A recent LinkedIn survey found that if you are less than 32 years old, you are likely to change jobs at least four times before you reach that age. By 2001, only half of the workforce in the United Kingdom had been in continuous employment for a period longer than four years. Yet another survey by staffing firm Robert Half found that 64% of workers favour what is known as ‘job-hopping’, particularly the younger generation, with 75% of employees under 34 believing in the benefits of job-hopping. A single career for life used to mean climbing the corporate ladder, stability in income and to a certain degree, specialisation. However, in an age of rapid technology advancement, how ‘work’ is organised and what people feel about it have clearly changed. I believe that a single career for life, save for some professions and for some individuals, is no longer realistic nor desirable.
There is no doubt that, the age of rapid technological advancement has led to what is known as ‘de-skilling’. Back in the 1930s, the term ‘technological unemployment’ was coined by John Maynard Keynes as he forecasted how the ways in which we economise the use of labour would outpace the creation of uses for labour, leading to increases in unemployment. Original unskilled tasks filled by factory workers can be even further broken down, to be automated and performed by machines instead. Such technological innovations in manufacturing and communications have already led to rapid decreases in blue-collar, manufacturing jobs in many developed countries. It was estimated by Oxford professors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne that 47 percent of American jobs are at risk of automation. Places like Hong Kong and Singapore have all experienced de-industrialisation, with many of those formerly employed in manufacturing being laid off as manufacturing jobs went to lower-cost countries like China or Vietnam. Instead, these economies have transitioned to service economies which require different skillsets. As such, governments have increasingly focused on re-training, or what is known as ‘lifelong learning’. In Singapore, there is SkillsFuture Singapore which organises the SkillsFuture Credit, offering direct subsidies of S$500 to all Singaporean citizens so that they can gain new skills for new employment. Thus, while Keynes was right about how technology would change how labour is used, thankfully it has not led to widespread unemployment – even as jobs are lost, new jobs are also created. Instead, switching careers have become the norm in today’s society.
However, there are some exceptions to this. For a start, while technological advancement is more rapid than ever before, people may not be displaced from their jobs, particularly if tacit skills and experience are still important. For example, while many advances have been made in the optometric industry, the skills of experienced optometrists are still extremely valued, and even more valued with regard to the operation of the new technology. Thus, those holding jobs disrupted by technology may not be completely replaced. Instead, they may pick up how to operate these new technology, and benefit from a skills upgrade without switching their careers. Another example is how increasingly, policing has involved technology with regards to surveillance and data analytics. However, policing still requires police officers to act on such information. Thus, for many occupations, they will not actually require people to switch careers. Those who believe in this argument thus call the process ‘en-skilling’ instead of ‘de-skilling’.
On the other hand, technological advancement is also not only forcing individuals to change jobs, but also allowing them to juggle multiple careers at the same time. The ‘gig economy’ is the term for this new phenomenon. The gig economy or sharing economy allows people to make use of technology to optimise the use of their resources, whether tangible like car seats or intangible like time and creativity. Grab and Youtube are two classic examples of empowering individuals to have another side job that can become as well-paying as their mainstream job. These sharing platforms – whether to share car rides or to share videos – allow people to make a market from their skills. As P.J. Abdul Kalam said, “the youth today need to be enabled to become job generators from job seekers.” This is also necessarily a negative trend because having multiple careers empower individuals to do what they actually enjoy and are passionate about. Leaving the typical nine-to-five working lifestyle for a freelancing manner of getting employment has become increasingly more popular amongst young people, with over half of workers below 24 in France, Germany, Italy and Spain on fixed-term contracts rather than the traditional long term ones. Loyalty to companies is also less important to individuals who want job flexibility and autonomy over the jobs they do. Thus, technological advancement which has opened up the possibilities for flexible and new jobs has made young people consider job satisfaction and autonomy to be more important than job stability. As the saying goes, “If you do what you love, you never have to work for a day”. It seems that the younger generation today are particularly believers of this.
Of course, there are again exceptions, particularly for those who commit themselves to a particular skill or sport. David Beckham once said that “I treat my job as a hobby. It’s something I love doing.” For those highly passionate about their choice of employment, a single career is probably the only thing they can envision themselves doing. After all, for particular occupations, more years really do mean becoming better at the job. Other than athletes who will not benefit from switching sports every two years should they want to be at the top of their game, other occupations which require years of dedication include those which are artisanal in nature. For example, leather crafters or tailors are people whose skills get refined over time, making them better at the job as they stay in the career longer. These are also jobs which fundamentally defy technological disruption. A good sportsman is considered good precisely because he is meant to stretch the potential of what a human can do, rather than being aided by machines. Art and artisanal products are precious and valued because they are made by people and thus unique, rather than being standardised and mass produced. Hence, there is still a place for these careers in our economy, and these careers, when performed by the very best and the committees, usually span a lifetime.
Ultimately, the idea of work and how work is done are always undergoing changes. Save for a few, a single career is not only unrealistic, but also unfulfilling and unproductive. Instead of trying to force oneself to commit to a single career, it is more important that people find work meaningful for themselves as well as for society – whether in a single career or multiple ones.