The Straits Times says

Labouring on in times of change

Tidings of difficult days ahead are confirmed by employment growth slowing to its lowest since 2003. The good news is that the overall unemployment rate, too, remains low. However, taken together, the two pieces of news reinforce contemporary concerns about the place of labour in the economic restructuring visited on all nations by the operations of a globalised market driven by insurrectionary technological change. For Singapore employers, the challenge is to refine business models and adopt labour-lean policies to maximise output through productivity and not labour growth. Demographic retrenchment - fewer births compounded by retiring Baby Boomers - is here to stay. Employees, including entrants to the job market, need to moderate expectations and climb the skills ladder.

Global trends are placing those within Singapore in uneasy perspective. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) warned last month that global unemployment is projected to rise both this year and the next. A significant slowdown in emerging economies, along with a sharp decline in commodity prices, is transforming the working world, where many workers are accepting low-paying jobs in emerging, developing and developed economies. Volatile capital flows, dysfunctional financial markets and a deficit of global demand are deterring investment and job creation, the ILO added in an ominous throwback to the aftershocks of the global economic crisis of 2008-2009. China's slowdown - which would become an international disaster if it led to a meltdown - portends a phase if not an era of painful readjustment for related economies and their workers. This is not merely a cyclical reverse but is influenced by the structural problems of a global system seeking to strike a working balance between supply and demand.

That structural gap will be exacerbated by periodic technological disruptions to the flow of economic time. Indeed, advances in fields such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and robotics promise to be not just linear but exponential. They will expand the frontiers of productive work for those with the skills and the imagination to benefit from the new technology, but they also will decimate the habitual lifestyles of those who cling to an earlier economic age. Even in developed economies, which are at the vanguard of progress, there are fears that seven million jobs could be lost over the next five years, with only two million new jobs created over the same period.

It is not for nothing that economics is called the dismal science. However, there being no escape from its workings, Singaporeans have to step more firmly into the tide of the global market and keep their bearings. This they have done against the odds since Singapore went global in 1965.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2016, with the headline 'Labouring on in times of change'. Print Edition | Subscribe