Learning To Code Won’t Save Us From An Uncertain Future
We’ve all heard this story before. The world is changing. We are in uNprecedenTed times. Singapore is small and vulnerable (take a shot if someone says “little red dot”), and only has its people. The Digital Revolution is coming for our jobs with all the inevitability of a PAP supermajority. We are urged, as hardworking and pragmatic Singaporeans, to fling ourselves headfirst into a brave new world of Python bootcamps and vending machines that recognise our faces, whilst frantically trying to upskill to avoid being replaced by AI, a sort of faceless shadow monster whose endgame seems to be world domination by hijacking our brains with micro-targeted ads.

It’s certainly true that jobs and skills today are changing. Try explaining to your grandparents what an influencer does, or a food stylist, or a CV ghostwriter. Some sound like the respectable PMET roles we were promised, even if they might underwhelm in substance—a “Brand Ambassador” for a ride-hailing mega-app specialises in gaslighting drivers that they’re working for the wrong ride-hailing mega-app, whilst a “Content Manager” watches an endless stream of TikToks, praying that the reprobates chose to take a break today. Jobs of the future, everyone.

It’s tempting to be a technology optimist in these doom-ridden days, hoping that pharma  companies will bless us with a COVID-19 vaccine, or that Elon Musk will whisk us first-class to Mars once society on Earth finally implodes from climate change.

Will even occupations like hairdressing one day be outsourced to robots?
Tech will not save us

But there are good reasons to believe that reskilling for tech will not save us:

1. It’s well-documented that digitisation has had an astoundingly small impact on productivity growth. (Personally I’m surprised that people find this surprising; every student who has struggled to write an essay knows first-hand that the Internet is directly opposed to productivity.) This is worrying because productivity is tied to wages, and productivity is arguably the economic metric that Singapore has struggled most with, as Jamus Lim has pointed out

2. The digital economy is also linked with deepening inequality, as benefits accrue to management and holders of capital rather than workers—consider the gulf between delivery workers and venture capitalists, both tech-enabled jobs. By hollowing out the middle-class, we dig ourselves deeper into an economic hole as demand falls. 

3. In our “jobs jobs jobs” paradigm, it’s notable that technology is not actually very good at creating them. Google is a trillion-dollar company employing 120,000 workers, which sounds nice until you realise that standard-bearers for the old industrial economy such as General Motors employed six times as many workers at a quarter of the valuation.

As a result, some have concluded rather damningly that a large part of tech-driven economic activity no longer makes a meaningful contribution to human welfare, and has instead devolved into zero-sum competition for an un-expanding pie. I don’t want to drive anyone to conclusions, but let’s all take a minute to remember when you could still take an Uber in Singapore and shed a tear for all that cash burned at the altar of the digital disruption gods.

If not tech, though, then what? What are these magical future skills that will save us from consumption by supercomputers? 

The skills we need have always been here

It’s actually pretty simple: instead of learning to code, we should stop worrying about tech, and start worrying about people. This is true in two senses: on the individual and societal level.

On the individual level, for you careerists looking to make a return on your SkillsFuture credit, research has shown that the one critical edge that humans still possess over robots is: surprise, surprise, the ability to emotionally connect and empathise with other humans, as anyone who has ever broken down while talking to the Jamie chatbot can attest to. 

This is true both in the sense that care industries (health, education) are set to grow, as well as the fact that human-centric skills such as collaboration, communication, and service are the ones increasingly needed in white-collar workplaces (looking at you, Ivan Lim). Ironically, sexy futuristic jobs like programming and data analysis are more susceptible to automation than seemingly fusty ones such as social work, which call heavily on social and emotional intelligence.

This brings me to the second point: how we need to care on a societal level. You may have noted that these human-centric skills are far from new. They are age-old. But they are skills that have been systematically undervalued and gendered, taken on by migrants and the low-income, underpaid, or unpaid.

We spend a lot of time worrying about ‘jobs of the future’, while COVID-19 has revealed with devastating clarity how little we think about the jobs that will always be here because society cannot function without them. These are the jobs labelled ‘low-skilled’, a framing that reveals more about our hierarchical view of the world and the belief that some people must always be above others, than it does about the actual value of certain skills and labour. 

The problem with the promise of “an escalator of better skills and income”  is that the ‘low-skilled’ jobs at the bottom of this escalator will always be there, and they will always be essential. Denying this leads to the kind of absurdity that claims with a straight face that with enough career coaching, positive thinking, and upskilling, a cleaner, too, can go on to eventually become … a dishwasher

As a society, we need to focus more attention on finding ways to remunerate the real, social value of these skills, instead of obsessing over upgrading into ‘high-skilled’ jobs. Those who moan about increased business costs should be reminded of the long-term economic costs that inequality imposes by reducing consumer demand.

But what course do I need to take?

If this matters to you, here’s a suggestion. We learn to care, collaborate, and adapt when we bridge the gap between the individual and society. Skills are not acquired in bite-sized modules divorced from context—JC kids, how much teamwork did you learn from Project Work?—but by engaging with the world around us. 

It’s deeply ironic that the future skills we need most now have for a long time been actively discouraged by society. How does one build resilience in a society that demonises failure, innovate when there are always OB markers, or learn collaboration when we’re constantly told to watch out for people stealing our lunches?

Researchers have argued for a more worker-centric approach to skills development, as opposed to the current top-down, technocratic model that divines the needs of the ‘future economy’ from up on high and sets in motion the whirring of the industry and media machine to nudge workers into fulfilling these. This model reduces us to economic inputs in someone else’s masterplan, and overlooks the deeply contextual ways in which we learn by participating in our environment.

So what’s a poor worker confronted with the future supposed to do? 

Firstly, think about what you, as an individual, bring to the table. Even if technology is the future, it doesn’t have to be yours. Economic needs come and go, but finding and honing your personal strengths, interests, values, and ability to adapt is a surer way to navigate these than constantly chasing after the next hot skillset.

Next, remember that the really timeless skills are those that can’t be taught in a course, but by participating in society. So maybe try being an active citizen. Critically examine the narratives around you. Explore new ways of collaborating and caring. Hone your ability to adapt, and remain open to opportunities by not pigeonholing yourself into any one category or industry. 

And if anyone tries to stop you, tell them it’s for the economy. 

How can Singaporeans better prepare for the uncertain future ahead? Share your thoughts with us at community@ricemedia.co. 

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