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How to Future-Proof your Career in the 4th Industrial Revolution

When you’re in the midst of a paradigm shift it can be difficult to understand that you are, since there is never a clear end or beginning. However, we have already been transitioning into the 4th Industrial revolution in the past few years according to the World Economic Forum (they introduced the term broadly in 2015).

So, this monumental shift is already happening, and will continue to have a massive effect on how we live and work. Ironically, that’s the only thing we can be sure of – we can’t clearly grasp exactly what the change will entail yet. 

Although there is not a totally clear vision of the future yet, there are clear signs on the direction in terms the way work is viewed and valued, and the way that careers are planned. It’s time for all of us – HR and the working world in general – to question the chosen truths about do’s and don’ts when it comes to all of our workings lives.

The Backdrop

Industrialisation as a phenomenon was born in the mid to late 18th Century with the 1st industrial revolution, which was fuelled by a shift from hand production and animal power to machines, by using water and steam power. The result was workers leaving agriculture to get better pay in factories. 

The second industrial revolution was triggered by the invention of electricity in the early 20th century. It brought mass production to the world! At this time workers were mostly trained on-the-job to master skills that would last a lifetime, they would join a trade and stay there throughout their career. 

In the third industrial revolution centered around Information Technology, the internet was created. It was a digital revolution that started around 1970 (those first computers that took up an entire room and gave the same power as you can find in a microchip today – they are not such a distant memory in terms of time). With the entrance of the internet and the digital era, automation of manufacturing was made possible, meaning that work trends shifted from physical and routine labour to a larger need for cognitive labor. This in turn, increased the need for higher education and people were set on a path to study more, to go for higher education degrees, pick a major, and after all these years of studying, they would get a job and climb the career ladder in that industry.

Now, the 4th industrial revolution will fundamentally change the way we live, work and relate to one another. It’s based on the digital revolution of the third, but with a range of new technologies seeing the light of day. And these technologies are blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds. A world where the digital and the real world are interconnected, just look at the early attempts of virtual and augmented reality tech, merging the physical and digital worlds.

Shifting to a New Reality

In the shift between two paradigms, it’s often messy, and can be confusing as there are two parallel versions of the truth alive at the same time. This is where we are right now when looking at the state of work.

On the one hand we have the traditional ways of viewing careers, the way we have been looking at careers for at least 50 years. What we mean by this, is the type of career where people get educated in one block of time (going from kindergarten through high school and to college). Then, with a graduation cap in hand they start climbing the career ladder, and most likely have a linear career, ending with pension at age 65. That career is then followed by a well-earned rest period of retirement for 10-15+ years (according to life expectancy rates in the Western world). 

On the other hand, we’re moving into a reality where company life spans are getting shorter, creating a higher volatility on the job market. At the same time, human beings are getting older (according to the WHO, life expectancy increased by 6 years between 2000 and 2019). As our economic systems for pensions and retirement are not built for these longer retirements of 30-40 years, it pushes towards lengthening careers. And the speed of change and the exponentially expanding technology is making our knowledge and skills obsolete at a pace never seen before. As the World Economic Forum predicts in its Future of Jobs Report, out of all workers who want to remain in their roles in the next five years, nearly 50% will have to be reskilled due to automation.

Reevaluating Careers and Investing in Lifelong Learning

Summing this up – it might sound like doomsday is upon us. That’s not true, but as we mentioned before, we must find a way to challenge those chosen truths, and roll up our sleeves to shape the future of work and life.  

We should embrace a reevaluation of the way we view careers, long tenure and getting a gold watch. These things will no longer necessarily be a measure of success. These changes also entail a mindshift in how we think about our identities, as many of us still identify with what we do for a living. But in a future where we will have multiple careers our identity won’t be as attached to work. And we’ll hopefully stop asking our children what they want to be when they grow up as we don’t know what jobs will come and disappear during their childhood.

We will need to upskill and reskill more often, meaning learning will be a lifelong process, not something you do when young, but constantly through your (longer) working life. Instead of one block of education and one long career there is a shift towards people having a number of shorter ‘careers’ with education and learning within and in between, we will probably not have one linear career but, rather multi-industry career webs.

There’s a need for each individual to take responsibility to stay relevant and take charge of their development, and an expectation on companies to support their employees in being learning agile and adaptive to future needs, in this new reality.

When explaining the mindshift needed, Heather McGowan, work strategist and author of The Adaptation Advantage, says “Learning is the new pension.” We couldn’t agree more. We should start reframing our thinking away from learning in order to work, and instead towards working in order to learn continuously. The pension was created in order to help workers put aside means and plan for the day when they wouldn’t be able to work anymore. They were encouraged to invest today for the future. Today, and for our future, that investment is learning. 

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