The Future of Work requires less planning, more adapting

It's hard to imagine what the future will look like, but that doesn't stop people from desperately seeking an answer to the question: what jobs will there be in the future?

When my team partners with governors, mayors, agencies, department heads, curriculum chairs, students, parents, and employers, we hear over and over again that they all want to know what jobs they should be preparing for. This deep desire to know the future is natural. How else can we prepare?

Yet, this type of thinking is futile, and continued reliance on planning is likely to be counterproductive in a future where the rate of technological progress is accelerating. Changes in society and the economy are going to happen faster and in less predictable ways as the world becomes more complex and interdependent. We cannot predict it.

What, then, can be done to prepare for our complex and uncertain future? Build adaptive capabilities. When you don't know what's going to happen, you must prepare for anything to happen. Labor market institutions and educational organizations need to help workers and students identify and build the competencies, with the right skills, that are most likely to serve them well, no matter how the future economy evolves.

What competencies are these?

  1. Critical thinking. The ability to take in new information, update old understanding, formulate reasonable conclusions or hypotheses, and develop actions based on those results.
  2. Self-direction. The ability to set one's own goals and formulate a plan to realize those goals. The ability to seek out information, assistance, and support that would help one achieve those goals.
  3. Interpersonal connection-building. The ability to form genuine personal connections and relationships with diverse types of people.

(It's not coincidental that all of these competencies also make us better human beings and citizens.)

Changes in work, as far as we can tell now, will range from increases in "portfolio employment," increased independent and contracted work, potentially rapid transformation of the skills and tasks needed even in "traditional" jobs, and the increasing global reach and scope of work, coupled with a rising global middle class who demand new products and services.

And that's just what we think will happen today. There's - literally - no way to know what will happen in even five years. Technological progress is happening too fast across too many parts of the globe.

Successful labor markets, public policies, and educational institutions of the future should focus on maximizing resilience of workers, rather than protection of specific types of employment. Resilience is, indeed, a specific type of protection, gained by taking in, assessing, understanding and responding to the world's accelerating churn.

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