Strawberry generation’, ‘Generation Me’, ‘I generation’ – these are but some of the labels that the current generation of young people in Singapore have been tagged with. These terms reflect a view held by some that Singapore’s youth grow up in sheltered, comfortable environments and enjoy high standards of living – a far cry from the struggles and hardship that the older generations had to overcome. While this view is not an unreasonable one, we must also consider the fact that youths today also face challenges in a world that is becoming increasingly uncertain. The prevailing set of challenges in the political, economic and social domains may be radically different from those in the past, but they are no less daunting and pernicious. As such, I do not fully agree that young people in Singapore lead easier lives than ever before.
Proponents of the view that young people have never had it so good until today point to the abundant education opportunities made available to youths today. It is undoubtedly true that compared to past generations, youth enjoy far greater access to learning in today’s day and age. In Singapore’s context, the government has gradually introduced a greater number of education bursaries and scholarships offered to students from less-privileged backgrounds to ensure that the education system remains a meritocratic one that rewards those who work hard, while not denying access to those who may not afford education. This is a vast improvement from the past where it was not uncommon for young people to skip school because of the need to stay at home to look after their siblings or to work in order to contribute to the monthly household income. Even if they could go to school, the education system in the early years of Singapore’s independent years was largely focused on providing public education to the masses and conformity and uniformity were the norm. Moreover, different learning needs and speeds were often neglected, and crucial skills like critical thinking were deemed as unimportant. Today, however, in order to cater to a variety of talents and learning abilities, the government has created diverse education routes and pathways in recent years. The musically or artistically inclined can now choose to pursue their secondary education in the School of the Arts (SOTA), while budding athletes can opt to enrol in the Singapore Sports School. A plethora of skills-based courses are also available at various polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education to equip students with knowledge and skills that will set them in good stead in the workplace. In this sense, today’s education landscape in Singapore has made life for young people much more accessible and empowering.
Apart from better education opportunities, young people in Singapore today enjoy higher standards of living compared to the generations that came before them. Rapid urbanisation and modernisation in the last few decades have witnessed attap-roof houses and family farms being replaced with high-rise flats, high-technology buildings and manicured streets lined with trees that are regularly pruned to prevent overgrowth. While communal public toilets, non-air-conditioned buses and potholes on muddy roads form a bulk of the memories of many older generations in Singapore, many Singaporean youth today cannot imagine sleeping without air-conditioning or deprived of the many creature comforts they have now. Many, as such, view the young people today as a mollycoddled bunch who are unable to survive physical hardship and discomfort. In addition to increased standards of living, the increase in spending on luxury and branded items amongst the young in Singapore today lead many to regard this as evidence that youth today have a much easier life as compared to before. Once considered luxury goods only affordable to the rich, expensive smartphones valued at $1,000, high-end electronic gadgets and even branded sneakers valued at $300 are now the norm amongst Singapore youth, thus giving weight to the notion that young people in Singapore today never had it so good.
However, when one takes into account the circumstances and the new set of challenges that our young people have to face, the perspective that young people never had it so good before appears one-dimensional. In the economic sphere, the vicissitudes of what has been termed the ‘roller-coaster global economy’ has led to much fear and anxiety over jobs, inflation and economic uncertainty. The oldest millennials born in 1981 would have entered the workforce at a time when the global economy was suffering from an unprecedented collapse of the financial sector, and research by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis go as far as to suggest that these millennials might be unable to accumulate sufficient wealth for retirement. Younger millennials born in the 1990s and 2000s have to contend with economic uncertainties like the US-China trade war, the implications of climate change on supply chains, and rapid unprecedented rates of technological disruption to traditional industries. This is a vast contrast to the situation in Singapore’s early days of economic development in the 1960s and 1970s which saw the creation of large numbers of jobs in the rapidly growing manufacturing industry, and strong and sustained economic growth rates. Furthermore, with the winds of globalization blowing strong today, competition between economies has intensified, making it imperative for local employees to constantly upgrade themselves to ensure that they can continue to value-add to their companies in order to remain employed. Young people in Singapore today thus face greater pressure to remain competitive and employable, contrary to the perception that they lead smooth-sailing lives with their whole lives charted out for them.
Additionally, while young people today are generally more educated than past generations, the overall increase in education standards means that there are greater expectations to do well academically and it is even more difficult for one to stand out amongst a sea of university students, especially when 4 in 10 Singaporean youth will eventually be degree holders. Moreover, the influx of foreign talents in recent years has raised the bar for many graduates, making it more competitive in getting jobs. As a result, young people, despite being given more education opportunities, now face greater difficulty in getting their desired jobs, and often have to make do with jobs that do not match their qualifications or aspirations. A recent research study conducted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute suggest a pernicious, worrying underbelly of underemployed millennial graduates, some of whom are earning less than $2,000 a month from their full-time jobs despite their education qualifications. This suggests that young people in Singapore may not necessarily be better off compared to past generations when we take into consideration the increasingly competitive and uncertain job landscape in which they have to survive and thrive in today.
Besides, the steadily rising costs of living in Singapore is another reason that Singaporeans today may not enjoy an easier life compared to previous generations. Soaring Certificate of Entitlement (COE) for the purchase of motor vehicles and sky-rocketing property prices are but a few of the indicators of inflation. Singapore’s headline inflation has gradually been on an upward trend, and the cost of purchasing a home or a car in Singapore far exceeds that in other countries. Increasingly, Singaporeans are finding themselves having to tighten their belts to cope with this. Although it is undeniably true that all Singaporeans, both young and old, are affected by the high living costs, young people are more likely to bear the brunt as costs continue to climb, which means they may have to work even harder and longer hours than their parents and grandparents. Today, young people in Singapore take on part-time jobs and freelance gigs such as driving for Grab or Gojek in order to supplement the income from their full-time job, and this presumably complements the observation that millennials in Singapore work 49 hours a week, with 1 out of 4 working two jobs at a time. As a consequence, health issues such as stress, fatigue and even depression could well ensue. In this sense, the higher standards of living that young Singaporeans enjoy today must be viewed in the light of the heavier financial burden imposed by rising living costs.
In our world which is increasingly fraught with fear, insecurity and uncertainty, the young are living in a Singapore that is beset with novel challenges that previous generations did not have to grapple with. As the famous historian R G Collingwood once said, “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way”. In this light, when assessing this or any generation, both the positive and the challenging aspects must be taken into account. Therefore, notwithstanding the better education or job opportunities available to this generation, it would be inaccurate to say that the young in Singapore never had it good if we understand also the myriad issues surrounding today’s generation.