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The notion of “having” a job and going to work has dramatically changed since the turn of the 21st Century. From providing stability, reassurance, financial coverage and a sense of pride and belonging, today work has the opposite effect. It creates anxiety, uncertainty and self-doubt. Not to mention distrust in the system!

The volatility we are constantly experiencing is forcing people and companies to confront the changes head on. We can choose to face the winds of change with sturdy and resilient wings or with heavy armours that may shield us but that do not allow us to be nimble and adapt.

Depending on how we look at it, this New Era of work may either be a dark age or a Renaissance Age. If we can imagine a very different World of Work from the one we know today, a world where volatility becomes a conduit for creativity and where work is one of its many manifestations, then we have a good chance of entering a New Renaissance! After all, the etymology of volatility is “volatilis” which in Latin means fleeting, transitory, swift and we all know that “volare” means to fly. So why not look at the volatile world of work with the lightness of spirit it requires rather than the heaviness of preoccupation?

Perhaps one of the reasons it is difficult to change ways of looking at work is due to decades of associating work with stability, reliability and necessity. You had to have a job in order to be someone and become financially independent. It was a means to an end. It gave dignity, security, money, skills, experience, status and it kept you busy until retirement. It was also the expected return on investment for all the time spent studying and for all the money parents spent on paying for their children’s studies.

So “work” and “getting a job” was not an option: it was a must. If you didn’t have a job, you felt like a loser and society made you feel like a loser too.

The Winds of Change

Fast forward to today and the very notion of work has become so “fluid” and volatile that what we could once easily embed into tasks, jobs and pay schemes, is now a slippery concept, difficult to grasp and impossible to hold on to. Whatever is solidified in a job and in an organizational structure today, will need to be reviewed tomorrow.

Redesigning work, changing structures, roles and reporting lines is the easy part. It doesn’t take much effort to re-bundle tasks into different roles and change workflows. This is the bread and butter of HR and it pays the bills to consultants.

What is far more difficult to manage is how these changes impact you and me, how they undermine the culture of an organization, and the credibility of its leaders.

The fact is professional development is in our hands and developing our assets is in our best interest. No matter what companies may promise, no matter what their value proposition may be, they will not be able to stick to it, no matter how hard they try. In my view they should stop trying and start changing narrative.

This ongoing tension between “fixing” and defining jobs in a given space and time AND the need for people to stay flexible, agile and fluid within and across jobs will not go away.  We will see more and more of it in the years to come. Companies will still push for structure and organizational predictability because they need it to be in business, and people will continue to be stuck in the middle and have to figure out how to navigate through these contradictions without losing themselves along the way.

It is no surprise that there is an overall disenchantment towards work, jobs and careers.

The good news is there are many of us, so the journey is not a lonely one. The bad news is the burden of success is fully in our hands. And when we fall short of that expectation, we are the ones who have failed.

If we are not happy, it is our fault for we do not have the right state of mind that brings on happiness; if we cannot find a job or get a promotion, it is assumed this is because we have not been resolute enough, good enough, industrious enough; if we are not sure about our career prospects it is because we have failed to influence the right people and learn the new skills that are needed to climb the ladder.

This burden on the individual is disproportionate in relation to the means the individual has to take that burden on successfully and single-handedly. We all know that you and I can only influence and change so much. Companies and governments need to play their part too.

We also know that true change is transformative. It comes from asking ourselves the difficult questions and finding solutions by changing assumptions. 

The Challenges Ahead

How can we stay engaged, motivated, committed when no one quite knows what the rules of the new game are except that “change is the new normal” and that we need to be flexible and happy while going through it?

Does it make sense to continue to talk about careers the way we used to? Are these vertical progressions still a proxy of your self-worth and self-realization? Most people will get disappointed at some stage of their career and realize that they became someone they thought they would like to become without ever quite realizing what they had to give up for it.

The assumptions of what having a career meant in the past are no longer valid today. This is true for individuals and companies alike.

As the former are scratching their heads trying to figure out what their career may look like, the latter are adding their own questions to the mix: how can we maximize productivity and minimize people costs while heralding the cultural values and talent conversations we care so much about but that we know we cannot really commit to?

Perhaps companies should ask themselves a very different set of questions, starting from different assumptions: is my future workforce human or non-human or both? Are the tasks at hand better managed by technology or by people? And if the latter how many people do we need? For how long? And do we actually need permanent employees or can we develop a hybrid model, a network of connected professionals that may have different contractual terms and conditions but who can still bond and create an inspiring culture?

Building culture is important and it will continue to be important in the future. People feel good and give their best only when the environment they are in resonates with their values and beliefs. But in this new era of work, companies can look at culture differently.

Who says that culture needs to have an exclusive inner focus and be built around employees?

Once again we can challenge these assumptions. Perhaps culture in the future will include the wider ecosystem within which a company operates: from clients, to suppliers, to independent professionals that may come and go. Open-source cultures that are truly inclusive and diverse can be an incredible game changer in the future worlds of work!

We All Have A Role To Play

The picture would not be complete if we didn’t add the 3rd player to the table: governments and public institutions.

Their concerns are possibly greater than all of those of the others put together. They have to handle the wider social, political and economic consequences of unpredictable market dynamics.

What to do if there aren’t enough jobs out there? Who will pay for future pensions? For how long can unemployment insurances be able to support the unemployed? What other financial and social buffers can we create? Who will benefit from them? And who will pay for them? What to do if social unrest becomes uncontrollable?

Populism, polarization and political dystopia are on the rise. Watch that space! Either the nation state and the public sector become stronger or they will disintegrate and be replaced by private capital and the market. The answer will probably be somewhere in the middle.

The point here is that regardless of where you stand, whether you are a public administrator, a corporate leader, an entrepreneur, or a multi-versed worker, not one single component of our World of  Work is exempt from this volatility.

Believing that the changes we are witnessing are short lived is delusional. All parties need to realize that although we may not yet know what the future brings, we do know that if we hold on to old ways of thinking and apply old rules to a new game, we lose. Worse yet, we don’t even qualify to play.

As individuals we must take responsibility for our growth and be very honest with ourselves. What role do I want to play in this New Era of work? How can I use my multiple skills, talents and passions to contribute to solving the problems I care about? How can I connect with other like minded professionals, learn along the way and make a difference?

Once we equip ourselves with the right tools and embrace the right mindset we will be in a better position to spread our wings and ride the winds of change to go in the direction we want to go as opposed to run after it or be blown away.

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