I was recently invited to speak about the future of work. This topic has interested me for a while, but I quickly realized that I was not fully prepared either for the talk or for the actual future itself. Neither as an employee nor as a leader and even less as a parent.
For years now, robust processes have been reshaping the way we work, and the past year has brought the future even closer. The way we do our jobs, where we perform them, and even what those jobs are, keep altering more and more. And while we are focusing on our everyday tasks, we sometimes do not pay enough attention to the metamorphosis that is creeping upon us.
Artificial intelligence and automation are rapidly changing the nature of our jobs. Various research shows that between 5% and 10% of the current jobs will be eliminated by automation in the future, and another 15-25% will be partially changed.
The World Economic Forum issued a report a few years back which stated that 65% of the then first-graders would have jobs that currently do not exist when they joined the workforce. Those kids are now third or fourth graders and are utterly clueless about the future that awaits them. But it seems that to a large extent, so are most of us who are currently an active part of the labor market.
The Future Job Skills
In their extensive research of the future job skills, McKinsey outline the skills that will see increased demand in the next ten years and the ones that will be less needed.
As can be expected, there will be a greater need for technical skills. But while we all can foresee the need for high and specialized technical skills that will be needed to facilitate the increased digitalization and automation, not all of us realize the importance of basic technical skills in all areas of activity. Those of us that work in an office and sit in front of the computer all day may acquire those skills without even noticing it, but this is not necessarily true for all professions.
My mother is a dentist. She has been working as such for nearly 40 years, focusing on maintaining her medical knowledge and staying up to date with her field. Technological skills have never been in her field of vision. Until last week when she needed to renew her contract with the National Health Agency, and due to the COVID restrictions, she could not do it in person but had to install and use an electronic signature. Something that would probably have taken my nine-year-old son 20 minutes to do engaged her for a week and rattled her to no end. And yes, she does not need to know how to install an e-signature app to be a good dentist, but without it, she could not have signed a contract that brings her most of her income.
While machines will be able to take over more and more of our tasks, there are certain areas where they are helpless. Hence skills formerly considered “soft” and often underestimated as a factor for performance or as an area that needs focused development will now come to the forefront. Empathy, advanced communication, initiative taking will be essential in the future of work. The importance of high cognitive functions such as decision making, creativity and critical thinking will also be reinforced.
Personally, I don’t find this very surprising. I have always found that common sense, ownership, and initiative were better predictors for success at a job than having complete mastery over the “hard” components of the role. But this has not always been self-evident for the hiring managers I have worked with and would definitely require a shift in mindset.
There is another crucial aspect that we need to consider when thinking about the skills that are required for the future of work. And this is the fast pace at which everything changes. The lightning speed in which technology has been developing means that to remain on top of our job requirements, we need to learn and reskill continuously.
Are Employees Ready for the Future of Work?
As employees, we need to make learning one of our main prerogatives. And while on-the-job learning usually has the most significant effect and retention rate, it might not be enough to prepare us for the future. We need to make a conscious effort to gain new skills and educate ourselves throughout our professional lives. For better or for worse, we live in a time when we will no longer be able to say, “I have become a true expert in my field. There is nothing more to learn, and now only others can learn from me”. Such an attitude will soon make us irrelevant and make us lose our competitive advantage in the labor market.
However, it seems that collectively, we have not fully grasped the transformed field in which we play. A 2018 study by Delloitte of 25 000 workers demonstrates that employees generally underestimate the effect that automation and digitalization will have on their jobs and the relevance of their skills. About 29% of them feel that technology will make their skills outdated and only 11% say that they don’t feel prepared for the future of work.
Moreover, focused on tackling the requirements of here and now, we often do not pay enough attention to the future. Approximately every two years, I start feeling that what I currently know is insufficient and am overcome by a desire to learn something new. But lost in the daily tasks and current priorities, I don’t always follow through with that urge. And a few months afterward, I start regretting it because I am already struggling to meet the new requirements that come my way. But that does not necessarily make it easier to chisel out time for learning the next time it happens.
What Are Companies Doing to Prepare?
Forward-looking companies have already started building and implementing strategies of reskilling their employees with a focus on advanced IT skills, critical thinking and problem-solving. With the elimination of some jobs, plans are made to redeploy individuals to other positions in the company. This may require a restructuring of existing jobs and processes. But while those activities will assure utilization of the current talent within an organization, they need large investment, sound forecast and time.
And the current speed of transformation would not always allow for such long-term strategies. Enter the contract workforce. The gig economy has been gathering more and more strength in the past years but has recently become an even more critical factor in shaping the workforce’s future. More extensive use of contract workers allows employers to manage better their costs (something that proved essential in the tumult that COVID created) and be able to bring the right skills at the right time quickly. This trend is evident in a McKinsey study in mid-2020 where 70% of the 800 executive participants reported that they plan to increase the work of contract and temporary workers as they feel this would better meet their company’s needs.
On an individual level, this trend would provide us more opportunities to find the most suitable employment options for our needs and give us even more of the flexibility that is so much sought after in the modern world.
What Are The Challenges For Society?
Educational institutions and governments will face the most significant challenge as they will also need to respond to the new requirements brought by technology and the reshaping of the workforce.
Studies show that in some educational fields, 40% of the content that students learn in their first year of university is already outdated by the time they graduate. And I myself felt this very painfully a few years ago. I have studied psychology for seven years, investing immense effort, time and money in my education. About ten years after I graduated, I was feeling a bit bored, and I decided to take a Psychology 101 course on one of the online learning platforms. I could not found a better way to make myself feel stupid. With the widespread use of technology, psychology had changed so much; there were so many new findings, theories and studies that 90% of what I heard in the course was entirely new for me. I stopped after the third lecture. It was too overwhelming.
It is starting to be more and more evident that concentrating the majority of the learning at the beginning of our lives may no longer be relevant to our world’s demands. What is suggested is that rather than spending 4-6 years in university to learn something that will no longer be useful or valid after a few years, for many professions, it might make more sense to have shorter learning courses which however are spread out every few years throughout one’s whole life.
Of course, education is a beast that is very slow to change and adapt, and many governments have not even realized the need for transformation. Even if they have, transforming the whole educational system is a tremendous task that would require decades. And we don’t have decades because the future of work is already here and knocking.
Some countries have grasped the urgency and are already taking measures. Singapore has implemented a reskilling program for all groups of the workforce, which provides an educational allowance to each citizen to learn new skills no matter at what stage of their work-life they are.
In other places, businesses are trying to fill the skills gap in the labor market. They are building academies and training programs that benefit not only their current and future employees but also the whole labor market.
But to catch up to the transformation in the talent structure a lot more is needed.
The Future of Work in Numbers (Infographic)
Change is inevitable. And in today’s life, change is also incredibly rapid. In order to keep up with it and be ready for the imminent future of work, preparations need to be made on individual, leadership and societal level. And they can no longer be taken in stride. We need to make conscious efforts, plans and build and implement strategies. Otherwise, the future will very soon burst through the door and slap us.