All images by Thaddeus J Loh for RICE Media, unless stated otherwise.
As a glass-half-empty sort of person, I found the past two years have been kind of [redacted], to say the least. In 2021 alone, I saw no less than 10 friends call it quits with their bosses, while most others graduated right into the thick of the mess called a job market. It’s not surprising that many of them are just grappling with unemployment now.
It’s a lot like that ‘This is Fine’ meme. When you’re seated in a burning house with seemingly no way of escape (read as: an abysmal job in an abysmal economy), there doesn’t seem to be much point in trying to put out the flames. Why bother improving workplaces when you feel terribly defeated by everything the pandemic has already thrown at you? Maybe our parents were right when they said we should feel grateful we even have a job, even if we’re barely scraping by.
Of course, there are always those outliers out there who’re like roly-poly toys — always bouncing back up on their feet despite the adversity. And these mad lads, the lot of them, are actually trying to make a difference. Having seen and been inspired by companies such as Candlenut implementing progressive work changes, these youths are striving to put in place the improvements they hope could be the future of the workplace.
The Youths Who Actually Care
One might say the pandemic has brought to light some of the worst in workplaces, but every cloud has its silver lining — Wendy Tan certainly thinks so.
It’s a little hard to summarise who Wendy is in a sentence. 33 years young, she’s the head of Youth Development at NTUC (also known as Young NTUC) and developed the first Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) certified training on mental well-being at the workplaces (more on that later).
Wendy’s also an alumnus of the National Youth Council’s SG Youth Action Plan (SG YAP) panel that crafted Vision 2025 in 2019, a five-year road map dedicated to providing opportunities for youths to take action in issues they care about through ground-up initiatives or recommending changes to policies in support of youth needs and aspirations. All that, on top of being a mentor and consultant for the past two Youth Action Challenges (YAC).
In other words, she spends almost all her waking hours aiding and guiding groups of youths through their struggles to realise their ambitions.
“If there are any positive outcomes to Covid-19,” she says with heavy quotation marks over the word ‘positive’, “it’s that more companies are finally digitally transforming, are finally becoming more mobile, and are finally putting mental well-being in the spotlight.”
Her current batch of mentees under YAC Season 3 joined the initiative under the jobs and mentoring theme. They looked at the current semi-improved work environment and said nah, that’s not enough. The workplace in 2022 could still be more inclusive, more fair — values the SG YAP embodied — by offering equal employment opportunities and fair career progression.
Prior to taking on Youth Development at NTUC, Wendy, too, subscribed to the idea that today’s youths cared about themselves more than the collective good. All that subsequently changed once she got to engage with many of them through different platforms.
“Many youths, including my Young NTUC leaders make me ponder why we do certain things, or why we aren’t doing certain things.”
“When I attend YAC sessions and listen to the different groups speak, I’m hit with the realisation that hey, they really love their country. They feel for the others around them, which is why they want to step up and make the future a better place. I’m one of the consultants under the Jobs and Mentoring theme, and many of the projects centre around making the workplace a more inclusive and fair environment.”
It’s the sheer optimism and creativity, coupled with their insightful perspectives on seemingly beaten topics like job security and sustainability, that keeps Wendy coming back as a YAC mentor despite her busy schedule. Her time on the SG YAP panel was meaningful as she also got to know the other panellists, many of whom are young leaders in their areas.
The relationship between Wendy and her groups of mentees, both past and present, is symbiotic. Her work in the Labour Movement helped her realise that while different problems within workplaces tend to get treated separately, the solution transcends boundaries. When searching for a solution, not only do the YAC participants offer fresh ideas to her work, but sometimes even grow to take on the responsibility themselves.
She fondly recalls her team from the first season of the challenge: A group of youths who wanted to bridge the gap and allow youths to be better informed on exciting work prospects in ASEAN. Now these youths, or the ASEAN Business Youth Association (ABYA) as they’re called, have grown to become one of the leading youth organisations that seek to nurture future ASEAN business leaders.
Just last year alone, with support from NYC’s Asia-Ready Exposure Programme and other partners, ABYA organised multiple industry sharing sessions, workshops, masterclasses and mentorship sessions, helping 3,000 youths to take steps to realise their dreams of working in the region.
Youths in general, Wendy observed, will step up to make a change if they find meaning behind it — what they really need is to be heard and supported. Through the YAC platform which can provide support and resources, Wendy hopes she and her fellow mentors can be that push they require to achieve their goal of a fairer and inclusive workplace.
Less Talk, More Action
At work, Wendy and her team in Young NTUC often engage and cross paths with young working adults. One of the top concerns raised by them in recent years was the lack of mental well-being support and resources in the workplace.
The aforementioned WSQ course, for one, is a step towards creating workplace cultures that destigmatize mental health issues. It offers training in peer-to-peer mental well-being support at work by equipping individuals with peer support and psychological first aid skills and can be customised to focus on sector-specific or company-specific issues.
Think of the course as the bridging step to creating a more thoughtful environment at workplaces where colleagues are free to disclose their concerns to one another safely. Not so much so that everyone becomes an agony aunt, but more so in a way where colleagues can provide immediate help in an effective manner to prevent rumination, or seek additional assistance from more qualified individuals. Eventually, Young NTUC envisions growing a community of like-minded peer supporters in the workforce.
And how then do we support the youths not in the workforce yet — Wendy shared that’s where Young NTUC’s career programmes come in, such as mentorships, career symposiums, job matching and workplace advisory. In the past two years, over 6,000 youths benefitted, and many received the type of advice they’d sorely needed.
At the same time, NYC has set aside $30 million of the National Youth Fund for youths to champion ground-up initiatives according to SG YAP themes such as jobs and the future of work, environment and sustainability, mental well-being and support for vulnerable groups.
There’s still a lot more to be done before the SG YAP wraps up in 2025, but just for 2022, youths are doing plenty.
The Future: Youths
At the risk of sounding cliche, Wendy preempts: “Youths really are the future.”
“They’re highly adaptive and so full of untapped potential,” she gushes. If there’s anything she hopes, it’s that they wouldn’t hold themselves back.
Despite a bleak past two years, youths have proven themselves time and time again that they’re capable of making a difference whether in the workplace or on a grander scale. And while the rest of us were sucking on our thumbs waiting for someone else to make the change, these youths actually stepped forward to take their future into their own hands.
“Your age is not a disadvantage, youths are so much more than they think they are. With enough confidence, it won’t just be 2022’s goals we can achieve, but the whole 2025 vision.”