Our understanding of work and the workplace is at the brink of being changed irreversibly and these changes are already evident in many aspects of our lives. As the debate around the future of work gains momentum, organizations and leaders are coming to terms with the complexity of the situation, and are racing to find innovative and sustainable solutions. But in the cacophony of this race and the many buzzwords that come with it, the voice of the workforce is struggling to be heard. Let us revisit a fundamental aspect of this debate and take a look at the participation of employees in shaping the future of work, the assumptions that leaders might have about the workforce, and what can an individual do to future-proof their career.
Sleepwalking through careers
In today’s day and age when leaders value proactive and agile workers, one might assume that employees are going out of their way to solve critical challenges and take initiative in their organizations. However, a recent ‘Career Pathway’ report by LinkedIn found that nearly every third Indian professional is ‘sleepwalking’ through their career. According to the study, conducted in 11 Indian cities with more than 5,000 working professionals, nearly 57% of the respondents would consider pivoting their careers to make it more rewarding but are held back by the prospect of lesser wages and lower designation. On the bright side, the report also found that employees in India want greater control over their careers and 86% of the respondents had a clear career trajectory over the next five years. While professionals today are more careful about their career choices, 80% of the respondents were of the view that their current skill set would allow them to pivot their careers easily, which indicates a false sense of security in today’s fast-changing world.
The results of the report indicate that the workforce is yet to understand the gravity of the situation and is clearly not on the same page as their leaders regarding the future of work. While this gap is naturally undesirable, it is not entirely unexpected. For starters, practices and strategies which help organizations in becoming future-ready can seem rather vague when applied to individual job profiles and roles. Secondly, the term ‘future of work’ itself is a misnomer, as it seems to describe a workplace somewhere in the future, whereas, the fact of the matter is, that it has already arrived in so many ways.
Sharing the responsibility
The discourse about automation and the future of work focuses almost exclusively on how organizations, governments, and academia needs help individuals to become agile and future-ready. As a matter of fact, issues like job losses due to automation, investing in skilling and training programs, and universal basic income (UBI) are set to take the center-stage in the 2020 US presidential elections as well. However, these discussions usually simplify, and often polarize, a complex issue without addressing a crucial piece of the puzzle.
The contemporary narrative in the business world stresses upon the urgent need to keep up with the changing workplace but fails to offer adequate pathways and resources that can help individuals initiate this journey on their own. Sure, one might argue that, there are ample of readily-available online courses that can impart new skills, but how do professionals navigate these trainings and workshops and decide what skills to focus on? More importantly, preparing for the future isn’t as just about learning a new skill or being acquainted with new tools; it is making a broad attempt to comprehend the sweeping changes that are taking place in the way we work and live our lives, and adapting accordingly.
Thus, we need to dive deeper ask questions like how technology and automation will change the current paradigm (instead of reducing it to the number of jobs that will be lost); what skills will one require to work alongside machines (instead of the roles that will become obsolete in the future); how the traditional employee-employer relationship will change, and what kind of tools are available to help us understand these challenges better. Therefore, it is critical that individuals step outside their comfort zones, demand a seat at the table, and become an equal stakeholder in the dialogue for being future-ready.
The current model of formal learning up to the age of 20 - 25 years and then working and experiential learning for the rest of our lives is gradually being upended. We need to take responsibility for making our own lives relevant and enriching in the new economy
While the spotlight is shining bright on employers and governments to ensure the employability of humans in a highly automated world, a subtle realization regarding employees being the linchpin in this process is also dawning in. Leaders, experts, and scholars are beginning to discuss what individual employees can do to safeguard their own careers and gain valuable skills in the process.
While leaders are encouraging their subordinates to imbibe a culture of continuous learning and helping them establish industry networks, career advisors and consultants are teaching young professionals to create a unique brand identity, telling them to work on their soft skills, and helping them adapt to make the most of the flexibility in today’s workplace. The authors of ‘Future of Jobs in India: A 2022 Perspective’, a joint study by Nasscom, FICCI, and EY say that in addition to embracing the online economy individuals need “to realize that the current model of formal learning up to the age of 20 - 25 years and then working and experiential learning for the rest of our lives is gradually being upended. They need to take responsibility for making their own lives relevant and enriching in the new economy.”
Members of the workforce would do well to pay attention to these suggestions because it’s important to remember that humans have successfully dodged dystopian predictions regarding automation by honing the skills that are irreplaceable and uniquely human – communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and management.
At the end of the day, employees will have to stay relevant by adapting to the changes around them because if they fail to act now, they will be at the highest risk in the future. On the other hand, as organizations and government prepare to deal with the consequences of the increasing use of technology in the business world, they must take into confidence employee and trade unions, and engage with them to find solutions that work for everybody. The only way to ride through this wave of disruption is to take into account the motivations and expectations of both, the employee and the employer, and create a solution that is path-breaking and popular in equal parts. Probably, a great starting point for everyone would be to earnestly answer the question, ‘What does work mean to you?’