Thinking Aloud

Best route to the future is the one you chart yourself

Young pondering jobs should play to their strengths and seize opportunities that arise

Blue-eyed and boyishly handsome, Mike Ross is a brilliant young lawyer.

Blessed with a photographic memory, he uses his uncanny legal prowess to trump his opponents in courtroom battles, often defending downtrodden underdogs against greedy corporate giants.

The catch? Mike has a dark secret. He is a bit of a fraud. He never went to law school, has no law degree, and was never called to the Bar.

His crime: He bypassed the hurdles that the legal fraternity has put in place to keep its charmed circle closed in order to uphold standards, but also, to ensure lawyers retain their cachet.

This sets the stage for a riveting television drama series, Suits, starring Canadian actor Patrick J. Adams, now into its seventh season, as Mike defends other suspects while trying to hide his own wrongdoing.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I was reminded of the programme as I sat in the brand-new auditorium of the Singapore Management University's (SMU) law school recently. I was there for the Straits Times Education Forum, organised in partnership with SMU, which was focused this year on what the future of jobs might look like, for lawyers and the rest of us.

The day cannot be far off, I mused, when the premise of the TV show is made untenable. Mike's prodigious memory of legal cases, which gives him his courtroom edge, is likely to be surpassed by a robot that just about every self-respecting law firm will have tucked away in a quiet corner of the office.

This will take away much of the drudgery of legal research work, now done by junior lawyers. Drafting and filing of documents, and even settling disputes, might then be done more efficiently and cost-effectively with the help of robots and artificial intelligence.

How then, will lawyers, law firms and law schools respond?

My wandering mind was jolted back by SMU board of trustees chairman Ho Kwon Ping's provocative opening address.

He said: "By asserting that we don't know what new jobs will replace displaced ones, we can avoid the ignominy of being wrong in our speculation. But, while this is a comfortably safe and ostensibly wise position, it is also a cop-out.

"Universities, as thought leaders, should have the courage, indeed the audacity, not so much to predict what jobs might disappear, but by drawing upon the lessons of the past to see into the future, to speculate what new jobs might emerge."

The greatest gifts that parents and educators could give their charges are a nimbleness of mind and a resilience of spirit, to equip them with the ability to constantly recalibrate their route into the future, even as the landscape continues to shift around them.

My colleague, ST's senior education correspondent Sandra Davie, gamely took up the challenge. She cited a study by Oxford academics, Dr Michael A. Osborne and Dr Carl Benedikt Frey, titled The Future Of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation?, which looked at more than 700 jobs, the tasks workers perform and the skills required to do so. It also considered the technology needed to automate these jobs.

It concluded that the jobs that are most likely to disappear are those of telephone salesmen, legal secretaries, bookkeepers, accountants, retail workers and cooks.

At the other end of the spectrum, teachers, nurses, speech therapists, physiotherapists, personal trainers, artists and architects, programmers and software designers were those most likely to remain in demand.

Thankfully, journalists and newspaper editors were also among the latter crowd. For, while the way in which news and information is consumed might change, there would always be a demand for people who could help make sense of developments in a rapidly changing world.

Put simply, not only jobs which are high-tech, but also those which called for high touch and high trust - to borrow an idea from American futurologist John Naisbitt - are the ones that are most likely to survive.

So, how might today's young, and those charged with their education, prepare for this brave new world now unfolding?

As several speakers pointed out at the ST forum, workers will have to "learn how to learn" to keep reskilling, returning to school several times over their careers.

But, someone asked, should the focus be on the so-called Stem skills, namely in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, since these were, no doubt, going to be key for many of the jobs of the future?

You might think the answer to this was obvious, but, interestingly, SMU president Arnoud De Meyer offered a different view.

Technology, he said, would create many new jobs, even as some are destroyed. He recounted how a technology company he knew of was constantly on the lookout, not just for coders, but also people with strong literary skills. The reason: Video games created by tech geeks become bestsellers only when they have a compelling storyline.

So, rather than everyone focusing on science and technology, some students might be better off doing literature, if that was where their passions lie, he argued.

He urged the students in the audience - not once, but twice - not to decide their futures based just on what the manpower planners were projecting, but to "follow your passion in what you want to study".

To cope with the uncertainty that is inevitable in a time of change, young people were advised to ditch the idea of having to live up to a rigid life plan - set out by parents or society - to be followed at all costs. Instead, they needed the derring-do to adapt and seize opportunities, to shape their futures.

Pointing to his own experience, Professor De Meyer recounted how he had expected to take up a job in his field at a local company, after graduating as an engineer from the University of Ghent in Belgium.

But, events in life led him into academia, and ultimately to the top job at a university in Singapore.

In other words, while it makes sense to scan the horizon to survey the jobs that are in demand today, and likely to be so tomorrow, young people also have to look within to figure out where their strengths lie, and how they might find their niche in a changing world.

The greatest gifts that parents and educators could give their charges are a nimbleness of mind and a resilience of spirit, to equip them with the ability to constantly recalibrate their route into the future, even as the landscape continues to shift around them.

As I pondered over this discussion later, it struck me how so much has changed since I was an 18-year-old having to make "the big decision" on what to do with my life. And yet, for all the changes, some things remain pretty much the same.

Like many Singaporean parents, mine had wanted me to take up a profession. In my family's case, medicine was the preferred path, largely as my Uncle Victor had long been searching for a successor to take over his successful family practice. Several prospects had passed up the opportunity, which meant that, as the youngest member of the extended family, I was the last hope of keeping the Fernandez name on the door.

So, dutifully, I signed up for the science stream in junior college to prepare to read medicine at university. After several months of trying this out, however, I concluded that this was a mistake, as my interests lay elsewhere.

I plucked up the courage to tell my family that I had to ditch the plan. Not surprisingly, there was much disappointment and consternation all round. Partly to assure everyone that I was not simply copping out, I decided to apply for the prestigious humanities programme in Hwa Chong Junior College, which offered the prospect of going to Oxford University, followed by a career in public service.

First though, I had to pass the entrance exam and win a government scholarship, as my family could not possibly afford the exorbitant fees. This spurred me to get serious about my studies, and somehow, I managed to land a place at Oxford.

Then, came the twist. I lost out on the government scholarship after I botched the interview. That left me thrashing about for months in search of financial assistance in the recession-hit Singapore of the mid-1980s. Thankfully, The Straits Times came to the rescue, when it decided that it would set up a new scholarship programme. To my great surprise and relief, I became its first recipient.

And so began my unexpected journalistic journey. Over time, I found myself enjoying what I was doing, and made progress as I took on various assignments, helped along by many talented and kind colleagues. I did not imagine back then that I might, one day, be asked to helm this 172-year-old media organisation.

I recount all of this to reinforce the point that Prof De Meyer made.

No one can say what the future holds. So, while it is good to plan a route and chart a course, the best advice anyone can give today's young on what the jobs of the future might entail is to assert that the future is, as it always has been, simply what you make of it.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'Best route to the future is the one you chart yourself '. Print Edition | Subscribe