The cover of my recently-released book ‘What The Heck Do I Do With My Life?’ has a picture of a dinosaur on it. This T-Rex is a metaphor for what Charles Darwin once famously said: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.’
Sixty-five million years ago, when an asteroid struck the earth, it unleashed such an extraordinary amount of change in such a short period of time, that seventy-five per cent of all living things were unable to adapt and became extinct, including dinosaurs. However, some creatures were able to adapt to the new conditions - the new normal - and they flourished. Amongst these were our ancestors, the early mammals.
Such periods of extreme change pose what is called an ‘adaptation challenge’ for us. And they result in Darwinian binary outcomes: those who can adapt, flourish; those who cannot, perish. We are living through a period of similar intense change right now. The world will change more in this century. However, this time, the change is driven not by an asteroid, but by us. There are so many forces at play: technology, climate change or rather the backlash of all our unsustainable behaviour, extreme inequality, polarisation, loss of trust... I could go on, but essentially, all this is combining to create an extremely turbulent world… a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous or VUCA world. We saw this very vividly during the COVID-19 pandemic – where, those who were able to adapt, flourished; those who couldn’t, suffered.
The 21st Century: future of work and skills
With this deep emphasis on the need for us to adapt to our rapidly-changing times, allow me to share a few tools and strategies that may be useful to flourish in times like this. My focus here is not just only on the individual level, but also for larger organisations and HR leaders like you.
One aspect is that companies need to have more innovative and flexible work arrangements. I agree with the writer Charles Handy who predicts that there will be broadly three categories of workers in the future: i) the creatives: software architects, content creators, people who design and make new products/services; ii) caregivers: who are essentially different types of front-line workers; and iii) a small number of ‘custodians’ who manage work, processes and infrastructure of organisations that will not disappear but need a few people to run them.
Organisations will have a small permanent core of such ‘custodians’, but more and more people will be self-employed and offer their skill, talent or expertise in a variety of flexible contractual arrangements. We have seen this play out with rising levels of subcontracting and outsourcing, greater use of consultants and gig workers. Remote and hybrid work is here to stay and will likely accelerate these trends. In the US, we have a phenomenon called ‘The Great Resignation’, as people re-evaluate their priorities, choose to explore alternative careers or working options, or simply take advantage of a skills shortage. In India, we’ve been seeing very high levels of attrition, particularly amongst those with hot skills. This may not be short -term, but the ‘new normal’, and a sea-change from how we’ve thought about organisations, hierarchies, jobs and careers.
To cater to this paradigm shift, companies will need a workforce that has very different characteristics. We will need a workforce that is adaptable, resilient, agile and capable of learning new skills. Paradoxically, even as levels of automation are rising, interaction between people is becoming more important, rather than less important. Work today is increasingly collaborative, multidisciplinary and focused on solving complex problems in creative ways. So, we need people who are good at working with people i.e., have what are called 21st century skills: communication, collaboration, creativity, problem-solving and so on.
I am a firm believer that while not everyone will become an entrepreneur, to succeed in this century, every person will need an ‘entrepreneurial mindset’, which means they should be able to see and seize opportunities, be resourceful, tenacious and good at solving problems. This is the work that my organisation Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME) does. With our partners, we are running the largest entrepreneurship programs in the world, with over a million kids from grades 9-12 in Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and soon four more states, showing that entrepreneurship is not something you are born with – it is a mindset and skill that can be learned experientially. Developing an entrepreneurial skill will drive tremendous outcomes in terms of self-confidence, agency, learning outcomes and overall life success.
We also need many more leaders. In the 21st Century, leadership is not about a title like president/vice president/general manager, etc. It is not about power and authority. It is more of a verb - an act. We need more people to be able to see problems or opportunities and inspire others to come together to solve them and to do this by influence rather than authority and without someone asking them to. It’s about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Catalysing ‘crucible experiences’
Now, here’s the thing. None of these meta skills that I’ve talked about until now - growth mindset, entrepreneurship, learning agility, 21st Century skills or leadership - can be taught in a classroom. They cannot be learned online. They can only be learned by experience, by what I call “crucible experiences” - where you voluntarily or perforce take on a big challenge that is completely beyond your comfort zone, and, in the process of making a success of it, you develop and hone your own meta skills.
This is how organisations can develop the ‘workforce of the future’, where the entire senior management can get involved in mentoring the projects and the talent to stretch, learn and collaborate to achieve ‘impossible’ goals.
Thus, by being massively more intentional and focused about systematically putting people through these sort of crucible experiences, the output, based on what I’ve seen from my own experience, will be not just business breakthroughs, but an entire pipeline of leaders of the future.