The ‘Future of Work’ Is Happening Now — Here’s What You Need to Know to Survive


someone who works in the career education and development industry, a large percentage of my professional reading and research focuses on our ideas of the future of work. Young people and graduates have very real concerns about what work will look like for them in the years ahead and a part of my role is helping them figure that out and answer their questions to the best of my ability.

Given everything I’ve read, and with the current pandemic piled on top, I have come to only one sure conclusion:

As you can imagine, that doesn’t really inspire or motivate my students (or anyone contemplating their career). What we have to think about instead is the “knowable” and the actions within our control, especially those that help us to better comprehend and manage unpredictability.

What’s knowable?

Charles Handy is an Irish author and philosopher, specializing in organizational behavior and management. Among the ideas he has advanced are the “Portfolio Career” and the “Shamrock Organisation.” In his book, “The Future of Work: A Guide to a Changing Society,” he talks about the future of work being made up of:

  • The Creatives — including writers, artists, designers, and creative thinkers.
  • The Custodians — including planners, civil servants, and those managing and operating automated services.
  • The Carers — especially those working in schools, prisons, and hospitals.

I’ve been a fan of Handy’s work for a while — it makes a lot of good practical sense and is immediately applicable within a lot of the work I do coaching young people. His concept of portfolio careers is especially pertinent for the future of work, as we’ll find ourselves splitting our professional identities across two, three, or more roles.

There’s much that’s been written about the future skills for work. We’ve been reading about them regularly for years. It’s easy to write (and read, and repeat) these lists but my students already know the words — what we really need to understand is why these skills matter, how they connect to an unknowable future, and how to proactively develop them.

Here, three core skills that can assist us in better developing our ability to handle unpredictability in our careers like a pro, and build successful portfolio careers:

1. Curiosity/knowledge acquirement

According to Lynda Gratton, a British organizational theorist, consultant, and Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, the future of work isn’t some distant concept. As Gratton explains in her bestselling book — it’s already happening, right now. We’re living in the future of work.

In ‘“The Shift: The Future of Work is Already,” Gratton goes on to explain that no job, role, industry, or career has remained the same across the past fifty years. People who entered the workforce ten or twenty years ago are already facing rapid and continual changes — and this is going to continue for those entering the workforce today. Our skills and knowledge when we entered work will become redundant as we progress through it. Gratton predicts that our career paths will be made up of a series of ‘mini-retirements’ as we have to repeatedly acquire new knowledge and retrain to progress and remain in work.

With this in mind, curiosity — the desire to keep learning — is a vital mindset and skill to reap and develop.

Here’s what this can look like practically from my experience:

  • Don’t become complacent. Set aside a small amount of time each week to read relevant articles, news, and books, and listen to podcasts and webinars, to keep the knowledge fresh.
  • Commit to one short course or micro-credential every 2–3 months. Many of these courses are super short and free. They might offer things you already know, but they’ll also provide ideas on how things are changing. This will help you know when you have a skills-gap to address or if you need to start switching up how you do things.
  • Engage with your sector — whether through professional memberships, networking platforms, or simply by reaching out to individuals you know and catching up. Stay curious and keep asking questions.

Curiosity is about the willingness to always be the ‘beginner’ and see yourself as a forever student. You can be a competent and experienced professional and still keep a heart of curiosity that sees you navigating the future/current workforce successfully.

2. Agility and the ability to pivot

Following on well from curiosity is the often promoted skill of agility.

Agility doesn’t sound too complex. We’re by now used to the lexicon of agility within the world of business and marketing and hearing how start-ups or entrepreneurs have pivoted their business, ideas, or products to meet changing market demands with great success.

But applying both agility and pivot to your career can be a bit more perplexing.

While staying curious keeps you aware and up-to-date on changes and developments across your chosen career, it’s agility that will help you action what you learn in practical ways. This isn’t always easy and it definitely doesn’t come naturally within the standard ways we’ve been taught to approach our careers. It takes a lot of emotional strength to be willing to flip your career on its head and potentially start from square one again, but in a world where redundancies are the norm, it’s something worth embracing.

Here’s how to develop an agile mindset, ready to pivot in your career when you need to:

  • We know that diverse voices help us to problem-solve better but we still often stick to homogenous groups within the workforce. Work on building a diverse network that can help you get comfortable with hearing new ideas, ways of doing things and expand your thinking.
  • Build your capacity for discomfort by learning a new hobby as a complete beginner. When the time comes that requires you to be agile in a way that sees you perhaps starting again in your career or being managed by someone younger, you’ll already feel comfortable with ‘starting from scratch’.
  • Explore your current role with an agile lens — How could you shape it differently? Where is the variety in what you do? Could you find new challenges that take you just a little outside your comfort zone?

3. Resilience and emotional intelligence

According to the Stoics — a philosophical movement from Ancient Greek thinkers — resilience is one of the most important skills we can cultivate as human beings.

Resilience is not simply about ‘getting through’ the tough times we might face, it’s a mindset of thinking that allows us to contemplate what the tough times might be, how they will impact us, and work on developing a response that helps remain calm and proactive in the face of challenges.

The Stoics knew that life is ultimately unpredictable and that by accepting this unpredictability through a resilient mindset, we set ourselves up for success. In the face of an unpredictable workforce, prepping a resilient mind to understand and overcome challenges — such as a redundancy — means we’re better prepared to accept the experience and move our energy to more productive actions. Resilience is linked with our emotional intelligence and sees us accepting challenges as simply something that has happened rather than something that has/keeps happening to me.

Here’s how to cultivate resilience for work:

  • By taking a positive stance at and about work, we can adapt to adversity and hold on to a sense of control over our work environment. Putting energy and motivation into work is also associated with building personal resilience.
  • Meditation and mindfulness are great for developing resilience as it helps you to cultivate a practice of allowing yourself to consciously acknowledge negative thoughts without having them hijack you. Even a short 3-minute practice a day can help develop a more resilient mindset.
  • Openly reflecting on how you would/have responded to certain stressful events or situations related to work can help you better prepare for them if they occur in the future. Being aware of possible triggers can help you gather resources so you are better able to bounce back following a setback in your career.

Wetend to think of curiosity, agility, and resilience as traits we either have or don’t have — but it’s simply not true. They’re skills and once we have a better idea of what they look like and how they can be cultivated, we too can begin to develop them as skills we can tap into when we need them.

My students are always asking me about the digital side of the future of work if robots and AI are going to do all the jobs, and what this might mean for them. I spend a lot of time having honest conversations with them, that yes, things are pretty different from when I was their age (gosh, that makes me feel old!) and how they’re going to keep changing. But humans still bring a lot of value across a broad range of industries through skills like curiosity, agility, and resilience, but also through listening, creativity, innovation, communication, empathy, and diplomacy.

Technology and globalization will continue to change work radically — but exactly what that looks like and exactly how it’s going to impact us — well, as I said. It’s unknowable.

With the right skills in place, we have an opportunity to remake work into something that is fulfilling, pleasurable and empowering, and that truly draws on the value each and every one of us has to offer in the world of work — both in the future and the present.

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