Singapore’s Future – Job Losses from Technology?

Was honoured to host the recent Nobel Perspectives Live! organized by UBS. Held at the beautifully restored Capitol Theatre, it was the first stop of a global UBS forum streamed live across the world, and a chance for 1000 students to listen to the insights of four Nobel Laureates in Economic Sciences as they discussed the questions that matter.

The four Laureates who were the stars of the session included Michael Spence, Roger Myserson, Peter Diamond and Robert Merton. Paul Donovan, Global Chief Economist for UBS Wealth Management, moderated the very lively panel.

Minister Baey Yam Keng was the guest of honour at the event, and he gave the opening address on Singapore’s move towards being a smart nation; how as a country of our size, the greatest asset we have is our people. He touched briefly on how education, regulation and governance had to keep up with the move, then posed the first question to the Laureates: what are the top global trends that will impact the future of the youth in Singapore.

The students had earlier submitted questions for the Laureates, and the good folks from UBS had taken these questions, painstakingly categorized and distilled them into key topics that were discussed at the event. These were questions that couldn’t be Googled – I was so curious to find out what young Singaporeans were most concerned about.

Turns out that the pet fear in the hearts of many was about job losses as a result of technology disruption. I guess while market disruptors such as Uber and Grab have made life easier for the average person on the street (and I am sure many of the students present use these regularly), the students are not ignorant of the fact that jobs would be affected and/or rendered obsolete as a result.

71% responded affirmative to the live poll I conducted during the forum that they were concerned about not finding jobs after university, which begged the questions on what skills we would need in an automated system and whether there was a need for changes to the system.

All four Laureates touched on adaptability and the blurring of lines in terms of specific skills/fields of study:

Robert Merton talked about how principles are key compared to learning specific skills or one’s chosen major in school, and the importance to have the opportunity for play within the system in order to innovate and keep up.

Roger Myerson spoke about having the readiness to develop new skills as needed; to start with principles and learn specific skills along the way that would support those principles.

Peter Diamond said to recognise that technology is going to affect every single job on the market and to be ready to learn and grow rather than to be fearful of change.

Michael Spence talked about not limiting one’s capacity to take risks, the advantage of being in a risk-taking culture (e.g. Silicon Valley) and how the most exciting things sometimes arise from the boundary between fields – similar to Merton’s point on not being fixated on specific fields and/or skill. He was confident in the current system, although views were mixed from the others on whether there was a need for changes to the way people are educated.

Myerson called for spreadsheet literacy. He pondered what a “job” is and what skills will be needed to fulfill needed roles in the new economy. He highlighted good old fashioned “reliability” as still being key, while Merton touched on the way we learn, how we learn and the periphery side effect as a result of advances to technology (e.g. how we are probably much worse at mental sums now that everyone uses computers for simple arithmetic).

It was a riveting session where I got a real insight into the minds of these brilliant gentlemen as we picked their brains for two hours.

The forum was live streamed and if you are keen to hear their thoughts on questions that can’t be googled, here’s the full video: