From The Straits Times    |

why singaporeans quit high paying jobs for less prestigious work

Image: Fabio Formaggio/123rf

Every kiasu parent’s dream is that their kids will get a high paying job when they graduate. The day their offspring becomes a doctor, lawyer or investment banker is the day many parents congratulate themselves for having done a good job raising their child right.

It must thus be a source of consternation when the well-heeled Singaporean professional quits his cushy, high-paying job in order to set up a hipster cafe, become a dancer or bake brownies. Yet you sometimes see these stories in the news (the very fact that they are deemed newsworthy says a lot) featuring highly paid office professionals who quit their jobs to do something completely unrelated.

Recently in the spotlight, the lack of mid-career lawyers once again came to the forefront. While there is presently a glut of junior lawyers, there is a severe shortage of mid career lawyers due to the fact that large numbers end up leaving the profession after a few years due to burnout.

There’s also that recent phenomenon of Singaporeans quitting their high paying jobs to join Masterchef Asia, which is a very un-Singaporean thing to do.

Now, this doesn’t seem to have been as much of a problem in the past, indicating that it is a change in millennials’ mindsets and perhaps the nature of work itself that’s leading people to give up what was once the sole reason Singaporeans got an education—to find high-paying work. Here are three reasons millennials are leaving their cushy office jobs.


1. Many high-paying jobs offer terrible work-life balance and little freedom

“But why?!” is the typical kiasu parent’s response when he learns that his son or daughter is quitting his cushy job with that international bank / consulting firm / government ministry. He can’t imagine why his child would want to give up stability and, more importantly, all that money.

And let’s be honest, while more millennials are willing to give it all up to chase their dreams, don’t think for a second that money doesn’t matter. In a recent survey, it was revealed that salary still ranks very highly on millennials’ list of career priorities.

So, what gives? Well, the cold, hard truth is that many high-paying jobs offer terrible work-life balance and little freedom.

Before you berate the “strawberry generation” for their laziness, bear in mind that the Internet, understaffing of SMEs and Singapore’s involvement in cross border commerce means that hours at work have gotten very, very long—which explains why we always place near the top in terms of numbers of hours worked globally. It’s also part of the reason why the birth rate has fallen to its current irreparable level.

When paired with a lack of freedom at work and old-fashioned bosses who still insist on face time, some millennials are pushed out of their jobs because they just can’t stand it anymore.

For instance, Benjamin, a 33-year-old private tutor, left his job as a civil engineer, where he worked from Mondays to Saturdays, often clocking 12++ hour days, with a measly 7 days of annual leave. He realised he was working close to 70 hours a week, and that was a big reason he decided to leave and become a private tutor instead.

The parents of millennials might extol the virtues of working hard, but there is a breaking point. Take a stroll around Raffles Place at midnight and you’ll see lots of worker bees routinely leaving their offices at such an ungodly hour. No wonder doctors warn that more and more young professionals are crashing and burning and ending up seeking medical and psychological help for burnout.


2. Millennials are more idealistic than the previous generation

Baby boomers were a practical lot. Having lived through tough times, all they wanted was stability, which is why so many parents of millennials try to push their kids into studying for “practical” degrees like law, accounting and finance for the iron ricebowl.

To their generation, the smartest move was to get a stable, high paying job so you would never have to worry about being out of work and would be able to comfortably support your family and put your kids through school. Not the most romantic notion, but hey it brought us to where we are today.

Millennials, while still by and large practical in Singapore, are starting to show signs of being more idealistic and being less tied to social conventions.

That’s why young Singaporeans make such a big deal of “following your passion” these days.

For instance, Bianca, a 32-year-old teacher, started her career working in a foreign bank, but left after a few years in order to obtain a teaching qualification at NIE because she felt it was more meaningful work.

The education system (as well as parental influence) tends to force students into tertiary courses deemed prestigious and practical, regardless of interest levels.

For many millennials, it is only later on that they realise their jobs aren’t everything they dreamed of, and they decide to quit to do something more stimulating.


3. Alternative lifestyles are becoming more accepted

First off, let’s not sugar-coat the truth by admitting that society is still quite unforgiving and judgmental, which is why the suicide rate of students is rising.

But even so, it is not quite as bad as before, with alternative lifestyles slowly becoming more acceptable.

For instance, while the Singapore narrative used to be to build your career asap, get married and have kids, this is slowly being subverted as more couples choose to be childless.

Today, entrepreneurship and freelancing are no longer seen as a reason for your parents to disinherit you, although of course there is the caveat that you’d better make it work within a few years.

Startup culture, which supposedly runs counter to traditional corporate culture, is fast becoming the ideal of young employees who don’t want to have to fetch their potbellied middle aged boss coffee before grovelling at his feet.

And while the definition of a successful person used to be that guy with the Raffles Place corner office decked out in Hugo Boss, these days more Singaporeans no longer see that lifestyle as enviable. More crave work-life balance, want to see the world and dream of being their own boss.

Other changes are taking place in the workforce. For instance, while driving taxis used to be something only uncles did, there are more and more young Singaporeans in their 30s taking to the streets in their Comfort Cabs, all because they prefer being their own boss.

The more open-minded we become as a society, the less pressure young people will feel to stay in jobs they feel little engagement in. While this could lead to a rise in the number of Singaporeans who leave their office jobs in search of something more interesting, and cause their kiasu parents some grief in the process, society can benefit from a more engaged workforce filled with people who actually want to be there.