The future of work: Working 9 to 5 may not work anymore

Panelists discuss the future of manpower in The Straits Times' Roundtable series on The Future Economy. Topics raised include Singapore's ageing workforce, the shift towards a freelance economy and the changing nature of office spaces.
At the roundtable discussion earlier this month were (from left) Senior Manpower Correspondent Toh Yong Chuan; EY partner and Asean People Advisory Leader Dilys Boey; Workforce Development Agency CEO Ng Cher Pong; LinkedIn managing director and vice-
At the roundtable discussion earlier this month were (from left) Senior Manpower Correspondent Toh Yong Chuan; EY partner and Asean People Advisory Leader Dilys Boey; Workforce Development Agency CEO Ng Cher Pong; LinkedIn managing director and vice-president of Asia-Pacific and Japan Olivier Legrand; and English/Malay/Tamil Media Group managing editor Ignatius Low.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
The Dyson advanced motor manufacturing facility in West Park Tuas. One panellist said people often think of technology as destroying jobs, but it is also creating jobs and opportunities.
The Dyson advanced motor manufacturing facility in West Park Tuas. One panellist said people often think of technology as destroying jobs, but it is also creating jobs and opportunities.PHOTO: DYSON

With an older workforce, the way we approach work will have to change but technology and the move towards freelancing will provide new opportunities.

Q By 2030, one in five Singaporeans will be aged 65 and above. How do we deal with a workforce like that?

NG CHER PONG Given the context of a very tight labour market, barring external shocks, companies will need to think very hard about how to tap the strengths of older workers. These workers clearly bring vast experience and serve as good role models to help mentor and guide young workers. But employers need to recognise there are practices and constraints that make it harder for older workers to give their best.

TOH YONG CHUAN I am an optimist. I think employers are generally willing to adapt to that change in the labour force rather than fight it - but the details, they probably have to work out. For example, they cannot take long working hours, so that means something requiring two shifts now may require three shifts. But government policy has a big role - we all know that employers react to incentives.

Q Do you think it will require legislation?

DILYS BOEY Legislation sets the tone for companies and provides the right support, whether in the form of funds or grants, but ultimately, organisations need to understand there will be an increasing shortage of skills and we need to approach it more holistically. How do you start planning for which are the critical jobs that will fall off with retirement, and how do you then leverage the existing workforce to fill those gaps? But also, there are still mindsets that need to be changed, with respect to the ability and capacity of some of the older workforce.

Views of the experts


I envisage a future where our work is not so structured. Today, everyone wakes up at the same time, rushes on the MRT and walks in the same direction at the same pace. That will slow down, where the notion of when you start work is perhaps not fixed. You may have worked through the night because that's the nature of that global team you're working with. You decide as a team where would be the best location (to meet), whether virtually, outside the office or within a formal office environment. So there is a lot of thinking through what makes sense for us to get the output out, as opposed to let's go to work and then think about work. I think that would change the nature of that physical environment of work and how, when and where people work.


Q Technology will be a key factor. The current batch of workers in their 40s and 50s are a lot more tech-savvy than those above 65 who are struggling to get to grips with smartphones.


Might as well be prepared rather than be reactive. Be prepared, meaning keep your options open and be prepared to do things you're not familiar with, or even not trained to do. For workers, it comes down to a few basic things. Are there jobs? How much are they paid? If there are jobs but they don't pay well, what's the point? 


OLIVIER LEGRAND I agree. We often think of technology as destroying jobs, but it is also creating jobs and opportunities. There is research showing that by 2020, 40 per cent of workers in the United States will be freelancers, part-timers or contractors. This can create a lot of opportunities for older workers who have skills and can use technology. For example, on LinkedIn, we have this idea of creating a professional identity online, being discoverable and spending time describing your experience - not just saying, "I was the marketing director of Company A and B in healthcare", but exactly what it is I have been doing over the course of my career that I can reproduce in other companies.


There will be a lot less structure. People don't actually need to work from nine to five. They can choose the hours. Which means that flexibility in the labour force policies becomes even more critical. And that's something for employers to think hard about - how do you manage that sort of workforce, because it is challenging. I'm optimistic because I look at how we've changed in the past 50 years, at how we've adapted as a country and gone through significant changes. I'm therefore comfortable and confident that the Singapore workforce will embrace the change.


Q The move towards freelancing and contract workers will obviously solve some of the problems older workers face. They can work from home and for shorter stints.

NG I think it will spread to more sectors and there are some fundamental implications. Freelancers are focused on assignments and don't build a portfolio of skills to prepare for the longer term. We are concerned because, first, it's a lot harder to reach out to freelancers because they are all in disparate places. Second, the freelancer who goes for training bears his own opportunity cost.


No doubt, technology is going to continue to change the way we work. That being said, the company I see having the greatest success is that with a great sense of culture and purpose. I'm French and I live and work in Singapore, so I guess I am optimistic. I seriously believe that Singapore has a set of assets - unique assets - in how the economy is planned, how the Government is looking at the future and thinking about productivity and the size of the infrastructure. I do feel that the cards that have been distributed put Singapore in a great place.


LEGRAND There is a big difference between being a freelancer because you want to be a freelancer, and being a freelancer because this is the only job you can find. Being able to help people to acquire those skills that are going to be in high demand is going to put them in control of their future.

BOEY As companies start looking for deeper skills, they find they may not always get these from their full-time cohort. Organisations have to rethink the fundamentals around their employment contracts because right now, they are very much bound by space and time. I hire you for a specific period of time, you come to work at a particular place and this is your role and typically, you do whatever we tell you to do. Whereas the freelancer comes with something very specialised and targeted. They are focused only on their output and deliverable, and I think organisations will see the value of that increasingly.

Q Given Singapore's economic history of always having to run ahead of everyone, so if you are a Singapore worker, you have to deal not just with the fact that you are ageing, but there is also an accelerated move towards automation and this is a national strategy to remain competitive.

LEGRAND Yet, you are doing this in an environment with good infrastructure and access to the Internet, higher social mobility, and access to education. The scale and proactiveness of the Government play a big role, and for me, all of the above make a huge difference in empowering people here.

BOEY You are right. We've got the players committed to it - whether it is the Government, educational institutes or the organisations. There is a lot of ability to leverage the thinking, whether it is driverless cars or translation tools, and then very quickly bring those technologies into our business context. So it is in the application of these technologies that, perhaps, we have an advantage of being able to scale up. And maybe for the small and medium-sized enterprises, with a bit of a push, they can learn from one another and leapfrog very quickly.


  • TOH YONG CHUAN, Senior Manpower Correspondent at The Straits Times

    DILYS BOEY, partner and Asean People Advisory Leader at EY

    NG CHER PONG, chief executive of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency

    OLIVIER LEGRAND, managing director and vice-president, Asia-Pacific and Japan, at LinkedIn


    IGNATIUS LOW, managing editor of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/ Tamil Media Group

Q I was watching the American sitcom Silicon Valley, and there is an episode where Richard Hendricks needs a bunch of coders immediately. And you can't assemble a team that quickly, even in Silicon Valley. So he puts out a call and gets coders from all over the world. To me, this is the vision of the future: The Singapore worker is not only a freelancer and works from home, but is also part of this global workforce.

BOEY This must be enabled by soft skills, like communication. Working in a virtual environment, being able to hold the meeting off a teleconference or a conference call - it is a different kind of skill. There needs to be a fundamental rethink around how we approach work. Normally, nine-to-five, we are in the office; now, time is no boundary - we need to be able to embrace that.

TOH But the problem about the Singapore economy is that we have two tiers. We have people doing high-end jobs but, on the other hand, we have very mundane work being done by low-cost foreign workers. We cannot have an idealised version of everybody in the workforce being part of this globally competitive economy, right? Because the majority of the economic activity in Singapore is still primarily domestic services.

NG But that line is being shifted because of industry transformation. Retail used to be a domestic sector, but now with e-commerce, that is no longer the case. If you want to be competitive, you need to be selling around the region, you need to be selling in China. And that would mean Singaporeans having to have the skills and the understanding of the markets to be able to do that.

Q One of the issues we have been dealing with in Singapore, and is currently debated all over the world, is the idea of immigration and free flow of manpower. How do you think this will change in 2030?

NG I think it will change in tandem with the growth in the local labour force. The clear policy intent is to maintain a certain mix of local and foreign workers. The local workforce growth will slow, so that means there must be a corresponding slowdown in foreign workforce growth. The question then is: If you are only bringing in this number of foreigners, what is the right mix? It will have to depend on how the economy is restructuring, what are the jobs available.

Increasingly with big data, we would have the ability to see where jobs are being created in a specific area and whether there are many foreigners being brought in. The policy question is that if these are good jobs, are we able to help equip Singaporeans to do those jobs? These are the sorts of changes that, with technology, can happen.

Will it be man versus machine?


In Singapore we have been trying to raise productivity levels and we now have a big opportunity with automation, robots and artificial intelligence. A Boston Consulting Group study posits that by 2025, a quarter of jobs will be replaced by smart software or robots. An Oxford University study says 35 per cent of jobs in Britain will go the same way. We have robots writing poetry now. How will automation change jobs and manpower in 2030?


Life beyond data entry...


In 2030, workers in Singapore want to be in a position where their skills are in demand. The Government has rolled out the SkillsFuture programme to ensure the workforce stays relevant even as it ages and business cycles get shorter. But amid the thousands of courses, how does one correctly pick the skills that will be marketable when one gets older?


The future need not be scary for workers


What will it be like to wake up and go to work in 2030?

Will we need to leave the house and step into an actual office?

Are we employed by one company or contracted to a series of them? Can we even assume that all our colleagues are human - or could some of them be robots and invisible algorithms housed within computers?



Go to for the full discussion

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'The future of work Working 9 to 5 may not work any more'. Print Edition | Subscribe