Preparing for the future of work

Jun 01, 2018
Organisations and individuals must collaborate if they are to grow successfully in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In this article, we explain what’s required...

Facebook is the world’s largest media company, yet it creates no content; Netflix is the world’s largest movie house, yet it owns no movie theatres; Alibaba is the world’s most valuable retailer, yet it holds no inventory; and Airbnb is the world’s largest accommodation provider, yet it owns no hotels. In a similar vein, Tesla is a car company but unlike any other. It is a software, utilities, energy and construction company all at once. These organisations sit comfortably at the messy intersection between the current reality and the future of work. In doing so, they have helped us become accustomed to how new technological advances are at once changing how we live our lives and engage with our work. 

Alongside this reality, the World Economic Forum in its 2016 report on The Future of Jobs and Skills tells us that 65% of school children who entered primary school in 2016 will work in jobs that have not yet been created. It also reveals that the half-life of a skill sits at five years, that by 2020 there will be a global skills shortage, and that many of the most in-demand jobs today did not exist 10 years ago. Both sets of data make for interesting reading and provide an intriguing social commentary for our times, but what do they tell us about the future of work?

Multi-generational workplaces

To start, the data reveals a landscape that is dramatically different from the world of work we occupied just 20 years ago. A generation ago, work and life were benchmarked by specific milestones related to age. Typically broken into three chunks of time, your late teens and early twenties was for education directed towards a specific job. After college or further training, you got a job in the area you trained for. You then worked in that job, often in the same company, until retirement in your sixties. At that point, you exited the workforce and lived in retirement.

Since the turn of the millennium, the notion of one job for life has slowly disappeared – as has linear progression through your career. With the disappearance of the one secure job for life, the associated social safety net of health insurance, paid holidays, sick leave and pension contributions – once taken for granted – have also disappeared.

In this world, permanency has been replaced by contract work, freelancing and self-employment. Periods of employment are now sandwiched between periods of unemployment or underemployment. We are also living longer and healthier lives, resulting in multi-generational workplaces with up to five generations working side-by-side. As we live and work in this new reality, it is predicted that the average person will change career six times, move job 12 times before age 42, and continue to work well into their 70s.

Redefining ‘work’

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is driving this unprecedented change. Although it’s still in its infancy, new forms of technology have made it possible for 3D printers to build homes, for cars to drive themselves, and for algorithms to write newspaper articles. Its disruptive pace, scale, complexity and scope are felt by all people, organisations, disciplines, economies and industries. Anyone who has ever checked work emails, responded to an instant message, or worked remotely when they should have been asleep, chatting with friends, playing with kids, eating a meal or on holidays, will intimately understand this change.

The result is a paradigm shift in how we think about and define work, success and leadership in the 21st century. As entire industries adjust and new ones are born, many occupations are undergoing complete and fundamental transformation. But what does all of this mean for our careers?

The short but truthful answer is: nobody knows. The smart answer, however, has two parts. First, these impending changes hold great promise of future prosperity and job creation once we are adaptive, open-minded and proactive. Second, the same changes pose significant challenges that require individuals and organisations to adopt a learning mindset if they wish to remain relevant, to innovate and to grow. History – in the form of Kodak, Sony, Nokia and Blockbuster – tells us that those that do not change will not survive. More recent history shows that online tax returns, chat-bots, delivery drones, banking apps, cloud-based accountancy packages and bitcoin are making more and more industries – and qualified professionals within them – obsolete.

Cognitive diversity

With this in mind, it is all too easy to imagine a future where computers are running the world. The reality, however, is a lot less bleak. A 2017 study by McKinsey & Co. reveals that 56% of jobs created in the previous 10 years were in brand new professions where skills are now in high demand and wages are sky-rocketing. 

Further research by the World Economic Forum suggests that while five million jobs will be lost to robots by 2020, 7.1 million jobs will simultaneously be created. Although this means technology is rendering some jobs obsolete, it is creating a net gain of approximately two million jobs.

The predicted job families in decline include office and administrative, manufacturing and production, legal, financial operations and construction-based roles. The roles within those job families most likely to suffer are in areas that are highly repetitive and capable of being translated into an algorithm.

Jobs likely to experience growth are less routine, more dynamic and cognitively diverse. These job families include human resources and organisational development specialists, and those with engineering specialities such as materials, bio-chemicals, nanotech and robotics. Particular needs have also been identified in industries as diverse as automotive, new energy, media, entertainment and content creation. It is likely that regulatory and government relations specialists, geospatial information systems experts and commercial and industrial designers will be in high demand.

Within the financial services and investors sector, there is likely to be a significant shift with substantial job growth for computer and mathematical roles within the industry according to the World Economic Forum. Unsurprisingly, one such area of exponential growth is in data analytics. The data analyst will make sense of, and derive insights from, the torrent of facts and figures generated by our robotic friends. Specialised sales representatives, who are technically adept and strategic communicators, also represent a growth area. These sales representatives will commercialise and break down technical business offerings in simple, everyday and communicable language.

A paradigm shift

In essence, the research is telling us that while there will always be a need for technical expertise, the workplace of the future demands a new breed of people – of senior managers, of leaders and of C-suite executives. This paradigm shift calls for a new skillset; to be technically capable and fundamentally possess the skills necessary to steer companies with empathy, agility and innovation. In this future, the soft skills that once took second place to hard skills are swiftly becoming the core skills of the future. Research conducted by Harvard University found that soft skills are responsible for 85% of career success, while just 15% is attributed to hard skills. This is particularly true in industries where technical skills must be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills. In a 2013 study, for example, Google found that being a good coach, having empathy towards others and being a good critical thinker and problem-solver while being able to make connections across complex ideas are the most important indicators of future career success. Therefore, the predicted in-demand skills of the future include the ability to:
  • Make sense of, and communicate the significance of, complicated technical data;
  • Operate with empathy and respect in diverse cultural settings and manage people;
  • Think with agility and come up with novel solutions and responses that are beyond rule-based ideas;
  • Filter vast quantities of information and use that information to make sound decisions;
  • Think creatively;
  • Be cognitively flexible; and
  • Be emotionally intelligent.

A learning revolution

Creativity, emotional intelligence, cognitive flexibility and the ability to work with people will become some of the most in sought after skills. To keep pace with this change, we as individuals must engage in a learning revolution. Acquiring new sets of skills across the course of your career is no longer a ‘nice to do’. It is fundamental. Leading through learning as a person and as an organisation is the key to unlocking success in the future of work.

In practical terms, this means that individuals must assume a level of personal responsibility for their career that has not previously been required. To achieve this, each person must exercise leadership in their own career by stepping up, seeking out and engaging in cross-industry and cross-functional skill acquisition on an ongoing basis. This requires proactive, continuing and strategic career planning by you and for you. No longer a passenger in your career, you must be willing to step up for stretch opportunities and engage in online learning while you seek out sponsorship and mentorship.

Since work and life have fused in such a glue-like way, people come to work to do their job and to engage with a like-minded community. From an organisational perspective, this means learning new strategies and tactics to open up learning platforms, career progression options and continuous professional development to your people to stay competitive. More conventional command-and-control management styles and institutional structures are at direct odds with this mindset. Instead, leaders in future-focused organisations open conversations that break down conventional power dynamics and challenge traditional attitudes to career progression, education and gender roles.

Nurturing brilliance

These organisations and their people then thrive by co-creating a culture in which everyone feels trusted, supported and engaged as they endeavour to reach a shared vision. Leaders in these organisations recognise difference, reward innovation and expect high standards. They can inspire and motivate while having the strength to learn from failure. They are direct, yet candid in communication style and remain fair when making a difficult decision. Real leaders in the 21st century workplace stretch out the hand of mentorship to others, nurturing rather than fearing brilliance. Such a culture is one without fear of reproach, where failure is never final and where conversations are candid and kind. It is one where standards are high, performance is measured and growth is expected. Leadership is never confused by title, nobody thrives on power and a vibrant workforce gets the opportunity to express their identity through their work.

Doing this creates a competitive edge that helps the organisation find and retain the best people who are capable of fuelling the future of business. From an individual perspective, you feel a sense of power and ownership over your own career.
What this information reveals to us about the future of work is intriguing. In short, organisations and people who do what they have done in the past in the hope that they will thrive and flourish are unlikely to do so. Also, those who focus singularly on automation and technology as the significant disruptors to the future of the world of work will have an overly-narrow focus.


The future of work is much more about people who live and work in human workplaces, and build on collaboration and conversation. As people and as organisations, we must act cross-functionally as complex problem-solvers who think creatively, evaluate critically, question deeply and negotiate. To achieve this, and to survive in this hybrid world where technology and people cognitively collaborate, we must upskill, reskill
and retrain. Both organisations and people must recognise that change is not waiting. If they are both to grow successfully, they must talk to each other.

Sinéad Brady is a career psychologist and Founder of A Career to Love, which helps companies and individuals prepare for the future of work.