The great thing about human society is it’s constantly evolving; and (hopefully) improving
But with this comes the side effect that many of us don’t like: pain.
Because change is painful. And yet, if we’re being honest with ourselves, these growing pains are absolutely necessary. Else, we risk becoming obsolete — like the taxi drivers associations who still hold demonstrations trying to convince the government to ban Uber.
What are some traditional ideas about work, life and money that may have once made sense — but are overdue for a review? I can think of seven right now, which will or already affect our lives significantly.
I don’t have any guaranteed answers — but here are my thoughts on how we need to adapt in our ever-changing world. Ready?
1. Job security
You might disagree with everything else on this list, but you’ll still have to deal with scary Point Number 1. Despite what the brilliant Donald Trump says, traditional jobs/careers are disappearing — and they’re not coming back.
Along with that is the fantasy concept that your parents wished for you: job security. Get a good job with a reputable company — be a good, loyal servant — then retire with them. Sorry, but “secure” jobs aren’t secure anymore. Even today, the average US employee changes jobs 10-15 times in his/her career.
A friend asked me the other day, “Do you think millennials job hop too much? No one stays in companies for long anymore.” There’s some truth in that statement. But the other side of the coin is this: Knowing how many companies treat their employees like replaceable commodities, not people — do you really expect them to stay?
30 years ago, the concept of staying loyal to one employer for your career might have worked. Because they were pretty loyal to you too. Besides, with our world changing so rapidly, how many companies today will last for more than 30 years? History gives us some hints:
Comparing the Fortune 500 list (of America’s largest corporations) between 1955 and 2015 tells us about 88% of the 1955 companies have dropped out. Only about 12% remain.
And some very smart people estimate that 40% of today’s F500 companies will no longer exist in 10 years.
Even if your boss loves you and wants to be in a relationship with you forever, what happens if the economy forces the company to close down?
What to do?
I can’t find who wrote this anymore (maybe James Altucher?), but over the centuries, power has shifted from governments to banks to corporations — and now it’s shifting to platforms and individuals. In other words, the golden era of corporations is coming to an end.
I believe all of us need entrepreneurial skills so we’re not reliant on just one employer to feed us — but can be independent producers. And even if we choose to work for someone (as many of us will), those entrepreneurial skills will still be extremely valuable.
2. Retirement (and pension)
40 years ago, there was an interesting concept called retirement and pension. It sorta made sense on paper: “I’m gonna give you 30 of the prime years of my life, then I retire in a big ceremony and you pay me half of my last salary until I die.”
Sounds like a Faustian deal with the devil to me, but…
It was a flawed model. And governments and corporations eventually did their math and realised they couldn’t afford it. Especially with people getting healthier and living longer.
That’s why the official retirement age keeps going up, up and up — and somewhere over the past few decades — private companies started making (defined-benefit) pension plans disappear. What we have now are the likes of the 401Ks (in the USA) and EPF (in Malaysia) — where you contribute your own money for retirement.
But apart from financial problems with defined-benefit pension, I believe the concept of retirement itself is flawed. Why would you want to spend the last 20 years of your life not doing work at all? There’s only so much golf you can play, and TV shows to watch before you get bored. It’s a guaranteed recipe for growing old.
Of course, you shouldn’t be doing shit work that you hate. And maybe the reason why retirement used to be “cool,” was because our elders had to do a lot of work they hated. But we have options now…
What to do?
With the way economies are going, I’d be very surprised if most people can afford to retire when they’re 55 or 60.
This is worrying — but I don’t think the answer is to keep hoarding money so you can “F*ck work!” and play golf all day at 60. I believe the answer is finding meaningful work that pays the bills — so even if you still have to do it at 60 — you’ll be okay.
Don’t different people find meaning in work differently? Isn’t it super hard to find meaningful work? Yes and yes. That’s why it’s so important to start looking for it now.
3. The traditional university/college education path
Honest question: did your university/college education prepare you well for the working world?
For most people, this is a resounding no. But what’s wrong with traditional higher education?
“Too much theory. Not enough practical. Outdated teaching methods. Professors who don’t care. Over-emphasis on rote learning, memorisation and exams.” Bla bla bla.
The sad thing isn’t that the above problems exist. What’s sadder is we’ve known about them for decades now, but somehow we still haven’t managed to find solutions.
Okay, to be fair a lot of forward-thinking organisations are already trying new approaches to education — like say Minerva university, Seth Godin’s altMBA and Harvard’s CORe. Forward-thinking companies like Google and EY are already saying they don’t need degrees to hire people anymore. And heck, even the Malaysian government is getting involved with some pretty innovative plans like the iCGPA, MOOCs and 2u2i.
Things are changing, but will there ever be a direct replacement for the high school > degree > post-graduate path that we were all taught was necessary for success? I don’t know, but maybe the better question is: Is there really just one path for producing quality people?
What if education; the process of opening minds up and inspiring great thinking isn’t actually a linear process like a manufacturing line? Because if universities are just factories producing mindless drones for corporations — then we’re all screwed.
What to do?
This will probably affect your kids a lot more than you. But maybe we all need to be open to the idea that paper qualifications are overrated. That you can be good at things without a piece of paper.
And there are alternative ways to get education. Because apart from all the problems above, traditional university is also f**king expensive.
4. Student debt
In Malaysia, a local professor calculated that the average PTPTN borrower (as of 2014) has RM 22,808 in debt.
And yet, the Malaysian Ministry of Education reports that in 2015 — 15.3% of youths with tertiary education were unemployed.
Do I think that every young person needs to learn to read, write and count? Yes, that’s what school is for (throw in some moral values and history too please).
Do I think that every young person needs an expensive degree? No. Because let’s face it, degrees aren’t doing what they were supposed to do — which is to give everyone high-paying jobs.
But now we have people who don’t have high-paying jobs who are also drowning in student debt.
Maybe once upon a time you could justify the cost of expensive education — because you were almost guaranteed a well-paying job once you graduated. But that era is over.
To be clear, I’m not saying that degrees or certificates are worthless. But it’s our unhealthy obsession with them (which leads to debt) that pains me.
What to do?
If you really can’t afford it, don’t put yourself in serious debt by thinking you absolutely need that Degree, Masters or PhD. Look for real-world experiences where you can demonstrate success and capability instead. And if you still want that certificate, maybe you can get it later once your cashflow is better.
Of course, take my opinions with a pinch of salt. I don’t have a Masters or PhD either, so maybe that’s why I have stupid ideas.
5. Home ownership
For the typical middle-income person in today’s society, this seems to be the “ideal path”: go to school/university (we’ve covered that), get a job (if you can; we’ve covered that), buy a home (see below) and get married (not gonna cover that because you might hate me more than you already do).
So let’s talk about home ownership. Because I think it’s going to become rarer and rarer - or at least, gonna morph into something very different. Because home ownership is terribly expensive right now.
The national average house price in Q3 2016 for Malaysia was RM334,736. While the latest median household income figure (2014) I could find was RM4,585. If we’re going on just rough averages, this is a ratio of about 6 times house price vs household income — what the World Bank would call “severely unaffordable.”
“But what else could we do?” you say. “You’re crazy, mr-stingy. We need a roof over our heads. And renting is just throwing away money…”
No it’s not. Depending on your situation, renting could be financially better than buying (check out the NY Times’ super cool “Rent or Buy” calculator for more details).
But I wrote this article to start questioning “truths” we seem to never question at all. Is it nice to call a place home, and own it? Yes, of course — then you get all the extra costs and hassle involved too. Do I own my own home? Yes; and I question myself all the time: is it the best use of my time and money?
Again, similar to university degrees: I have no issue with homes in general.
What I’m questioning is the fanatical obsession with “owning a home.” It’s as if you can’t achieve any of your other life goals (like getting married) until you have your own place. And with property being so expensive, I really don’t want our young people to feel like losers — just because they don’t have a house yet.
Would it make sense to rent for some people? I think so. Maybe for a lot of people. There’s no shame in not owning your own place. Don’t let that stop you from doing other great things you want to do with your life.
What to do?
It’s okay to have alternate living arrangements, until you get rich enough to make that decision.
What else could potentially work? Maybe the government needs to expand public housing projects (like Singapore’s HDB system that seems to work pretty well). If you have any friends in there, please ask them to?
6. Guru worship
We see the demise of bullshit detectors everywhere: the housewife who invests in dodgy get-rich-quick schemes just because the founder “looks like a nice young man”; the keyboard warriors who (despite overwhelming evidence) keep defending their favourite politician on Facebook; and the racists who keep supporting “our own people” just because they were lucky enough to be born the right colour.
It tells me that despite the huge amount of information we have available today — people aren’t thinking for themselves very much. They’d rather listen to a Guru.
When I say Guru, I don’t necessarily mean a wise, old man dressed in orange robes. I just mean anyone people listen to, without looking for solid data themselves.
Yes, it’s easy and it’s convenient: “Instead of having to learn things for myself — I’ll just ask my friend who knows.” But what if your friend gets it wrong? What if the Guru you trust so much, actually has a sinister motive — he wants to steal all your money?
Maybe 50 years ago, “expertise” was more important — because only certain people had access to learning and information. But today, you and I can at least fact check basic things very quickly.
Even your favourite author (hopefully me) is gonna be wrong a lot of the time. So please, do your research before coming to conclusions on what to believe in.
What to do?
It’s the age of individual contributors. You and I really need to develop critical thinking to quickly filter out bullshit. Because the world is full of it.
Out of all the traditional ideas we’ve discussed, this is probably the least obvious one. It’s also probably more entrenched in certain cultures than others (not gonna name anyone here…)
The idea is simple: get more stuff (and money) for yourself, and you’ll be happier.
Sounds logical, but is that really true? Let’s look back and see…
My theory is that our parents came from a time of scarcity. The World Wars had just ended, and we were very much in rebuilding mode. Of course previous generations were more obsessed in securing resources (a.k.a. material stuff) for themselves and their families. It’s the hierarchy of needs — you don’t think about going to Coldplay concerts, if your baby is cold and doesn’t have milk for dinner.
Today, we live in a different era. Apologies to those who are trapped in war-torn countries, but we live in abundant times where our basic needs are easily met. Maybe we’re so materialistic because corporations are so good at marketing. The message is simple: get more stuff and you’ll be happy.
But we have enough evidence that tells us otherwise: once you reach a certain level of comfort — buying more stuff will not make you happier.
In fact, I’ll argue that having excessive stuff makes you less happy — it takes up precious effort and time that you could spend doing other important things.
Because, “Oh, what happens if my BMW draws too much attention… what if I get robbed… what if my alligator-leather shoes don’t match my crocodile-leather bag… what if…”
“What ifs” and materialism will take over your life if you’re not careful.
What to do?
Whatever traditional ideas our previous generation taught us, it was likely they were doing it sincerely — they really thought it was the best advice for us
So I mean no disrespect to our parents, relatives and teachers.
But if you zoom out from our time, and look at the history of humanity — you’ll see that many of our “traditional ideas” are actually recent inventions. For example, humans have lived in communal living arrangements for most of human history. It’s only during the past 200-300 years where we’ve seen the rise of “This is my own home — only my wife and kids stay here.”
So maybe it’s time for us to figure out what really brings value to our own lives, and act accordingly. Maybe we need to adapt with changing times, and choose our own paths — even if we get strange looks from people with more traditional thinking.
And when it’s time for us to move on, maybe we need to give freedom for our next generation to figure it out for themselves too. And give them tools to help them think and choose: so they don’t get stuck in ideas that may have once made sense — but don’t anymore.