Work on coping with less labour

THE "demography is destiny" argument might assert itself when discomfiting aspects emerge of stark changes ahead. Take the shrinkage by up to 80 per cent of locals entering the labour force by 2020, flagged this week by Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin. This was evident in the 2013 Population White Paper, but had got buried amid the furore over the population projection for 2030. The statistic startles now when one sees that many services will be transformed as fewer citizens come of work age for every senior retiring - dropping from two now to 0.7 by 2030 (with no change in birth rates and no immigration).

When time is on one's side, the impact of demographic changes can be mitigated. But what's insidious is that in some cases from here on, a mere decade or so can make a big difference, especially to the economy. The current contraction of the labour pool in Germany, Poland, Russia and Japan will accelerate from 2020 to 2030, according to a Boston Consulting Group study. "Europe will be severely affected," it noted. "And for the first time, South Korea and China will experience a decline."

Singapore, with its tight labour market and already high labour force participation rates, as the latest data published yesterday makes clear, will have to keep up its efforts to make the most of precious human resources, aided by technology in some instances. For example, upskilling of staff and reverse mentoring (where the young are the ones serving as guides) are essential strategies to cultivate key proficiencies required by businesses in a tight labour market. Multigenerational teams should be the norm as outdated concepts of retirement are shed. And alternative working arrangements - that include teleworking, flexible hours and job sharing - can help to retain existing workers and draw others into the workforce.

As the churn of technologies, markets and business models prompts frequent job switching, more might find themselves operating as independent contractors. This calls for a review of the institution of the job itself. It has for generations stood for financial security, economic mobility, social status and a range of benefits - in particular, health-care coverage. But what is there for those who have to move from one job to another opportunistically?

One idea from Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysts is the setting up of "21st century workers' guilds" to meet the human needs of such workers. These guilds could provide some security, offer placement and training programmes, connect members with one another and help shape their group identity. Should these take off, the National Trades Union Congress, which advocates more protection for freelancers, ought to lend a hand.