The Future of Work (Part 3)

How we can prepare ourselves for a multiple-stage professional life.

Last Saturday, I spent a lovely evening at an alumni event at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). It is always pleasant to return to my alma mater, and see how it has changed. While new structures like the Hive, Crescent Hall and Pioneer Hall catch the eye, the campus still offers an unrestricted view of the stars. But that night, they were outshone by the many enthusiastic students who made the homecoming a warm one for us alumni.

Young and old, future and present – the occasion made me consider once more the HR challenges before us as a nation, such as our ageing workforce. As Lynda Gratton noted in her book The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, it is likely that our children and grandchildren will live to celebrate their 100th birthdays. With lifespans increasing from the current average of 80 years, how can we make our additional 20 years a gift and not a burden?

The answer lies in ensuring that we’re financially, physically and spiritually “healthy.” This requires a paradigm shift in how we view our working lives.

The Multiple-stage Professional Life

Our traditional notion of a three-stage professional life was one where we “front-loaded” our knowledge and skills in the first 20 years of our life, worked for another 40 years and spent our last 20 years in retirement. But this familiar school/work/retirement model is increasingly under strain. For one thing, we can no longer “front-load” with a degree and expect this single qualification to see us through our professional life.

What does that mean? Keeping in mind we do want to make the additional lifespan of 20 years a gift, we'll most likely see ourselves work 50 years to support 50 years of not working. Can we work the way we do for 50 years straight? Maybe, but most likely not. In all likelihood, we'll have to look at a multiple-stage professional life, one where we actively learn, retrain and reinvent ourselves to stay current with technological progress and meet the need for changing skill-sets.

A National Imperative

Let’s look at the implications of a multiple-stage professional life at three levels – national, organisational and individual. As a country, how do we better prepare our workforce to be ready for an uncertain future? Launched in January 2016, the SkillsFuture movement points workers in the right direction by fostering a culture that supports lifelong learning and encouraging us to make well-informed choices in our education, training and career.

The lifelong learning movement is already starting to take root. This week, the media reported that since SkillsFuture was launched, almost $22.5 million in training funds has been used. But more can be done, and it takes two hands to clap. While SkillsFuture offers one avenue for us to up-skill ourselves, we must also actively seek new ways to learn and be future-ready.

Organisational Sea-change

What does a multiple-stage professional life mean for organisations and how they practice Human Resource (HR)? One profound change is already apparent in many workplaces, with four generations of workers collaborating together instead of three.

To tap on the strengths of this increasingly diverse workforce, public agencies will have to ask these questions in developing our strategic workforce plans:

  • How can we better understand the profile of those who are part of our workforce?
  • Regarding workers who’ve taken time off from their careers to keep current and learn skills in demand by the job market – how can we facilitate their return, and help them through the transition?
  • How can we build new partnerships with our stakeholders?
  • As we build up our staff capabilities, how can we consider the welfare and development of temp workers, contractors, sub-contractors, part-timers, consultants and advisers? How do we redraw the line if these workers become crucial to the running of our organisation?

These challenges are already being considered at many different levels by public agencies. Ultimately, our goal must be to develop progressive HR practices and workplaces that can support a diverse workforce and tap on its strengths, to better serve the public – that will be the winning strategy!


Individual Choice, Personal Action

Seeing the enthusiasm of the students at the NTU alumni event, I thought about the choices ahead of them. Many students and young professionals that I’ve met know that lifelong learning is essential in an uncertain world. But in embracing a multiple-stage professional life, I’d also urge them to consider this – if we are to accumulate enough assets (material or otherwise) to bring us through 100 years, we must also learn to pace ourselves.

As we pick up new skills and capabilities, in order to remain relevant to the workforce, we should do so with a deeper understanding of our own aspirations for personal growth and family. In practice, this can mean embarking on a more individualised – and exciting – career path, one with lateral moves and many peaks.

To sum up – think multiple-stage life; think bite-sized learning; think acquiring a more holistic view of the “assets” required to ensure that we have a good quality of life. With determination and hard work, we’ll be ready for the future!


Ms Low Peck Kem is Chief HR Officer, Public Service Division. She is one of the recipients of NTU’s 2016 Nanyang Alumni Achievement Award, for her contributions to the field of HR management.

Don't forget to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of the 'Future of Work' series.

    Oct 17, 2016
    Low Peck Kem
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