us reap what we sow, not get disgruntled by it.
Ultimately, the problem is with us
I don't think our young have a poor work ethic. They are simply marching to the beat of a different drum. In fact the whole band is already playing a different song; it's just that we are still singing Auld Lang Syne! The problem, dear compatriots, is us. We fail to appreciate what our young can do. We give them an expansive (and sometimes, expensive) education only to put them into a straight jacket. We are really trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Instead of trying to second guess them, and trying to put blinkers on them, and trying to judge them based on our (somewhat outdated) mental model, let's throw off the shackles. Give them the room to work. Give them their freedom and space. Give them the flexibility to show what they are capable of doing, and not what they are supposed to conform to. If you can do that, you will see that life still goes on, business will thrive (and maybe more) and the world will not come to an abrupt halt because of them.
Our parents took a chance on us. It is time we took a chance on them. We need to change. Not them.