Article by Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School.  May 2011

The changing shape of jobs: Work the shift

Lynda GrattonHow will rapid changes in technology, demographics and society affect us as workers, and as HR professionals? The Future of Work Consortium believes they will transform our world – for good or ill.

"We are in the midst of a change in the nature of work that is greater than anything ever experienced before" says Linda Gratton


These are exciting times. There are forces at work that, over the next decade, will fundamentally shift much of what we take for granted about employees, work and organisations. We live at a time when the schism with the past is of the same magnitude as that last seen in the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century: a schism of such magnitude that work — what we do, where we do it, how we work and with whom — will change, possibly unrecognisably, in our lifetimes.

In the late 18th century, the drivers of change were the development of coal and steam power. This time it is not the result of a single force, but rather the subtle combination of five forces that will fundamentally transform much of what we take for granted about work: the needs of a low-carbon economy, rapid advances in technology, increasing globalisation, profound changes in longevity and demography, and deep societal changes.

Many of the ways that we have taken for granted for 20 years are disappearing: working from 9-to-5, aligning with only one company, taking weekends off, working with people we have known well in the offices we go to every day. And the same is happening for companies – the idea that hierarchy is the best way to manage information flows, that most people will work with team members in the same office, that the majority of talent will be held within the boundaries of the company. All of this is shifting and what’s coming in its place is much less knowable, less understandable, and almost too fragile to grasp.

The five forces that are shaping work

Right now the combination of the five forces of technology, globalisation, demographic trends, the needs for a low -carbon economy, and societal changes are fundamentally re-shaping work. Here are some of the ways these forces are making that happen:

  • Technological capability will increase exponentially: one of the key trends will be the rapid and continuous fall in the cost of computing. We can expect this to continue and to see ever more complex technology available in relatively inexpensive handheld devices.
  • Added to this, within the next decade more than five billion people will become connected. This will take place in the “megacities” of the world, and also in rural areas. The extent of this connectivity will create the possibility of a “global consciousness” that has never before been seen.
  • The extent of this global consciousness will also be shaped by “the cloud” becoming ubiquitous, creating a global infrastructure upon which services will become available – applications and resources. It will allow anyone with a computer or handheld device to rent services on a minute-by-minute basis, and this has enormous potential to bring sophisticated technology to every corner of the world.
  • We can expect mega-companies and micro-entrepreneurs to emerge. Technological advances will lead to a increasingly complex work and business environment, with the emergence of mega-companies that span the globe. At the same time, millions of smaller groups of micro-entrepreneurs and partnerships will emerge.
  • We can expect China and India’s decades of growth to play an enormous role. Over the past decades, both countries have experienced massive growth – fuelled by a joint domestic market of over two billion consumers, and the capacity to be the “factory” and “back office” of the world. Moreover, as the goods and services -created by workers in these countries move up the value chain – so the global aspirations of local companies increase.
  • We can also expect talent pools to change with the global educational powerhouses. With a joint population of 2.6 billion in 2010, predicted to rise to 2.8 billion in 2020 and 3 billion in 2050, India and China are rapidly becoming key to the talent pools of the world. Add to that a propensity in these countries to study the “hard” scientific subjects, and investment by local companies in talent development will ensure that increasingly companies will look to India and China for their engineers and scientists.

What’s around the corner?

Faced with these massive forces, the future of work could be bleak: a place where globalisation and technological development leave many people isolated in urban centres adrift from colleagues and linked only through virtual avatars and telepresence. A future where the constant needs of a 24/7 world combined with incessant technological demands create a level of fragmentation of time that takes away much of the opportunity to learn deeply or to experience creative play. A future where those who have created the highest value for themselves quickly shoot further ahead, leaving behind the mass of the population excluded in growing pockets of poverty around the world.

But the future of work could also be positive and life enhancing. A future where the sheer connectivity of technology combined with the growing empathy of Generation Y creates extraordinary opportunities for people to reach out across the world to others in a process of co-creation that multiplies the energy of one individual to the creativity and innovation of crowds of like-minded people.

A future where community and society can play a more profound role in day-to-day work and where many people can decide to balance work with a range of other activities. A future that creates real opportunities for energetic people to become micro-entrepreneurs, using the power of low cost technology and linking into global communities to create value in a way that was never possible before.

Making the shift

Never before has so much choice been given to so many people. The challenge is for us all to use these choices wisely, to understand their consequences and to take actions that are courageous and life enhancing.

I believe that we will need to make the following shifts if we are to ensure that the downsides of the default future are reduced:

  • The shift from shallow generalist to serial master. There has been a view up to now that knowing a little about a lot creates opportunities. But in these days of smart technology, your competitor is not an educated Chinese counterpart, but rather anyone with access to Wiki-pedia or Google, both of which allow us all to be masters of shallow knowledge.
  • The challenge here is to choose something that is interesting and valuable and then be prepared to really go deep in terms of skills and competencies. In the long working lives that many of us will have, that also means being prepared to morph at least twice, and possibly three or four times, into other areas of expertise.
  • The shift from isolated competitor to innovative connector. Many baby boomers like me were brought up to believe that hard work and competition were the way to flourish. But in the future the challenges are too big and too complex to be solved by one person – what they will need is connectivity. In my view there are three key types of connectivity that will be crucial. The first is the “posse”: that small number of people whom you trust for ideas and inspiration, whom you know well and who will come to your assistance when you need it. The second is the “big ideas crowd”: the extended network of friends – and friends of friends – who bring potentially a huge array of ideas and insights, which can play such a crucial role in innovation. The third is the connectivity to counteract the loneliness that could be such a central motif of work in the future. This is the “regenerative community”: a network of close friends and family that can provide the emotional support and candour which is so important for emotional resilience.
  • The shift from voracious consumer to impassioned producer. The traditional deal at work – “I work… to be paid… to buy stuff… that makes me happy” – is looking increasingly antiquated. Many people choose the work they do for a whole range of reasons beyond simply getting paid. Moreover, consuming stuff is increasingly shown to play a very limited part in the creation of human happiness. That’s why the third shift is so important. The shift from putting pay, remuneration and promotion at the heart of the deal to putting a greater focus on what really makes working life valuable. This will include, for example, the opportunity to work with people who are creative and inspiring, to perform tasks that are rich with meaning and to produce ideas that resonate with values.
  • We are in the midst of a change in the nature of work that is greater than anything ever experienced before. We have more choice available to us than ever before and more opportunities to craft work in ways that bring value, meaning and purpose. The challenge is to embrace these changes and transform work both for individuals and for organisations.
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© 2011 Alison Peggs Consulting
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