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The Big Read in short: Are millennials, Gen Zers maligned and misunderstood at work?

SINGAPORE — Since about a year ago, as the economy started to bounce back amid further loosening of Covid-19 restrictions, business owner Adam Piperdy has noticed a change in attitudes among younger job interviewees at his firm.

Human resource experts and sociologists told TODAY that the apparent negative impressions that some employers may have of younger workers can be explained by the different circumstances that the millennials and Gen Zers grew up in.

Human resource experts and sociologists told TODAY that the apparent negative impressions that some employers may have of younger workers can be explained by the different circumstances that the millennials and Gen Zers grew up in.

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we examine the younger generations' attitudes towards work, which have often been maligned or misunderstood. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • The attitudes of millennial and Gen Z workers towards work have emerged as a perennial sticking point among employers
  • Some have voiced their concerns that the younger generations are not as motivated to work hard, and are too “choosy” over work conditions
  • Younger workers interviewed disagree with such characterisations, saying that they prefer to “work smart” and they also know that a tight labour market means their options are aplenty
  • They also feel that pulling longer hours and sacrificing work-life balance to achieve workplace success are outdated notions  
  • Experts say that the younger workers' prevailing attitudes could be a reflection of the times as well as their life stage, and these may not last. Still, there are concerns that some of them could find it hard to compete against their peers in Singapore as well as their counterparts from other countries 

SINGAPORE — Since about a year ago, as the economy started to bounce back amid further loosening of Covid-19 restrictions, business owner Adam Piperdy has noticed a change in attitudes among younger job interviewees at his firm. 

“Right now, it is kind of the employee interviewing the employer,” said Mr Piperdy, the founder of events company Unearthed Productions, referring to the youngsters’ tendency to question what the company can offer them, instead of the other way round. 

Mr Piperdy believes that the pandemic — which had given young and old plenty of time to reflect on careers, relationships, health and other life issues amid intermittent lockdowns — has changed the “idea of work”, with younger workers having a more “aspirational” outlook. 

“The idea of a fixed contract, a fixed nine-to-six job, it really doesn’t exist anymore, people want to have a lot more freedom… that kind of flexibility to work anywhere, when they want,” he added. 

For instance, many of his new employees had stated in their job interviews that they wanted to do freelance work during weekends, something that was “unheard” of until recently.

“Five, six years ago, if somebody came to you to say, ‘hey boss, I want to take (time) off to do some side projects’, you of course will say no and say that your work comes first, your clients come first. But (today), that would turn away a lot of these talents," he said. 

“That has forced us to rethink the entire landscape and how can we bridge this gap of them wanting to aspire something for themselves and at the same time, try to meet our business goals." 

Echoing some of Mr Piperdy’s sentiments was business owner Delane Lim, who noticed that young jobseekers have become more “choosy” when deciding on which offers to accept. 

Said Mr Lim, co-founder of FutuReady Asia, a social enterprise focusing on youth and leadership development: “Some (SMEs) have said that (some) young people are a bit more entitled, they expect a higher salary but they expect a balanced job in the sense of working hours." 

Indeed, the attitudes of millennials and Gen Zers workers have emerged as an employer’s bugbear in recent years, with words such as “entitled”, “picky” and “watch-the-clock” being bandied around to describe the younger generations' approach to work.

And the pandemic appears to have encouraged such attitudes even further. Some bosses have even taken to social media to voice out their concerns.

American think tank Pew Research Center defines millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996, and Gen Zers as those born from 1997 onwards.

Earlier this month, public relations firm founder Tjin Lee received flak for stating in a social media post that it is increasingly hard to find motivated young people to work.
 
She had also noted in the post, among other things, that potential hires in their 20s had asked about “work-life balance” and “flexi-working options” as their first questions during their job interviews, and that there is a “worrying” trend of people expressing on social media that they would “rather be on holiday than in the office”. 

Speaking to TODAY, Ms Lee later said she has learnt to "see both sides" of the issue and was glad to have sparked a conversation about work ethic. She also felt that her post had been "greatly misunderstood" to mean that she was promoting hard work at the expense of work-life balance, though she said she could have been clearer about her intentions and meaning behind the post.

Human resource experts and sociologists told TODAY that the apparent negative impressions that some employers may have of younger workers can be explained by the different circumstances that the millennials and Gen Zers grew up in.

Mr Adrian Choo, founder of career consulting company Career Agility International, said that older generations were more focused on the rat race and getting ahead in their careers, during a time when Singapore was less affluent.

“The younger generations, a lot of them are still living with their parents… so their immediate priorities may not be about getting married and starting a family, they are focused more on self- actualisation,” he said.

This “self-actualisation” involves learning new skills and gaining new experiences as opposed to being preoccupied with climbing the corporate ladder, for instance.

TODAY had also previously found that the pandemic had led younger workers to reshuffle their priorities, with some seeing the turbulent times as an opportunity to pursue their passions.

Negative labels aside, some experts pointed out that it is not often easy for young people to make sense of what they are doing, or feel motivated, when they are faced with the current state of the world, with its litany of woes ranging from health crises, armed conflicts to severe heat waves.

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser said: “(Young people) desire to do well in their career or business and live the Singapore Dream. However, the path ahead they confront isn’t always easy: high cost of living, income and employment insecurity, stiff competition at work, and, in some cases, being part of the sandwiched generation."

He added: “These may combine to produce disillusionment and, in some cases, a lack of motivation.”

So, what do younger people in Singapore feel about work and more specifically, traditionally celebrated values at the workplace — such as hard work and loyalty — that may or may not require a rethink?

And where, in the grand scheme of things, does work fit into their lives today? 

TODAY interviewed youths aged between 23 and 35 to find out. 

'WORK HARD? NAH, WE RATHER WORK SMART' 

While the claims that the younger generations eschew hard work may not be totally baseless, said those interviewed, they also noted that the youngsters may not feel motivated to work hard due to good reason. They also do not believe working hard in itself is the key to doing well at work. 

In the past, hard work meant that you put in the hours to churn out output, and if you stayed in the office for long hours, it meant you were working hard, but that’s not the case anymore.
Mr Isaac Neo, 28, who works in the security risk industry

The idea of hard work has changed for the younger generation, said Mr Isaac Neo, who works in the security risk industry, where he monitors risks facing his clients when they travel overseas.

“We grew up in more comfortable times… Our nature of work is very different and we deal mostly with technology, where so-called ‘hard work’ is less visible,” said the 28-year-old.

“In the past, hard work meant that you put in the hours to churn out output, and if you stayed in the office for long hours, it meant you were working hard, but that’s not the case anymore.”

Mr Neo said that it is up to companies to adapt to these new definitions of "hard work", something he feels that his company has done well.

“I’ve been lucky to have bosses who just leave me alone to complete the work, and as long as it’s done, they don’t really care if you’re in the office or how many hours you clock a day,” he said. 

“And I think that should be the way that hard work is viewed — not about the amount of hours you put in, but how good the final product is.”

The idea of hard work has changed for the younger generation, said Mr Isaac Neo, who works in the security risk industry, where he monitors risks facing his clients when they travel overseas.

Associate Professor Kang Soon-Hock, the vice dean and head of the Behavioural Science Core at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), said that younger workers are not necessarily averse to hard work, but its definition for them may differ from their seniors. 

“This cohort is more accustomed to using technology to multitask as well as to shorten work processes that may traditionally have taken more time to complete,” said Assoc Prof Kang.

“However, their actions may not be viewed positively if it goes against the existing norms or practices at their workplaces and in the process, they may be perceived to be more inclined to take shortcuts or have short-attention spans.”

'YOU WANT LOYALTY? SHOW US THE TANGIBLE RETURNS'

Loyalty to a company is a two-way street and has to be earned by the company in tangible ways — such as offering employees a clear career progression or increased remuneration in the short to medium term, say the younger workers interviewed.

A new employee at a local bank, who wanted to be known only as Ms Wong, said that like many other young workers, she is in pursuit of a “growth” mindset and will not hesitate to leave her company if better opportunities arise elsewhere.

If the company is treating me well and I feel like I can grow from it, I will probably be loyal to the company. But if I find that there is another opportunity out there that can make me grow even more… loyalty is out of the window.
A 23-year-old employee at a local bank, who wanted to be known only as Ms Wong

The 23-year-old, who is a month into her first job since graduation, said that a company that she joins could “easily fire" her, so she should think twice about being loyal to it.

“If the company is treating me well and I feel like I can grow from it, I will probably be loyal to the company. But if I find that there is another opportunity out there that can make me grow even more… loyalty is out of the window,” she said. 

Employers, too, agreed that the definition of loyalty has less of an emotive meaning these days, where tangible returns to the employee have to be more readily considered.

Mr Jimmy Lim, an inventory logistics manager at a data company, leads a team of 10 employees with up to a third of them being millennials at any one time.

He said that for these younger workers, they have fewer financial commitments since they are less likely to have children or large loans to pay off.

“It could be very reasonable for someone to just throw in their (resignation) letter and say that 'enough is enough',” he said.

While firms can bow to the pressure and promote these workers or raise their salaries in a bid to keep them happy, some employers felt that it may not be a good long-term solution when it comes to retaining them in their respective industries — especially those such as law and engineering, where attrition rates are high.

“We can adhere and listen and agree to their demands, but it can only take them so far,” said Mr Lim. “At the end of the day, if they don’t have a good footing in their career, there is a good chance that they may just (quit or be retrenched by their company)."

'WORK-LIFE BALANCE IS NOT JUST ABOUT ENTITLEMENT'

Most young workers whom TODAY spoke to prioritised a healthy work-life balance and many said that they would raise it up during their job interviews. 

Ms Esther David, 26, said that she started her own tuition business three years ago because she enjoys helping people through teaching. 

However, to ensure the success of her nascent business, she had to put work-life balance on the backburner. 

Ms Esther David, 26, said that she started her own tuition business three years ago because she enjoys helping people through teaching.

At the start, Ms David would often work from early in the morning until near midnight, to ensure that she was teaching as many students as she could. This was all in the name of making a name for her fledgling business.  

She said that her business is now stable due to the hard work she had put in. Still, she would not advise others to follow in her footsteps as it was “not great for mental health”. 

Some young workers who are fortunate enough to be in jobs that they enjoy said that having a work-life balance is still integral to such enjoyment. 

I’m strict with my boundaries, because you need to understand your role — as a social worker you are not a saviour, but are there to facilitate their growth and progress.
A 35-year-old social worker, who wanted to be known only as Mr Yeo

One social worker, who wanted to be known only as Mr Yeo, said that he entered the profession about eight years ago because, like Ms David, he enjoyed helping others and felt that social work was the best avenue to do so. 

The 35-year-old said that while he finds great meaning in his job, he is very clear about the boundaries between his work and his personal time, and tries his best not to engage with the families whom he is tagged to after his working hours. 

“I’m strict with my boundaries, because you need to understand your role — as a social worker you are not a saviour, but are there to facilitate their growth and progress,” he said. “You’re not there to say, ‘if you’re in trouble at night, I’ll come and save you’.” 

He believes that this is not an uncaring approach, but rather one that is healthy and will sustain him in this line of work. 

Some employers are beginning to adapt to the changing demands of employees, such as offering more flexible work arrangements.

Mr Lim from FutuReady Asia said that he has had to put aside some “cognitive biases” when it comes to setting expectations for working hours and arrangements. 

For instance, while he used to be opposed to people not reporting to the office pre-pandemic, he now acknowledges that a lot of young workers have a “gig-economy mentality” and would rather be working towards key performance indicators (KPIs) rather than meeting the required working hours.

“They want to have KPIs given to them, but they do not want to report to work,” he said. “In the past, this was quite difficult to accept, but it is the norm now, so we have to negotiate (this) arrangement with them.”

He added: “If they are more upfront with us on what motivates them, then I think (this arrangement) is fine."

WILL YOUNGER WORKERS GROW OUT OF THEIR CURRENT MINDSETS?  

There is an argument to be made, however, that the younger generations will in time grow out of their current ideals about work, or re-evaluate their priorities at different life stages. Some of the attitudes could also be ephemeral.   

For example, some experts felt that the clamour for more work-life balance could very well be just a phase brought about by current conditions, with the recovering Singapore economy coinciding with a severe labour shortage in some sectors. 

Mr Choo from Agility International said that the years of feeling “stifled” by the pandemic, along with the lack of travel and social time with friends, may have led youths to put their wellness and short-term gratification as their immediate priorities.

The improved economic situation has also given these young workers more career opportunities, which may have led to their perceived “choosiness” from the employers’ vantage point. 

However, these conditions currently favourable to employees will not last. And hence, these attitudes, though justified now, may not be sustainable.

In addition, just like the older millennials whom TODAY spoke to, the younger workers may soon have to accept that their future responsibilities in life will require them to revisit the issue of work-life balance. 

“The Gen Zers that have decided to focus now on their non-financial goals will ultimately have to wake up and smell the coffee,” said Mr Choo. 

There is an argument to be made that the younger generations will in time grow out of their current ideals about work, or re-evaluate their priorities at different life stages. Some of the attitudes could also be ephemeral.

POTENTIAL RAMIFICATIONS FOR YOUNGER WORKERS, EMPLOYERS AND SINGAPORE

Ms Carmen Wee, founder and chief executive officer of HR advisory services firm Carmen Wee & Associates, cautioned that some younger workers could be left behind if they are unable to compete against their peers in Singapore as well as their counterparts from other countries.  

However, employers and experts both agree that the younger generations of workers have their own strengths. 

Ms Geraldine Kor, country managing director of telecommunications firm Telstra's Singapore office, said that what she has seen from the younger workers at her firm is that they are willing to learn new skills as long as it is in their areas of interest. 

To channel the workers' interests, her firm provides for example, training opportunities in different fields ranging from coding to business analytics. By doing so, the firm hopes to match young workers to new skillsets that they are passionate about. 

Agreeing, Ms Wee said the challenge ahead is not so much about how to deal with the work attitudes of the younger generations, but how mentors and employers can harness the energy and passion that many of these workers have, she said.  

“These are good causes and we need the young people to have passion to articulate their point of view,” she said.

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