Massive tech sector layoffs a reality check to pandemic-era excesses

Alfred Siew
Alfred Siew
7 Min Read
PHOTO: Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

When much of the world was just starting to recover from the pandemic last year, some of the most jarring things you’d see on social media were young influencers showing a “typical day” in the life of a Meta, Google or other Silicon Valley manager.

These Tiktok videos could start with gym or yoga at 6am, followed by a nice latte and a healthy cereal for breakfast. Some quick entries in a journal (“I’m amazing!”) later and it was time to choose an OOTD (outfit of the day), pose in front of a mirror and head to work.

That would last a few hours, before a trip to the well-stocked corporate cafeteria for lunch. A few calls on the laptop and another cuppa later, it was time on the rooftop of the office, lounging in the Californian sun.

Before long, they’d shuttle home, where a boyfriend or girlfriend was ready to cook a nice dinner. Some friends could come over for a quick gathering, too. All in a breezy, carefree day of a Gen Z tech executive.

Strangely, at the same time, you start hearing of all the “quiet quitting” that was going on. Evidently, many people were not happy to stay in their jobs – even in their enviable positions – as the pandemic recovery made tech companies hire ever more people in anticipation of growing demand.

So they do the minimum – quietly quit, so to speak – and earn their presumably nice salaries. Others, meanwhile, quit their jobs, speaking of a desire to get away from the pressure cooker of the office.

In a most ironic (and unfortunate) way, headlines of people quiet quitting have now been replaced with massive layoffs in the past several months, especially in a tech sector that had seen all this recent growth distort the expectations of what a job entails.

Dell is the latest to cut staff numbers, by 6,000 this year. Earlier, Microsoft said it was laying off 10,000 staff, Meta has already cut 10,000 and Amazon is shedding 18,000 jobs. Google? 12,000.

Some of these global firms’ layoffs have hit Singapore. Just days after Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo sounded an optimistic note on tech jobs here, a Straits Times story painted a less-than-rosy picture.

The February 4 article included several young tech grads stuck in limbo amid a shrinking job market. One unfortunate grad applied for 20 tech jobs but heard back only from one. After seven rounds of interviews over three months, he was rejected.

Your mind goes back to the image of young TikToker tech executives lounging in the sun in the office rooftop, enjoying a bowl of quinoa or something trendy and healthy.

The tech sector appeared unhinged from the reality of the rest of the world, which was still reeling from the pandemic downturn. Think of the travel and hospitality sectors, which were hit the hardest and are still recovering.

The mass tech layoffs now have also revealed some eye-opening excesses. Among the more than 1,800 Google staff let go in California, 27 were in-house massage therapists. They do an important job, to be sure, but they are probably a luxury to have on the full-time payroll, no?

One thing I have heard regularly from tech and media industry bosses in the past few months is the challenge in finding good talent to join their teams.

Unfortunately, many job applicants have rode the boom during an era of hyper inflation and abundant opportunities so their titles often don’t match their actual work experience. Their salaries, too.

Sure, Singapore’s economy is still going strong. In some areas, such as cybersecurity and cloud development, there is still a critical shortage of talent. Then again, these are jobs that likely require reskilling and upgrading, even for many who are already in the tech sector.

The sentiment from many tech vendors so far, at least from anecdotal evidence, is that businesses are keen to maintain the momentum of their earlier digitalisation efforts in 2023. Additional spending? Well, let’s wait and see, since they have already cut so many jobs.

In the next few months, it would be interesting to see how tech companies meet their new challenges with fewer people to call on to do a job.

Yes, some had over-hired as they enjoyed a boom during the pandemic. Others, like Microsoft and Google, however, are pivoting away from one area to another, such as AI.

So, this round of layoffs isn’t just a typical cyclical one. Some jobs that are gone may not be available again, because they have been replaced by new ones focusing on different areas.

AI or automation may take away some old jobs. Think of human resource folks onboarding new hires – that can be done in a self-service manner with software tools today, say, to get a laptop provisioned and to get staff clearance.

Don’t forget, too, that the “good years” during the pandemic coincided with nearly-free money that bloated up budgets and saw a boom in “bubble” economies in cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFT). Easy money was the game, so why work so hard?

That wasn’t meant to last. So now, the handwringing on quiet quitting, work-life balance and other concerns during the past year will be replaced with pressing questions like how you’re paying the bills. It’s a post-pandemic reality check.

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Alfred is a writer, speaker and media instructor who has covered the telecom, media and technology scene for more than 20 years. Previously the technology correspondent for The Straits Times, he now edits the blog and runs his own technology and media consultancy.
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