On preparing for the jobs of the future (part 1)

Thinking back to the start of my journey into the world of work, it seems apparent that we can never really know what jobs and roles will emerge in the future. Thisi is in no sense a new phenomenon, for this has always been the case. In my own lifetime roles have declined in number (librarians, high street bankers) or disappeared altogether (meter readers, photocopier repairs). We’ve always seen innovations upend some roles (chimney sweep, night soil collector, petrol pump attendant) while creating new ones (app developers, service designers, influencers). A critical challenge arises: how might we do the work of today while simultaneously preparing for the work of tomorrow?

I recall a talk given by Dylan William at an education conference I was organising, in which he was challenging teachers to the same conundrum – how to prepare young people for the unknown careers and jobs of the future? This uncertainty reflects the beauty of life, of course, in that we cannot fully know what the future holds, individually or collectively. Perhaps the important point here isn’t to try and predict new roles and prepare for them, but to simply prepare for the opportunties that disruption in the job market will generate. Before getting on to how we might do this, I’ll first offer some provocations to illustrate the need for different.    

Let’s explore the idea that the dominant socio/economic paradigm that has held us in its firm grip for the last several decades is showing signs of failure. It’s founded on core tenets of liberal economic thinking and the triumph of reductionism. We celebrate individualism; seek growth at all costs and plunder the earth to achieve this; are OK with the aggregation of wealth in fewer pockets. If you can’t make this work for you, individualism tells us that’s on you, not your context. You must be somehow weak, lazy, not competent enough, have character flaws. We know who the successful are because they’re the ones with money and assets, and to justify this and make it work on moral grounds we ignore the incovenient truth that it’s never solely down to the individual. We downplay or offer no account of externalities such as environmental degradation, rising mental health challenges, the value of volunteering, generation of waste or homelessness, or the teams that underly every ‘successful’ individual. This paradigm is further underpinned with assumptions that all problems can be fixed and it is therefore the smart and worthy people that can diagnose and prescribe a solution. Failure to solve a problem is seen as a failure in the individual doing the implementing and so we work on the person not the system. In our organisations we send them on training programmes or put them on a personal improvement plan. 

We are living through turbulent times in which that paradigm is increasingly being challenged. The idea of a perma-crisis is to convey the idea that we are living through a period of significant upheaval. For many in the global south living with multiple convening crises is of course nothing new. What we can see in the West is a range of social, political and environmental crises, not simply the Covid19 pandemic. Planetary tipping points are being reached; social division seems to be deepening; cost of living is on the increase. 

Turbulent times challenge the ability of the existing paradigm to respond to them. Fitness for purpose often reduces; it’s why so much change follows these periods in history. With regard to the world of work, where this paradigm manifests most clearly, perhaps, the following are all social constructs: the 9-5 and the 5-day working week. Pensions and retirement. Working for an employer not yourself. Few bank holidays in the UK. Annual leave and family leave. Job descriptions and elaborate recruitment processes. Hard-won employment rights. A workplace that still favours men over women, white people over black and brown people, middle class over working class. Hierarchies and power. Parent/Child relationships enforced through ‘supervision’ meetings and appraisals. They are part of what will become, sooner or later, the old paradigm. Perhaps in five years, perhaps ten. Future generations will look back with incredulity to how we did what we did, question why it took so long to realise that applying the manufacturing model of management and organisation to knowledge work fostered an egregious waste of human talent and ingenuity. 

Yet just as winter turns to spring we know that warmer and better times are ahead. The green shoots can be seen in places where we look for them: from B-Corp organisations like Toms shoes investing in social programmes to the movement emerging behind the four-day working week; from social enterprises growing as a core business model to flat, networked organisations such as Buurtzorg that are putting power in the hands of their front-line nurses; from restaurants sourcing their ingredients locally to companies making clothing from 100% recycled materials. At best, these are chipping away at current perceived wisdom and practice, proof that a new paradigm of work might emerge that is more in harmony with the needs of the planet as well as people. At worst they are window dressing behind which the extractive rituals of capitalism continue unabated. 

Given this analysis: what to do? How can we prepare ourselves for the unknown and unknowable? In our work we might need to handle situations and circumstances beyond anything we’ve seen in recent decades and yet we also have unprecedented opportunity when you look for it. All significant change and opportunity comes from periods of intense disruption, and – to a greater or lesser extent – that’s what we are in.  How can we  seize the opportunities that might emerge – now and in the future? I think it is useful to have a set of principles to guide us on our journey into our unknown future. What might these look like?

 I’ll share my thoughts on some practical steps we can take in the next article.

This is the outline of a talk I recently gave to students at Liverpool John Moores University. 

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