For years, there have been persistent dystopic visions of a mass destruction of jobs by technology and global trends. While these have helped to overcome collective inertia and spur change, a steady drumbeat of grim predictions can dishearten workers. Central to the aspirations of workers of all ages is the question of the jobs that will be still available to them in the future.
There is no one answer to that question. Jobs which offer decent wages and good prospects will vary with the "characteristics of the country, including its phase of development, endowments, and institutions", as the World Bank noted in its 2013 world development report on jobs. Singapore has in its sights "an advanced economy and inclusive society with a future-ready workforce", in the official idiom. To generate good jobs, it has mapped seven strategies to forge towards the future. These are sound pathways, but some commentators believe that more details should be provided progressively. It's not enough to just flag disruptions that are likely to emerge in different fields. It's also necessary to guide workers by identifying the jobs that will persevere and sprout in the years ahead. Singapore Management University chairman Ho Kwon Ping observed that "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".
To stop there, would be a cop-out, he said. Still, no one wants to act as a Pied Piper of jobs. The diversity of possible work is cited as a reason. And nudges might lead to oversupply in some areas and shortages elsewhere.
But workers need to know how to stake out jobs of the future. How can they be helped to set directions for themselves and make bets on certain types of work? Telling them to be flexible and to keep on learning isn't enough. To focus on upgrading, they need to have a game plan of sorts.
Some workers will have the ability to stick to a craft and innovate. Others might marry two disciplines. Many will go for sure bets, like healthcare and digital technologies. Those good at services will develop those that will always be in demand - indeed, like helping lifetime learners to constantly acquire useful skills. The technical- minded might look at additive manufacturing and advanced robotics. Some will see that it's not always a competition between man and robot. Rather, it's about human-machine collaboration on complex tasks, exemplified by airline pilots and auto-pilot systems.
Jobs will be lost, but many with scope to evolve will last and a host of new opportunities lie in wait to be seized. To impart that sense of optimism to workers, one must be less abstract about the steps they need to take. Also, institutions must herald change by recognising and rewarding "future- ready skills" in their present-day operations.