Here’s why work cannot be an endless “up” escalator

Growing up in ’80s Singapore, the frenzy of “upgrading” was rife in society. The country was rapidly modernizing and industrializing. First-generation white-collar families, including the parents of my classmates and I, were rapidly upwardly mobile. Through 10 years of primary and secondary school, many of my friends’ families were able to move from 3-room to 5-room HDB flats and then into private housing. Many people with degrees would almost surely end up rising to a managerial or executive position by middle age.

Fast-forward 30 years, and our lives have improved even farther. Now we have the internet and AI, bringing a whole host of possibilities beyond our wildest dreams. A growing share of our population have degrees or diplomas that bring access to skilled and professional jobs, and middle-class lifestyles. Our generation has more chances to travel, and more international exposure, than our parents’.

What it really means when a career is a “jungle gym”, not “an escalator”

However, with career progress comes career stagnation. Retirement age is getting higher; meaning that people have more than 4 decades of working life. Let’s take a fresh Seattle-area Bachelor’s graduate; chances are, their starting pay will be around US$50,000 per annum. That is more than 4 times what their parents earned in the mid-1980s, even though it doesn’t feel like much today. On average, a cost-of-living merit increment is 3%, so if this grad works continuously from age 22 to age 67 with a 3% rise in their pay every year, they will earn US$189,080 per annum the year before they retire. Over the course of this 46-year career, they would have earned US$4.825 million worth of salary.

Yet, both of these numbers are inconceivable, to some extent. US$190,000 is a rarefied figure that only senior executives can get; and it’s hardly possible that everyone can or will be a top executive. Furthermore, making every college graduate a multi-millionaire in their lifetime is equally unsustainable. So, what does this mean for us? Simply put, stagnation, pauses and sideways moves will happen at some point or other as our working lifespans get longer.

This is why people now say that one must see one’s career as a “jungle gym” rather than “an escalator”. If only it really was that fun though! In practice, it means that you may have many years without a promotion. Or that you’ll need to learn new skills several times over to keep up with your industry. Perhaps you might even find that you need to break into a new industry, going a few rungs down the ladder before you can come back up.

We need entrepreneurs, not elitists

To stay employed and relevant, you need to think of yourself as a “business”. Gone are the days when a degree from a prestigious university means that you are “set for life”. Instead, we need to constantly keep up with industry trends, seek roles and projects that are high-impact, and pick up new skills. We have to constantly market ourselves and keep ourselves relevant to economic and societal changes.

This is a big challenge to those of us who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, with the notion that the ticket to a good life – and a healthy ego – starts with getting into good schools and universities. This is the attitude that some of us are still passing on to our children. But while getting a good start certainly provides a leg up, an equally important part of survival is to keep a sense of resilience and humility, for the many times that one will have to step back and start over again.

To survive, think: life’s a journey, not a destination

That might be a line from a ’90’s rock song (Amazing by Aerosmith) but it’s also a sanity saver in this day and age. I started working life thinking that I would rise the ladder of government service in the footsteps of my illustrious Mum, only to find frustration and failure in my first few years at a prestigious statutory board. Some years later, I managed to get two promotions at another government job. However, that was through sheer hard work and midnight oil. Eventually I burned out in a year of personal and family crises.

After taking a break for further studies, I returned to the workforce three levels below where I’d left, and there were many years when I believed that I might never see another management role again. And being unemployed for nearly a year during the COVID-19 pandemic was a huge test of patience and perseverance. At times, I even wondered if my relevance in a conventional career might be over, barely into my forties.

Age 40 to 60: Bonus time

At this point, I take nothing in my current job for granted. Twenty-one years out from college graduation, almost nothing that I learned in college is relevant any more. I still recall how GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ level math exams used to have Mechanics and Statistics options. Back then, Mechanics was the interesting choice for anyone who was STEM-inclined; statistics was supposed to be easy and boring. However, today the tables are turned – just ask any data scientist! I am pretty much living on bonus time where everything making me useful is self-taught, and the half-life of my knowledge is probably around 2 to 3 years.

It’s humbling, but I can’t complain. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I might never attain the level of status or prestige that my parents had; yet, I have opportunities to work in a knowledge-based economy. My work is intellectually engaging in many different disciplines. Ultimately, I’m still earning enough to be very comfortable.

And for those just starting out, the next generation – don’t lose heart if you hit a period where your wage growth appears to stay still or if you don’t get a promotion every 1-2 years. Take the long view – sometimes, the faster you go up, the sooner you will also top out. At that point, you will still need to look for a next step to take; or a new skill to pick up. Stay alert, keep learning, and be prepared that a lifetime contains many gigs. Because it’s very likely that 20 years from now, the top opportunities are in areas which we have no idea about today. And if that is so, it’s an indication of how we, as society, have created progress.

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