Monday 2 February 2015

Compromise to bridge generation gap at work

By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 1 Feb 2015

In a brutal assessment that has struck a nerve in some quarters, the chief of a business association says that some Singaporeans have a misplaced sense of entitlement.

This has manifested in, among other things, pervasive job-hopping and an inability to stomach criticism, says Mr Victor Mills, the Singaporean head of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC).

The critique would be unfair had it been a broad brush, for, as Mr Mills acknowledges, there are "hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens who do a fabulous job, day in and day out".

Instead, his indictment is targeted at what he says is a growing number of people - by anecdotal evidence - who consistently punch below their weight.

The SICC represents 700 members, including multinational corporations and small and medium- sized enterprises, and Mr Mills says his comments stem from what business leaders are telling him.

His thoughts sparked a feverish debate online, and my interview with him, which was published on Jan 24 as part of the Supper Club series in The Straits Times, has been shared close to 46,000 times on Facebook.

Many Singaporeans, employees and employers alike, have agreed with him. One, a director of a marketing communications firm, told me in an e-mail that Mr Mills has described a "very real and very ugly problem".

He described this as "ill-qualified, arrogant, close-minded young professionals who are 'rock stars' only in their own minds".

"They've delivered success in patches or only for a limited period and (yet) think they deserve a pay rise every three to six months," he said, adding that he has observed such attitudes in employees in their 20s to 40s.

But there were also many who cried foul, saying that they are victims of circumstances. It is the employee's right to job-hop for a bigger pay cheque, they argued, and employers are at fault for not meeting their expectations.

The polarised views illustrate a growing chasm between the attitudes of employers who want to avoid churn, and a younger generation of employees who respond more favourably to quick rewards than long-term incentives.

Both groups also appear to have different notions about a job and a career, and the relation between those two concepts.

Mr Mills' candid assessment of workplace attitudes, meanwhile, does not detract from the fact that workplace surveys have, time and time again, shown an ugly picture.

Last November, an online poll of 5,000 workers done by the Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI) and HR consultancy Align Group concluded that many Singaporeans were "under happy" at work.

It has also been well-documented that Singaporeans are among those in the world putting in the longest hours at work.

Still, what Mr Mills has described is axiomatic of the way a generation which has grown up in relative comfort appears to be unable, or unwilling, to endure hardship.

The term that immediately springs to mind is the "strawberry generation" or caomei zu, a Taiwanese neologism coined to describe people who "bruise easily".

Mr Mills provided an anecdote of an assistant finance manager who threw in the towel after one day, saying "this job is not for me". This may be an extreme, exceptional case and such attitudes may only be prevalent among a minority of young workers.

But it cannot be denied that a self-centred, "me-first" attitude, compounded by the failure to comprehend the real-world consequences of one's actions, has been creeping in.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are bosses who chastise their charges for not delivering, or who expect them to put in long hours and do their jobs unconditionally without giving room for feedback.

How then to bridge the yawning gap, which is bound to worsen as more youth enter the workforce?

The solution lies in a compromise from both sides.

Employers should recognise that their younger charges value flexibility, work-life balance and pursuits outside of work.

The number of hours clocked a day is less important than the quality of the work done, and feeling chained to our desks can have the effect of making us less productive, not more.

A sense of purpose is important to those in my generation, and having as much autonomy as possible at work to ignite that sense of purpose can inspire us more than any monetary reward.

This may be different from what employers themselves experienced when they were young workers, and perhaps they don't find us deserving yet of these "privileges".

Giving in to such demands is spoiling us, some believe. But as long as the quality of work is not affected, holding onto this attitude could be counter-productive.

Being open to accommodating generational differences will build trust between bosses and young workers, and go a long way in building staff morale and driving productivity.

Meanwhile, young workers must also understand that instant payoff is but an illusion.

It is only natural to aspire to salaries that will pay for condominiums or sports cars. But more valuable than that are enrichment and growth in the school of life.

Paving the path of a career inevitably involves time, some hard knocks along the way and moments of drudgery. But staying the course could be more rewarding than just treating a job as a means to a salary.

Making fruitful contributions on a daily basis will pay off in a more rewarding way than the myopic motivation of a $50 to $100 pay rise of a quick lateral job-hop.

Of course - and Mr Mills concurs - there is nothing wrong with seeking a new challenge if one finds oneself plateauing, or if employers are simply unable to offer more room for growth.

Better opportunities or better fits in workplace culture are also natural motivations to job-hop.

Mr Mills, a naturalised Singaporean who was born in Northern Ireland, used the phrase "my fellow citizens" no less than seven times in our interview at Lau Pa Sat on Jan 5.

This was perhaps to blunt the impact of his controversial remarks, but it's also a stark reminder that bosses and young workers, for all their differences, are "fellow Singaporeans" and have no choice but to work together.

He suggested that a "cataclysmic" event, like a major financial crisis which could threaten livelihoods and Singapore's very existence, might be needed to jolt Singaporeans into action.

"We've had crises but because our Government is so adept at managing them, it kind of mitigates the effects of the crisis," he says. "The Government pumped in incentive after incentive to cushion any possible effect, so there is an argument that maybe they did too much."

With some self-awareness and self-correction on both sides, let's hope it will not come to that.

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