14 August 2006

Bored With Work?

Today, the ST Youth Ink section has the following topic:
This year's batch of university graduates have just entered the workforce 5/8 and some are having a hard time adjusting to their jobs. They complain that they are not being given important work, or that they have to report every little thing to a boss. Do they expect too much? YouthInk writers have their say.
Nur Amira, an SMU student, wrote this:

Aug 14, 2006
Don't expect work to be a walk in the park

By Nur Amira Abdul Karim

WORK, as the term suggests, involves performing a series of sometimes unfulfilling tasks that may not be completely mindless but may very well involve the drudgery of repetition, struggle and sweat.

If someone happens to enjoy the drudgery of work, then it is a bonus.

But why anyone would expect work to be a walk in the park is beyond me.

Do not get me wrong. I am a strict advocate of being passionate about what you do.

Yet, there is an ugly sense of impatience among some of my peers who want their ambitions fulfilled almost immediately.

Grades and degrees are testimony to your calibre, which is different from your ability to succeed.

How far you go is determined by your approach to work, the extent that you allow your impatience to defeat you, and your ability to reconcile your expectations to the reality of the working world.

Many young working adults cannot manage their expectations. They are frustrated by having to perform menial tasks.

To be fair, the work they do hardly matches the qualifications they hold.

While I understand and sympathise with their frustration, it would be good if young people matched their perceived abilities with a comparable dose of humility.

I found Nur's article somewhat confusing. She seems unclear about the differences between hard, boring, challenging and easy work. Or perhaps the ST sub-editor mangled the article and inadvertently destroyed its flow. Because the article is not making much sense to me.

If you feel underchallenged at work, you probably are. Who could be in a better position to know? No one. (For that matter, you're the best person to know whether you're overchallenged at work). Also, whether a task is menial is relative to the individual's level of competence and ability. If you feel that your work is menial, then it is.

According to Nur, some of her peers have an "ugly sense of impatience" and are "frustrated by having to perform menial tasks". Her advice is that they should match their perceived ability with a "comparable dose of humility". Strangely, she also advises them not to expect work to be "a walk in the park". Yet I imagine that her "impatient" peers are precisely the ones who don't want work to be a walk in the park - instead, they want it to be challenging.

My own advice is this. If you're a young capable person stuck in a menial job, go find out what your career path and development prospects are, with your current employer. Where are the opportunities for change? Can you get more challenging assignments? (Sometimes you just have to open your mouth and ask). Is your menial work just a very temporary state of affairs, or will you still doing the same menial work 12 months from now? If so, you'd better quit and work elsewhere.

In my opinion, menial work is one of the most valid reasons for work frustration. Furthermore, it is quite dangerous to stay long in any job which you find menial. That only shows that you aren't learning anything of value (or that you aren't learning as much as you should be). Either way, in the age of the Knowledge Economy, that's a risky situation to be in.

There are a few things which Nur may not understand about the reality of the working world. If you are very obliging about doing menial work, you may simply be dumped with more and more menial work. If you are very patient about your career prospects, you may be perceived as lacking in drive and ambition (therefore you won't be given bigger responsibilities or a higher position). And if you keep on doing menial work for a long time, you endanger your own c.v and therefore your future career prospects.

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hugewhaleshark said...

Nur is obviously unclear about what she is advocating - passion about work or acceptance of menial drudgery.

The question that I find myself asking is this - do young adults these days have what it takes to do "important work" and not to have to "report every little thing to the boss"?

Do they have the initiative and resourcefulness, the ability to learn independently, the willingness to work a double shift? Are they willing to take the career risk of a high-reward boom-bust industry like investment banking?

I think no one should do a menial job if they don't want to. But how many are willing to do what it takes to get out? And how many expect to be handed their dream job on a platter?

Anonymous said...

A lot of these people has only themselves to blame. They enrolled in university majoring in something they have little or no interest in. After graduation, they are stuck in a job doing what they hate. So they show little enthusiasm, complaining about their jobs all day long. They know what they don't like, yet if you probed them further, they are absolutely clueless about what they want to do with their life. They are frustrated yet does not want to admit the source of their frustrations is very often of their own doing.

Anonymous said...

come on, be realistic. when your grades aren't good enough for that coveted dream place in ____ faculty, you just go for whatever that gets you a degree. mommy and daddy aren't well-to-do, so can't send you overseas okay?

hugewhaleshark said...

Anon, many of the most successful people who I know in investment banking have NUS degrees from the less popular faculties. I think it is actually the minority who have degrees from brand-name unis.

D U said...

Perhaps it is yet another symptom of a defective policy - the perceived superiority of a JC education, rather than to recognise the merits of the different routes we have as well as the different needs of the students to which these routes cater for.

As a result, we get parents who insist their child goes through the JC system despite their reluctance, because it's the "shortest path to university". I know from first-hand experience (not a very good example, I know) that students may just underachieve when placed in an environment to which they don't feel suited to them. And consequently, they don't fare well in the exams and land in a degree programme they weren't interested in to begin with.

Of course, it is also equally likely that circumstances like a lack of financial resources combined with a lack of good grades prevent them from entering the course that they desire, but I cannot help but wonder why they would be so desperate to get a degree.

Again, this is an opinion, and I am somewhat biased against our education policies and what they insinuate, but I would surmise that the most likely reason may be that of a perceived better career opportunities when one holds at least a degree.

From time to time, we may hear of diploma holders or the like strike out on their own and become their own bosses, but risk is involved in such ventures and I think they'll be more likely to be seen as the exception rather than the rule (and , I suppose, quite rightly so).

So, for practical reasons, one then calculates the risks and decides a degree would be good. This year's NDP showcased primary school kids and their aspirations to be a writer, an artist etc, but we can all dream. Realising them is another matter altogether, and for most folks, it just happens to be steeper.

Mr Wang Says So said...

I don't see it as an education thing, primarily - because whatever your educational qualifications may be, you may still end up in a job doing things which, to you, are menial (and this does not happen only in your first job). It's all relative to yourself, you see. You may for instance be a cardiac surgeon and grow to find routine bypass heart surgery rather menial.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that in the past, only 5-10% of each cohort goes to university, and they end up in more challenging jobs. Nowadays, with 30-40% of each cohort going to university (and another 20-30% going to poly), plus the fact that the old foggies aren't retiring early enough, there's simply not enough challenging jobs to go around.

Anonymous said...

You forget another important aspect of Singapore.

Our job market is fully wide open any Tom,Dick,or Harry.

Theoretical,6 billio people are welcome to be employed in Singapore,the best open country in the world,jobs wise that is.

I challenge anyone who can find another country on this earth that can challenge Singapore to this most liberal policy,the answer is NONE.

FT policy is a great idea,that is what makes Uncle Sam the no.1 country in the world,but FTs only remitted about USD 28 billion from USA with a population of about 350 million,in Singaporre,remittance sent back thro' the local remittance houses last year was S$13.1 billion(ate:7/08/2006,140th)you figure it out yourself.

Shafted said...

From my understanding, over 20% gets a place at one of the local universities while over 60% are awarded diplomas.

The educational system is not flawed; it is not creating apolitical, non-motivated, pampered brats with non-realistic expectations.

The educational system is, however, a convenient red herring at this time of the year for the past donkey years that I can remember.

When not enough decent jobs have been created to go around, sycophantic journalists get carried away with sterotypes to manage expectations rather than deal with reality.

And to Anon at 8:52:28AM, Dubai.

mrbigfattummy said...

Shafted said:
"The educational system is not flawed; it is not creating apolitical, non-motivated, pampered brats with non-realistic expectations."

Well, I would be interested in seeing what arguments you have to support the above statement. What exactly is the education system to you? The formal schooling system? Does it include the tertiary institutes? It is not flawed? In what sense? It is not flawed in teaching kids to think for themselves? Or that it is not flawed in churning out students who have basic proficiency in scientific facts and mathematics?

Anonymous said...

My penny worht of opinion.

It is a matter of matching your aspirations and the reality of working life.

For example, undergrads were taught Merger and Acquisition during their, with some fully expecting to come out and start buying up companies. So it may take a while before reality sinks in.

It is in the mindset also. Menial tasks can be also challenging. Why not find ways to automate / improve on the work? This will help to add value to both yourself and the co.

shafted said...

mrbigfattummy said...
"Well, I would be interested in seeing what arguments you have to support the above statement."

I meant the formal system, but including tertiary education if you like. Very simply, successful locals who graduated from the local system demonstrates the effectiveness of the local system. Bankers, analysts, lawyers, scientists, singers, musicians, etc. There are many talented and driven individuals who went through the system and did well.

But for many, the problem is the lack of a market for their skills and aspirations. For eg, instead of figuring out why scores of students leave each year to pursue medical studies and end up practicing abroad, while locals pay exorbitant fees to imported medical doctors, our expectations are managed to accept that only the select few (locals) are good enough to enroll and ultimately practice.

Multiply and expend, and that's the same situation we have for lawyers, for architects, and even more for engineers and programmers.

Are expectations too high, or the market not catching up?

Anonymous said...

I don't think this article is particularly badly written.

Perhaps you could relate this issue to a recent article I read about some of the richest people in Singapore. They started out with unglamorous, seemingly menial jobs and are magnates today. Truth of the matter is, we associate jobs today with snazzy business suits, power lunches and a good lifestyle. Young people are not singlemindedly focused on making money per se, rather they're in it for the intangible benefits a job can offer. Perhaps that's why young people feel disillusioned after spending some time in the workforce.

It isn't wrong to say that one should be mentally stimulated and emotionally fulfilled by one's job, but a lot of jobs entail menial, seemingly meaningless steps in the beginning. Only when one learns the basics can one rise to higher levels, and it becomes more exciting the big picture becomes clearer and employees are gradually given more decision making rights. What employer would immediately task new hires with highly unstructured, challenging tasks (as opposed to routine, "boring" tasks)?


Anonymous said...

Haha! Your big, successful people who started out with menial jobs are PRECISELY the kind of people who were IMPATIENT with menial jobs! That is why they are so SUCCESSFUL! Because they are always saying, "This is a stupid job! I want a better job! I want a bigger challenge! How can I move on to something BIGGER!".

Go and read the story of people like Ron Sim! (CEO of OSIM).

It is a good thing if young Singaporean are angry and frustrated that their jobs are menial! But it is a BAD thing that their jobs are menial in the first place. It would be TERRIBLE if their jobs are menial and the Singaporeans felt SATISFIED and CONTENTED with their jobs.

And no, it is NOT true that no employer would "immediately task new hires with highly unstructured, challenging tasks". It is actually a fairly COMMON occurrence in high-performing organisations! New hires, especially hires perceived to have high potential, are thrown straight into the deep end very quickly, and expected to work independently, solve big problems quickly! That is the quickest way to learn.

Looks like we don't have many high-performing organisations in Singapore!

John Riemann Soong said...

Both issues - of not being realistic, versus aiming for a non-menial job, are both pertinent. The problem is the author conflates them.

At the same time individuals are prohibited to form unions that will collectively get them benefits (as a counterweight against corporate power).

mrbigfattummy said...

in reply to shafted:

well, I agree that the education system might not be producing papmered brats with non-realistic expectations.

There will always be people who go through any system and come out successful.

I feel a problem with the education system is it overly encourages conformity and discourages critical thinking, however much MOE might have seemed to be moving towards 'holistic education' in the past few years.

This is one place I feel the education system is flawed in. Whether this is a result of the system or the people in the system is another question.

A problem this causes is that students who go through the formal system end up not having thought about their path in life (or are unable or unwilling to start thinking), and just follow the herd. So you get engineers, doctors and scientists who have got no interest in what they are doing.

As for the lack of a market for their skills and aspirations, could it be that the market in sg is not big enough to support that many docs, lawyers etc? That to pursue their aspirations will require people to move overseas?

Motivation is linked to how much interest and passion one has for the field of work. Money of course is another motivating factor. However I feel that for many young people now, interest and job satisfaction are the more important factors.

If the system does encourage people to follow the herd and go into a field they have no interest in, that might be part of the reason why young people seem to be more bored with work now.

And undergrads in a field of study they have absolutely no interest in are a very common phemomenon indeed.

Whispers from the heart said...

Just to divert a little. A Hongkong businessman told me, a long time ago, that it was never meaningful to work for others.

Be your own boss and then, even sweeping the floor of your office becomes meaningful, if you don't feel like employing someone else to do the job.


shafted said...

mrbigfattummy said...
"There will always be people who go through any system and come out successful."

If you're a believer of the Bell curve, then the question could be where the mean of the curve is (assuming we can even measure the quality of the output by the system). I'm suggesting that the mean was comfortably placed such that most local graduates were doing well.

It is only in recent years, post-97 especially, that the heat turned up, job satisfaction sunk and expectations are being managed to blame the educational system and unrealistic expectations.

My point is, as you've noticed, the issue might not be about the system, or the quality of its output, but the market/demand for its output!

Demotivation, perceived unimportance of work, high expectations relative to jobs availability, etc. are the symptoms and not root causes.

Thailand (4.5%, $8.3k, 1.8%, 32)
S.Korea (3.9%, $20.4k, 3.6%*, 102)
Taiwan (3.8%, $26.4k, 3.8%, 84)
Singapore (6.4%, $$28.1K, 3.8%, 131)
(GDP Growth, per capital, unemployment, happiness index)

From these figures, the first impression could well be that Singaporeans are indeed a greedy, ungrateful lot. Afterall, we have the highest growth rates and income, comparable unemployment yet are the most unhappy.

But is the income figure correct? A quick look at the recent income survey from MOM reveals that actual weighed per capital income is roughly $22.3k.

Also, the weighed per capitcal income of us 85% (humor me that you're part of us masses) is a measly $17.1k. No wonder our happiness index is low. Not only are we overworked and underpaid, we're all green-eyed monsters!

The masses are restless as the local job market has stagnented since 97. New job-seekers are naturally crowded out and feeling disenfranchised. Instead of address the real issue of a shrinking and increasingly stinking market, all I see is spin and expectations management whereby the job-seeker is faulted.

Anonymous said...

No one says you should be stuck at a dead end job for years without any asking questions. The problem is when people enter jobs and straightaway expect everything to be handed only "important" tasks, and shun the so-called menial tasks. There's a difference between being patient, and being a non-achiever.


Mr Wang Says So said...

As I've said earlier, my own view is that whether a task is menial or not is subjective, and the individual is the best, perhaps the only, judge, for that.

Wiping tables at a hawker centre could be a challenging task for an individual with subnormal IQ.

Running a statutory board could be a menial task for Goh Chok Tong.

When an employee feels that he's doing menial work, and unhappy about it, it probably IS the case that he's being underutilised. It is not the boss, but the employee, who is the best judge of whether a task is too menial for him.

Which means that it would be good for him AND the company, if he is given alternative tasks.

Mugster, I would recommend to you books like "Focal Point" and other books by Brian Tracy. His recommendation for career success is not only to focus on your most value-added work, but to actively amd constantly get rid of your lowest value-added work -

by outsourcing it; delegating it; creating a process to eliminate the existence of such work; or simply refusing to do it.

It sounds drastic, yes? But this is how Brian Tracy, a high school dropout whose early career was as a farmhand, a dishwasher and an odd-job laborer, moved on to become the Chief Operating Officer of a US$265 million dollar company.

I personally think that the constant thirst for more important work is a very good thing. My threshold for boring, menial tasks is very low, and I would try very hard to avoid them even if the ocmpany paid me a lot. See this little anecdote from my job history.

I recognise, of course, that not everyone feels this way. Some people would be prepared to suffer in silence and uncomplainingly do menial tasks for a paycheck - because for them, life really begins after office hours, and office hours are just a temporary daily limbo for them to suffer through, in order to finance their existence in non-working hours. That's another philosophy. Just not one that I subscribe to. I actually expect to do interesting, challenging work at least 90% of the time, and if that is an unreasonable expectation, while I am an unreasonable employee.

Bonnie said...

There is certainly a generation gap between the work force of yesteryears and the present batch of university grads entering the work force nowadays.

Our present generation of university grads have been enjoying the luxuries of a high-tech, usually anti-social world such that they tend to be ignorant or unappreciative of the basics such as the dignity of honest labor regardless of position/work, and the art of getting along with all kinds of people from boss to co-workers.

Anonymous said...

Oh, to enjoy the dignity of honest labor, you can always go and wash the dishes, wipe the windows, mop the floor in your own home.

In the workplace, for your own good, you better try harder to move away from menial work.

Once you've seen a company restructuring exercise happen before your eyes and the "low-value-add" workers eliminated in one fell swoop, you will better appreciate Mr Wang's advice about the importance of constantly pushing ahead and learning and doing more challenging working.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me hor ... I just want to remind everyone that doing high-value work is not incompatible with "dignity" or "honest labour".

The low performers can enjoy the dignity of honest, low-value labour ... I prefer to try to be in the position to enjoy the dignity of honest, HIGH-value labour.

John Riemann Soong said...

Our present generation of university grads have been enjoying the luxuries of a high-tech, usually anti-social world such that they tend to be ignorant or unappreciative of the basics such as the dignity of honest labor regardless of position/work, and the art of getting along with all kinds of people from boss to co-workers.

Oh yes, the timeless "haiz what's with the youth these days" sentiment. While the people "enjoying the luxuries of a high-tech anti-social world" use the "anti-social technology" of blogging in an effort to inform and think, the older generation is voting in the PAP.

Yes, we have a lot to thank our elders for.