Many workers today are “shaking up the workforce from the bottom up,”3 demanding an employee-centric experience, driving a growing emphasis on self-development, and positioning themselves for the tectonic, technology-driven shift happening to our world that’s been dubbed “the fourth industrial revolution.” Technology advancements, diversity and generational changes, borderless workplaces, flexible employment models, and extended lifespans are disrupting the nature of careers and skills, and those of us who are earlier in our careers are at the forefront of this shift: we were groomed for conventional career paths, and started our work lives with a traditional expectation of an education-work-retirement life model that no longer applies.
As workers consider their value proposition in the workforce of the future, it’s important to reevaluate outdated career orthodoxies and archetypes, and cultivate the skills that are critical to adapting, shifting, innovating, growing, and changing. Future-oriented organizations, in considering the likelihood of rapidly advancing technology taking on repetitive, rule-based work that humans do today, are placing a much sharper lens on the human-value-added work needed to expand and advance their missions in this constantly morphing world.
So what does it take for a human being of any generation to thrive in an exponentially shifting world? Consider what the enduring human skills might be, those essentially human attributes that transcend disruption and continue to generate value in the labor market. Although the jury is still out on the concept of “essential and enduring” human skills, you can make some safe bets on what skills to start building now to help give yourself an edge in the Future of Work, based on the demands organizations have today for humans who can help them innovate, create, morph, and grow.4
1. Don’t over-index on replaceable skills – develop your “soft” skills
Rapidly advancing technology is increasing the demand for technical skills and digital fluency—and decreasing the length of time a skill stays relevant in the workforce. This means that, more than ever, humans should develop skills that can’t yet be displaced by technology, skills that can generate value as the world exponentially changes. As organizations shift from hierarchies to decentralized teams to compete in the new world of work, flexibility, creativity, and collaboration are critical. Many employers believe there’s a skill gap for these attributes that we traditionally label as “soft skills” necessary to operate in this kind of disruptive environment, including complex thinking, creativity and problem-solving, collaboration and the ability to influence, ability to work across diverse and dispersed teams, and communication skills in all forms.5 Maybe part of the reason employers believe there’s a gap in these skills is because we’ve traditionally thought of them as innate parts of an individual’s personality, but research suggests these skills can be cultivated and developed in adults, and are correlated with successful career and life outcomes.6
2. Forget IQ and GPA – measure success in failures and growth
Many organizations and society in general are moving away from relying on traditional measures of intelligence, such as IQ or GPA, to predict career success. These types of metrics are no longer accepted as the sole forecasters of long-term and professional achievement. Instead, grit and resilience are now gaining the spotlight as predictors of success.7 Grit, according to researcher Angela Duckworth, is defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”8 Good news: while IQ tends to remain relatively stable over a lifespan,9 grit and resilience can be learned. While individuals may have an innate propensity for grit or resilience, these skills can be cultivated in anyone—regardless of factors like background, gender, or class. Learning to suspend judgment and keep an open mind, building courage and confidence to try new ways of solving problems, and embracing failure should be part of the process to achieving success. Other crucial attitudes for being “gritty”? Be dependable, positive, and dust yourself off when you stumble.10
3. Assume radical accountability over your career and relevance in the workforce
While investments in continuous learning and development opportunities are on the rise in many organizations across industries, leaders believe that the responsibility for learning and development should be co-owned between organizations and their workers.11 A shared responsibility boils down to joint accountability of each employee’s talent life cycle and career trajectory, particularly in organizations that do not provide structured pathways for learning and growth. Disrupted careers mean that we should individually be prepared to shift, change and grow—and do it in a way that’s aligned to our individual values and preferences. Whatever your employment model may be, take responsibility for establishing your own vision for where you want the sum of your life’s work to lead, and leverage a variety of learning opportunities to get there—at your company, in external professional programs, and on your personal time. Reframe your approach to continuous learning and growth as a responsibility to reach your potential—within and outside of wherever you may currently work—as a way to pay forward your privileges and gifts to serve others in this world who certainly need your time, energy, and talent.
4. Challenge your own thinking, assumptions, and beliefs
With the rise of social media and self-service consumption of information, people are indulging in confirmation bias. The effects of this can range from extremely polarized views to unconscious bias, to the inadvertent formation of “echo chambers” within one’s social network.12 Be mindful of moments when you are instinctively seeking out information that confirms your own thinking. Push yourself to self-correct in these moments. Then, challenge yourself to seek out ideas that don’t affirm your point of view or expectations. In short: un-simplify your world, seek multiple perspectives, suspend judgment, maintain an open mind, and be informed—truly.
5. Be a good human
With a more diverse workforce, effectively leading teams and employees in the 21st century looks, not surprisingly, very different than it did a decade ago.13 If current trends continue, tomorrow’s workforce will likely be even more diverse than today’s—in gender, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual preference, and identification, and likely other characteristics that have not yet gained as much visibility.14 An increasingly diverse workforce brings about the need for people who are culturally competent and aware. Inclusion, fairness, and social responsibility are just some of the competencies that are expected of current and rising leaders. So make a genuine effort to diversify your network, exhibit inclusive behaviors, and understand the realities of others while working to pay forward your own talents and opportunities.
Building the workforce of the future means cultivating essential and enduring human capabilities. Developing soft skills, resilience, accountability, challenging your own thinking, and leading with empathy are basic but critical competencies that can help the workforce in general accelerate and succeed in the Future of Work. We’re ready, willing, and leaning into the challenge.