In a previous article I summarised some ideas I shared with students at Liverpool John Moores University around the challenges of preparing for the future world of work. I set out the need for flexibility and responsiveness during times in which, I believe, we are seeing the slow, tortured death of an economic paradigm that for the last century or more has driven how we think about and therefore structure the way we work.
The rhythms and rituals associated with work – from the 9 to 5, five day week, performance appraisals, quarterly reports, etc – are as embedded as the economic paradigm it serves – one that is largely extractive, individualistic and reductive. If the economic paradigm is changing, it follow that the world of work will change in response. Not glacial change, imperceptible unless viewed through a time-lapse of years, but more like an avalanche, where first a few things give way, and before you realise it you’re watching the whole mountainside slipping away in a destructive force that leaves nothing the way it was. Thinking of the work of the future and where the jobs might be feels like trying to predict what things will look like after the avalanche has revealed a completely new landscape. Perhaps work becomes something more fluid and flexible, adding value to the world as and when the needs of society and your own needs align. Perhaps we will work more, perhaps less. Everything can be designed because it’s in our gift. It’s the societal norms, customs and practice that lock us in to the status quo.
The coming decade may well be one in which these norms are recast, perhaps to better serve our human ends and the needs of our planet, perhaps not. Time will tell. But it’s up to us to collectively determine the path we want to take. Imagine if a new world of work emerges from the Covid and climate disruption, if organisations increasingly need multifaceted-people to work on complex challenges that escape easy definition, and if the workers themselves are much more focused on their individual gift to the world and how they can best realise it. To achieve this we need to overcome three core assumptions that underpin traditional approaches to preparing for future roles: we assume the current paradigm will continue to exist, that people will always need to develop a specific skill that matches specific organisational requirements, and that the knowledge economy will continue to be predicated on employment in those organisations. All three assumptions might not stand the test of time.
A new paradigm is likely to require both demand- and supply-side reform. Organisations might put their challenges out to market and seek to recruit people to help them work on them, not specifying the details of how, the tasks that are required, just the nature of the inquiry or the outcome they are after. This would move us away from one of the core artefacts of the past – the job description. Hallelujah! No more would we have to play that performative game where the employer pretends they have created your dream job in your dream organisation and you pretend you’re the perfect person with the perfect attributes to fit it. You don’t really know what’s needed and even if you did, it generally won’t hold true for long. What you do need as an employer are curious people with the energy and interest to work with you on your challenges. This doesn’t have to fall into the binary fixed-term/permanent or employee/consultant dichotomy we now have. It will be a relationship that lasts as long as it is working for both parties and adding value. People will in turn put their value proposition out to market, one founded on their unique blend of skills, knowledge, experience and interests.
Perhaps, then, our approach shouldn’t be about equipping yourself to take on the jobs of the future and finding a way to carve out a successful career path through changing times. Trying to stay balanced on that ladder as the winds of change buffet you inevitably narrows your focus into a myopic survival mode; the task becomes to not fall off. A better approach might be, I believe, to equip yourself to find your unique place in the world and leverage your blend of talents, ideas, experiences and knowledge in service to the human and more-than-human world. Our core challenge is to identify our gift, to see where it is most needed at any given time, and find ways to bring it to life in this context. Find that value and you won’t need to worry about your next job or your longer career; you will always be in demand because what you have to offer, the value you bring, will always be needed.
The work to be done is to figure this out.
To do this, I’ve developed my own approach which I call my value compass. I know navigation metaphors are overused and tired as a result, however there’s a reason why they stand the test of time. If we are explorers in an ambiguous and at times unknowable world we need some mechanisms for finding our way ahead. A compass offers us a means of way finding on our own individual journeys.
If you want to know more, do get in touch.