In Singapore, The Dreams Are Getting Bigger

The island's 20-to-30-year-olds expect pay, goodies, and promotions their parents never aspired to

Arnold Yu has changed jobs three times in three years, and he is already thinking about his next move. Trained as an engineer, the 28-year-old Singaporean earns $60,000 a year organizing technical training seminars. But he is already considering several job offers that promise even greater salaries. "There's only a limited amount of time for anyone to move around and up," he says. "You just have to get the best deal you can as fast as you can."

Yu typifies the new generation of Singaporeans, with high expectations for success. Better-educated, more widely traveled, and pickier about jobs than their parents, these 20-to-30-year-olds want both high pay and personal fulfillment. At the same time, they are unhappy with Singapore's business hierarchy, and their impatience is rippling through the nation. Says Phoebe Koh, a 26-year-old researcher: "The older generation was into survival. We are into self-actualization."

As a result, business and political leaders are having to adapt. Corporations are reexamining their management practices in order to retain staff. Singapore's strict government, meanwhile, is allowing more creativity and independent thinking. Singapore's leaders can't afford to dismiss the ambitions of this group, numbering nearly half a million. Their skills are transplantable across Asia, and keeping them happy is crucial if Singapore is to hold its competitive edge in the region.

PAMPERED CHILDREN. The generation gap has many causes. This is Singapore's first cohort to grow up without war or poverty, and its members have known independence from Britain all their lives. Most grew up in small families with healthy disposable incomes, where they were pampered by maids. Many have traveled extensively and studied in the U.S. or Britain, where they learned to think more critically. While their parents strived their whole lives for promotions, this generation expects to become managers before 30. Their parents made textiles and plastics; this generation turns out software programs and wafer chips.

According to job recruiters, many young workers expect annual salary increases in double-digit percentages, promotions within two years, and management appointments within five. Young people speak of the "Singapore Dream"--of owning private property and a car, both rare in this tiny island. A survey by Singapore Press Holdings' research arm found that 60% of young people aspire to own a private condominium or house, as opposed to living in the government-built high-rise apartments where they grew up.

Because of their high expectations, many young people are willing to job-hop to get ahead. Companies that cannot deliver are finding they must pay the cost of high worker turnover, and some executives are saying that this is hindering their expansion plans. Hard-hit industries such as retail, hospitality, and electronics have turnover rates among young employees as high as 60% annually. "I'm young, and I want to pay my dues," says Ho Shing Ying, 25, a marketer at a government-related company. "At the same time, I need to know how far I can go."

Behind some of the grab-it-now attitude is a nagging fear that making it could become more elusive. Living costs are soaring--especially housing and car prices. By one estimate, real estate prices have jumped some 40% in the past three years, while cars cost three or four times as much as they do in other Asian countries, because of tariffs aimed at controlling the island's traffic. And while the job market is tight now, many worry that Singapore's high costs will ultimately drive some business abroad.

To stay ahead, more young people are pushing to the frontiers of the economy. Many are in the vanguard of the island's emerging industries, including telecommunications, entertainment, filmmaking, and design engineering. Fed up with company bureaucracies, a growing number are setting up their own companies. Sheila Adefuin, 25, started her own multimedia production house after six months at a rigidly run software company convinced her she could not move up.

Other young Singaporeans are breaking with the business and professional world altogether, giving up jobs as lawyers, doctors, and other professionals to pursue theater, art, and travel. That breakaway mentality could spill over into the tightly controlled political domain. In Internet chat sessions, young Singaporeans are asking questions about politics, free speech, and class privileges. About 150,000 people, most of them youths, are online in Singapore. One recent chat group raised the question: "Is Singapore isolated from the global community because it has a controlled press?"

The Establishment has started to respond. In the past few months, the government has begun handing out youth benefits, including $16 million in grants for community projects, citations for enterprising youths, and congratulatory speeches to university students. In a rare television special, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew agreed to hold a panel discussion with a group of young Singaporeans, who asked a range of pointed questions about the country's policies. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong also announced new measures for schools to encourage greater creativity and innovative thinking.

FREE BLUE JEANS. The government has also taken steps to improve living standards. It has introduced a measure to make luxury condominiums more affordable for young couples. It has also proposed a car-sharing plan, enabling groups of friends to buy and share a car. Still, the government hopes to moderate the expectations of younger Singaporeans rather than accommodate them. While the elder Lee has encouraged young Singaporeans to find business opportunities overseas, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has asked the young to lower their aspirations and remember the country's impoverished past.

Companies are also adapting. Faced with labor shortages, employers eager to court this generation of workers have implemented practices to appeal to their independence and ambition. The Inter-Continental Hotel, for example, has a fast-track program aimed at identifying potential managers among workers under age 25. Business Trends, a job-recruitment agency, last year started offering watches and blue jeans as incentives to its staff, in addition to providing motivational training. Youth-oriented MTV Asia has also had to fast-forward its promotion schedules. In Singapore, where the nascent TV industry suffers a shortage of trained workers, MTV's most talented producers can earn promotions in as little as 15 months, in contrast to the three years typical at its other international offices.

Singapore's Establishment is counting on such benefits to win back the loyalty of this fickle generation. As Singapore faces greater competition from its Asian neighbors, it can't afford to do otherwise.

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