An iron rice bowl – ‘tee farn woon’ – is how Chinese employees refer to a ‘job for life’. The implication is that whether you look after it or whether you treat it harshly, you can look forward to three square meals a day for as long as you live.

The expression originated in mainland China, but is also used in other Asia Chinese communities, such as Hong Kong, where the civil service employs around 168,000 personnel, and the Jockey Club – the only legal outlet for gambling and one of the city’s top 10 non-government employers – whose 25,000 staff hardly need concern themselves about the prospect of layoffs.

But bureaucrats and the equine community apart, some 83 per cent of Hong Kong workers feel that an iron rice bowl is now a thing of the past, according to a poll conducted by HR consultancy Randstad – although this may be partly due to the Special Administrative Region’s highly transient population, which is comprises locals, mainlanders and expatriates.

The demise of the job for life isn’t just because Hong Kong’s workers may be eyeing up a new job whenever an opportunity presents itself, says Ricky Mui, director for the HK branch of recruitment consultant Robert Walters – it also reflects changes in mindset among employers. But, he adds, “I don’t believe it is a serious problem as the job market in Hong Kong is constantly changing.

“For example, we are currently seeing a shift in mindset by employers [who are] hiring contractors, as this is viewed as a more cost-effective and efficient means of solving headcount issues and reshuffling resources.”

A number of HR experts believe that, outside the territory’s most stable workforces, this switch of policy dovetails with the changing ambitions of employees. Reasons for frequently switching jobs may include a desire to learn or develop skillsets; career progression and a more senior title; an increase in salary – average annual pay is about Hong Kong dollars HKD375,000 (USD48,000), with maximum income tax set at 15 per cent; wanting to move to an international company; or alternatively, a local one with better career prospects or a wider scope of responsibilities.

For employers seeking to hold onto their best and brightest in this increasingly fluid environment, Mui recommends “[rewarding] workers with competitive pay increases and annual bonuses for outstanding performance. Conduct regular appraisals with workers and discuss their performance and areas of improvements. Employers need to talk to workers about career progression and opportunities for promotion within the company and set clear goals.

“Finally, grant staff opportunities to broaden their scope of responsibility and skillsets to ensure the role remains challenging.”

A similar shift is being seen in the region’s other major trading entrepot, Singapore. As a city state linked by international commerce to economic changes across the world, Singapore has gone through several phases of economic restructuring; the resulting job losses have underscored the message there is generally no such thing as lifelong employment.

Recent Randstad research found that 83 per cent of those polled in Singapore felt that a ‘job for life’ was all but extinct – higher than the global figure of 73 per cent. Singapore-based human development expert and author, Bob Aubrey, says the figures are “probably about right”. Singapore has always been different, serving as a model for the world.” As its economy has changed quickly as a result, the local workforce is aware that its future is uncertain and its workers know they need to keep adapting and learning, adds Aubrey.

Lifelong employment is perhaps less common in Singapore than Hong Kong, says Aubrey, because jobs in “private and government sectors are based on performance”. “Protected jobs” in Singapore are more likely to be associated with family businesses than with public sector jobs, as is the case elsewhere in Asia, he says.

These careers are not the norm, meaning Singapore suffers from a significant degree of ‘social anxiety’, which, while tough, serves the job market well by boosting candidate quality. Job security can result in employees not having the incentive to improve productivity or adopt a learning culture – a mentality that is not compatible with the challenging business environment of today, says Aubrey, where “businesses are subject to disruption yet have to turn in a profit and must be agile to respond to challenges”.

One outcome in terms of employment is the diversity in today’s Singapore workforce, which is made up of salaried and contract employees, says Aubrey. Local HR directors have to provide for developing and training not only of salaried employees but also contract workers, he adds.

An HR director of a Singapore-listed company with diverse interests and a global presence, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says: “The depth and breadth of experience is valuable for some industries – hence employees stay longer. Passing on work experience and knowledge from one generation to the next is important but continuity for continuity’s sake is not beneficial if there is resistance to change.”

The manpower needs of such industries, he says, contrasts with other sectors – such as technology companies and startups – which look for innovative thinkers. He added that double-digit staff turnover is not unusual in sectors such as hospitality and financial services.

The multi-job mindset is only going to grow, he suggests, as more millennials – “[who are there for the experience” rather than a long-term job – entering the workforce.

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