The Brave New World of Work

There was a time when our futures were predictable. When the economy was stable and employment rates were relatively good, we enjoyed some degree of expectation that this would continue. The past dictated the future and it was the same view of the future our parents, teachers, and business leaders continued to nurture. “Get a good education and you will get a good job. Work hard and you will create a strong career path. By the time you are 60, you can sit back and take it easy” was the accepted narrative.

They weren’t wrong. These norms held true if only for a time.

The rise of the industrial revolution depended on human capital to produce things to meet market demand.  The industrial boom after WWII was primarily driven by a linear relationship between workers and economic growth. As businesses generated more value from their workers, the country, as a whole, became richer, which in turn fueled more economic activity and created more jobs.

But after the year 2000, as productivity improved, there were glimmering signs that showed a diversion from this initial path, as economic growth increasingly became disconnected from employment levels.  The acceleration in technology advancements has helped widen that gap and has hastened access to information, has improved production outputs ten-fold, and has lowered the cost of goods significantly. Erik Brynjolfsson, professor of MIT Sloan School of Management, and Andrew McAfee call this the “Great De-coupling.”

These strenuous times dictate a different path. A different way of thinking. The economic volatility has not only contributed to stagnation in job growth and household income, it has left a population reeling, wondering whether there is a light at the end of the rainbow.

There is also a growing movement, especially among the younger demographic, to find jobs and define careers that are more aligned with their personal values and interests.  This has led to an explosion in a number of alternative interpretations of what the meaning of work is in our lives, and as a result, many entrepreneurs and teachers are offering platforms, courses, and support structures for those who want to venture down these new career paths (e.g. http://www.escapethecity.org/).

A New Era of Self-Managed Careers 

Education is one sector where the job opportunities are not in sync with what is being taught in schools. It’s clear that our current curriculum is ill equipped to prepare future generations for the impact of these ongoing changes.

A study conducted in the US about the class of 2015 noted that:

Many graduates are unable to take the two main paths—receiving further education or getting more work experience—that enable future career success.

  • Among young college graduates, 10.5% aren’t enrolled or employed (compared with 8.4% in 2007).
  • Among young high school graduates, 16.3% aren’t enrolled or employed (compared with 13.7% in 2007).

It’s clear that the Harvards and MITs of the world will need to change their models in the future to suit the demands of society.  Free or more affordable education in the form of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) or organizations like Lynda.com, The Khan Academy, or The Code Academy is already drawing students (of all ages) in droves. These constitute the first wave of innovation in what has been perhaps one of the most difficult and entrenched sectors to change.

The success of the Industrial Revolution or later was a result, in part, to the current education system that was in step with the demands of the market. Not anymore. The disconnect between the current education system and the needs of organizations has never been more apparent. Leading organizations like Accenture and PwC have started new approaches to hiring talent and decided that degrees or A-level results will no longer be criteria in assessing the value of potential candidates.

What we see today: all demographic categories, especially among millennials and Gen Z, going into the workforce are all in a mode of reinvention and continuous learning, striving to learn new skills, whether in web development, writing, coding, design, coaching, etc… all in the effort to be marketable under the new job conditions.

Beyond Maslow…

The next generation of leaders have grown up in the digital age. They are tapped into global communities. They have access to information more than ever. They have opinions and they want to make significant differences in their lives.

It’s not only millennials that are impacting inherent changes in organization, it’s also the older generations, who have lived through a predominantly hierarchical context. Through their own experiences in the job economy, they realize that they will not retire at 60 as planned. But they also realize that they want to derive more meaning from work. They have lived through the layoffs, the toxic environments, and the survivalist mentality that pits employees against one another.

As societies, companies, and governments face up to perhaps what will be the defining challenge for our generation—climate change—there will be ever-increasing pressure to move away from the 19th century “growth is good,” “growth at all costs” mindset toward one that is more sustainable and balanced. As this happens, the foundational employer-employee contract and idea of what it means to have a career will undergo a profound change as people move away from the straightjackets imposed over the last 100 years to a truer, more intuitive way of looking at careers, driven by their personal aspirations and beliefs.

Organizations will also choose to, or be forced to, make the necessary adjustments and create a new paradigm where they also will increasingly adopt the “grow and let go” mindset—training and up-skilling employees and being prepared to lose them rather than retaining them while their skills stagnate.  This will be a huge shift and will be accompanied by a raft of allied innovations around compensation models, benefits, vacation policies, etc.

Adapting to the “Post-Work” World

As advances in AI, machine learning, distributed computing, blockchain, and other disruptive technologies accelerate at an exponential rate, i.e. at a faster rate than even the experts predict, all of us—as individuals, corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, educators, and policy makers—will have to adapt fast to the “post-work” world.  For the first time in human history, a vast section of society, at least in the developed world, will no longer have to work to earn a living and lead a safe, comfortable life.   This is where we head into unknown territory, as many research studies have shown that having a higher purpose is what drives most people to strive to do better in school, in their careers, and their personal life.  How individuals, institutions, and societies adjust and align with this new reality will be the one of the greatest challenges humanity has had to overcome.

We strongly believe that career pursuits driven by meaningful goals, transparency, and a more balanced community-driven, sustainable model of business will ultimately emerge over the next couple of decades. Not everyone will have to work for a living and for those who do, they will have the opportunity to make decisions driven by their deeper values, passions, and being comfortable with the revolving door of career change throughout their life as they move in and out of roles and design their work and personal lives around specific individual paths.

the author

Sandeep Achar

Sandeep is a senior innovation strategist at Idea Couture.