Future of work: Forget about having a job for life

Technological innovations and the growing importance of data have resulted in tremendous changes in the working world. Disruptive new technologies in industries such as banking, telecommunications, e-commerce and hospitality are changing the way individuals relate to businesses and to one another. In the first of a four-part series about the future of work, The Straits Times brings together a distinguished panel for a round-table discussion about the impact of these trends on Singapore.

Singapore, for all its advances, still lags behind in a number of important trends impacting workplaces and jobs around the world, even as productivity growth con-tinues to falter.

This was among the key themes to emerge from an inaugural round-table discussion about the future of work.

Panellists at the event, which was organised by The Straits Times, said Singapore companies can do better in areas such as training and human resource management, and the use of new disruptive technologies.

However, they also noted encouraging signs, such as the strong focus on educating people to take on jobs in up-and-coming industries and the vibrant entrepreneurship scene.

The panel discussed a wide range of issues likely to impact workplaces of the future over the course of an hour-long discussion moderated by Straits Times business editor Lee Su Shyan.


Technology has resulted in tremendous changes across various industries, and companies have been forced to adapt to new business models, panellists noted.

At the hour-long discussion on work trends were (from left) Ms Lee Su Shyan, The Straits Times business editor; Ms Peta Steele, Asean leader of IBM Smarter Workforce; Mrs Ayesha Khanna, co-founder and chief executive of The Keys Academy; Professor Arnoud De Meyer, president of Singapore Management University; and Mr Piyush Gupta, chief executive officer of DBS. The session was moderated by Ms Lee. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG


You need to intuitively understand technology's transformative capability. When you do that, you can leverage on it and perhaps hire people who know (how to implement it).

But if you did not even stay in touch with that, you would not know. It is about digital literacy but not necessarily about learning how to code.


This will have a profound impact on the workplace and types of jobs most in demand in the long term.


Data security and understanding data are going to be big issues. But what few people talk about is how the way we work as a civilised society is going to change...

Tomorrow, your clothes, your watch, your washing machine, your car, the camera at the airport, everything will be collecting data.

Then you get to more questions. Who owns the data?

When you go into an airport and the camera is taking a photograph of you along with 25,000 other people - is that your data?

How should data be logically used? For instance, governments can use data to prevent epidemics and improve health services.

But where do you draw the line between what is right and wrong?

I think all of this is going to cause us as a society to really rethink which behaviours and norms are acceptable.


Singapore Management University president Arnoud De Meyer noted that not only are jobs changing, they are also evolving more rapidly.



    • Ms Lee Su Shyan,
    business editor of
    The Straits Times

    • Mr Piyush Gupta,
    chief executive
    officer of DBS Bank

    • Ms Peta Steele,
    the Asean leader
    of IBM Smarter Workforce

    • Professor Arnoud De Meyer,
    president of Singapore
    Management University

    • Mrs Ayesha Khanna,
    co-founder and chief
    executive of The Keys
    Academy and co -founder
    of Hybrid Reality, a strategic
    advisory firm

Technological disruptions have traditionally affected lower-skilled jobs, but medium-skilled jobs are also increasingly impacted, he added.

"The percentage of lower-skilled jobs around the world has actually remained more or less the same... It is jobs which require medium skills, and are relatively repetitive, that are being hit."

These include jobs such as accountants and stock analysts.

The jobs that will survive this shake-up are roles which involve caring for people, such as physical therapists and clergy, said Prof De Meyer. "These jobs involve not just physical care, but also taking mental care of people... This is very difficult to automate."



I would bucket the trends affecting the future of work into four major areas.

The first is social collaboration... people truly collaborating,

instead of just exchanging information.

The next is mobile prevalence and accessibility.

Another trend is the rise of independent workers and this whole point around specialisation, (which is) moving away from generalists into a more specialist area and the rise of people out fending for themselves.

Then, of course, data analytics. For instance, human resource decisions which predominantly were subjective in the past can now be made in a much more objective manner using some of the data that is available to us.


The traditional notion of a secure job in a large organisation is losing relevance, panellists said.


I tell my students there are two areas which I would want to go into today. The first involves thinking about the real needs of people and providing solutions. For instance, do people want a car or a cheap and easy kilometre of transport? That is what services like Uber solve.

The other area is sustainability. That is an area where I think there are a lot of future jobs, creating a much more sustainable world, thinking about logistics and all the "re-words" - recycling, reuse, re-manufacturing.

I believe that sustainability and keeping this a liveable planet with a growing number of people is going to be a massive business.


Instead, people are increasingly working independently, only joining forces when they have a particular task to complete.

Mrs Ayesha Khanna, co-founder and chief executive of The Keys Academy, said technology has allowed for the emergence of "networks of free agents that come together and dynamically form teams to work on projects".

Prof De Meyer noted that workplaces structured as large companies are a relatively recent phenomenon which arose only about 150 years ago.

"There were very good reasons why we created these large organisations, perhaps to have better coordination and integration... but today, we can do that over the Internet. We perhaps don't necessarily always need large organisations," he said.

DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta agreed that the Internet makes training and organising a workforce possible without the need for a large organisation.

However, even as people increasingly value individualism and the ability to work independently, having an "anchor" is still essential, he noted.

Even if people are operating as free agents, they should still have a common sense of purpose.

"The human mind likes to anchor around certain constancies... It is more important today than ever before that companies have a culture with a defined sense of purpose."


Ms Peta Steele, the Asean leader of IBM Smarter Workforce, said companies have become more practised at tailoring their products to customers, but are still not as good at catering to the individual needs of employees.

"Each of us has different motivations around what drives us to work and what our preferences are, and we should be able to personalise that," she said.

Data analytics is a rapidly growing field in human resource work, Ms Steele added. "For instance, data can tell you a lot about how engaged your employees are."

Bosses and teachers also have to calibrate their approach to a new generation of employees and students, panellists said,

"You cannot run a command and control hierarchy," said Mr Gupta.

"There is no premium on information any more; middle management and bosses cannot simply tell employees to do things."

Instead, staff should be given flexibility, he noted. "If you can do that and marry it with giving employees a strong sense of purpose, you can get a very good mix."


Singapore companies are often held back by fear of failure and risk aversion, said Mr Gupta. "In the United States, you see how efficiently people use new technology... we are just not as flexible."

For instance, he noted, even government departments in Singapore do not seem to share data.

"Now having said that, as with everything in Singapore, once we get our minds around it, we have the potential to do a lot better," he said. He pointed to encouraging signs, such as the blossoming start-up ecosystem.

The human resource profession, which should be driving the changes within organisations, has been slow to pick up on best practices and new technologies, said Ms Steele. This might be because staffing decisions for many multinationals here are traditionally made by overseas headquarters.

When it comes to education, however, Singapore is leading the pack, Prof De Meyer said.

ST Graphics Caption

He said: "Creating the mindset that there are alternatives (to getting a degree) and equally good ways to be successful, and... providing for these alternative pathways...

"That is a very good initiative."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2015, with the headline 'Future of work: Forget about having a job for life'. Print Edition | Subscribe