Cutting out the middle-manager is a growing trend as companies around the world consolidate their operations. Job seekers must adopt flexible skills and attitudes to find work. Illustration: iStock
Cutting out the middle-manager is a growing trend as companies around the world consolidate their operations. Job seekers must adopt flexible skills and attitudes to find work. Illustration: iStock

These days, mid-level management jobs are disappearing as organizations streamline and flatten their hierarchies. There are fewer top-level jobs because companies are consolidating, and people are less likely to jump to new positions these days leaving vacancies.

The cause and impact of this global sea change are detailed by Lynda Gratton who wrote “The end of the middle manager“, a 2011 column in the Harvard Business Review. Against the post-“Y2k millennium bug” and the crash of the first “dot-com” era, her ominous piece may not have resonated in Singapore. However, just a few years later, when the global economy has become much more complex, Gratton’s perspective gained authority when a Straits Times piece titled “Highly trained, middle-aged and out of work” hit home in Singapore.

The same perspective echoed in Europe. In a piece on titled “The end of middle management?” Sydney Finkelstein mentioned two transformative factors: The erosion of roles by computers, and the changing millennial workforce. The age of diminishing middle management has arrived, and the jobs that have vanished may never return.

Can people adapt and transform?

The government of Singapore is launching programs to tackle these challenges. Middle management is a large component of the city-state, and any eventual job transition from middle management will not be easy and may be painful. The SkillsFuture initiative, first articulated by Tharman Shanmugaratnam, deputy prime minister, was focused on this transition in the working world, and how continuous learning must become a guiding principle.

Being on the road often due to my work, cafes are like a second home where I can do creative work, read a book, or catch a quick bite. Invariably, I overhear conversations between other cafe patrons. During a recent cafe moment, a middle-aged lady and a foreign gentleman exchanged pleasantries. They appeared to be colleagues — presumably, the gentleman was her manager in a prior job. The lady had been without work for months and had sent out many job applications. She confided to her friend that although she was offered several middle-management jobs, she turned them down because:

  • It involved doing the work of several people;
  • There was regional travel, and;
  • The workload would prevent her from attending graduate school.

If I were in this lady’s shoes, I would grab any job that came my way. I have first-hand experience about the difficulty of finding a job, having gone through the economic downturn in the 1980s. I applied for every conceivable job you can imagine — couriers, trainee teppanyaki chefs, clerks, and sales. I eventually found a laboratory-technician job with Sisir (Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research), the precursor to the government-led SPRING Singapore. I was elated.

The economy and employers are kings

The global economy is struggling and is unlikely to recover holistically in the foreseeable future. There are many contributing factors negatively affecting the economy. For smaller, developing economies these factors will cause even more challenges in the job market. Consolidation means jobs are disappearing, and attrition and retrenchment will become increasingly common. Whenever a person leaves, his job may very likely be taken over by remaining employees.

And salaries will never return to that exponential growth rate that it enjoyed 10 or 20 years ago. The golden age of the baby boomer when remuneration grew at double-digit rates or more, with fat bonuses year on year, is gone.

‘Gig economy’ and the millennial push

Wake up to the new “gig economy” where fewer long-term jobs exist, thanks to disruptors such as the ride-sharing service Uber. Wages will be based on what value an employee can bring to the table. The old days when you could demand to be paid above your grade — and get it — are over.

Today, employers want to know what you can offer upfront, and then decide if you’re worth it — or worth keeping at all. If you’re dissatisfied, someone else will happily step up and replace you. Conversely, due to the “gig economy” paradigm, many young people have become agile in their hunt for work. They are often willing to start at the bottom, willing to try new responsibilities, willing to learn, willing to work hard. These upstarts are exerting a bottom-up pressure on middle-managers who are sandwiched and pressured from the top, and often squeezed out of jobs altogether.

If you’re in a middle-management job today work as hard as your bosses demand; and yes, that may mean doing work done previously by several people. And be open to travel for work. The world has changed and nostalgia doesn’t put food on the table and a roof over your head. If you have a job, whatever the responsibilities, the multiple roles required, or the terms, be grateful. If you don’t have a job, keep looking, be realistic, and seize every opportunity. AI (artificial intelligence), the next big push after the millennial generation, is already here, waiting to eradicate more jobs.

Seamus Phan

Seamus Phan is a professional speaker, published author, and artist. He straddles between the creative and technology spheres, and has great interest in studying Asian cultures, philosophies, leadership, and branding. On the side, he is an artist specializing in Chinese brush painting.