The meaning of “work” is changing, and with life expectancies growing, the gig economy taking hold and artificial intelligence taking plenty of people’s jobs, millennials will have careers that are worlds away from those of their forebears, says Dr. Linda Sharkey, global managing director of the consulting firm Achieveblue Inc.
Sharkey is the author of “The Future-Proof Workplace: Six Strategies to Accelerate Talent Development, Reshape Your Culture and Succeed with Purpose,” co-written with Morag Barnett, the chief executive of the business management consultancy SkyeTeam. She talked to International Business Times about the prospects for 21st-century careers, the falling value of a four-year degree and the idea that a robot might be conducting this sort of question-and-answer article in the not-so-far-away future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
One issue you touch on in your book is your expectation that retirement will cease to be a 21st century phenomenon, and that today’s young workers are more likely to take sabbaticals than end their careers by their late sixties. Is this something you think will be born of choice — a desire to work longer — or a consequence of the unsustainability of Social Security as generations live longer and have fewer children?
No, I don’t think it has anything to do with Social Security not being sustainable anymore, and I can’t imagine that it won’t be for a good, long period of time. I think it’s more that millennials are going to live longer, they are better educated, they have better health, obviously, they have more choices, and they’re not constrained with the same paradigms that we had in the 20th century. They don’t necessarily view a job as a 9-to-5, or a 10-to-8, or whatever it is, and they don’t necessarily view themselves as having one employer and going to the same corporation day in and day out.
I think they’re more interested in working on interesting projects and having exciting things to do, and I think, frankly, you’re seeing this trend now. You have a lot of people who are retiring at 60, 65, and going on to other careers. I myself have had five careers. My co-author’s had five or six different careers and I moved on from different circumstances and took a year of sabbatical myself to write another book, and I think you’re going to see more and more of that kind of trend. And I think you’re going to see it more as a result of changing perspectives about work.
Do you think the gig economy will play a large role in defining work for younger generations as they age?
Absolutely, because somebody can be working in a gig at Hewlett-Packard, let’s say… or Uber. People have gigs through Fiverr… you make a lot of money, and you jump back on.
Some have pointed to a culture of working yourself to death. Do you think younger workers who embrace that lack of structure will have a tough road ahead in terms of work-life balance?
People have always burned themselves out in the workplace. In the late 90s we talked about work-life balance. That’s a very personal matter for people who entered work in the recession… There was a lot of pressure to deliver. There was a lot of burnout and low morale… It’s really nothing new, and a lot of it is somebody’s personal choices. People who work for themselves work long and hard hours — they put a lot of time in it, they get a lot of satisfaction out of it, because they’re working for themselves. So I think that’s where it’s going to be more of a personal balance issue. So my answer is yes, there will be people who burn out over it and stress out over it, but there will be other people who find their work-life balance for themselves, as has always been the case.
What will these “sabbaticals” be like, for professionals who are not professors, researchers and the like? What is a sabbatical going to look like for a lawyer, a physician, an office worker?
Well, I took a sabbatical for a year from a company to write a book, and I do have a Ph.D. but I wasn’t an academic at the time. A friend of mine who was at Google, he took a sabbatical just to travel and reflect on what’s the next stage in his career. A woman that I know — I helped her get hired at a company — the company was closing and she looked at this opportunity and said, “You know, I’ve never had an opportunity like this,” and she traveled through South America because she was always fascinated with South America. She came back and she got another job.
Sabbaticals will take all sorts of different looks… I think “sabbatical” is a broad bucket, which people can use as a way to have the freedom to do the things they want to do outside of a normal job. And I think you’re going to see a lot less people working for companies more than three or four years. They’re going to be moving on to something else.
How often do you think millennials will switch careers in their lifetimes, compared to older cohorts?
I think — and the trend is already here — millennials will move around to different jobs at different companies to get different experiences. The career might be the same… you might stay in the same general field, but you might be working on various different projects.
You note the declining value of the four-year degree. Will the new standard be a graduate degree, or higher stakes for millennials’ entry-level jobs?
I think you’re going to see people still going to college, people still getting different kinds of degrees, [including from] MOOCs [massive open online courses]. You’re going to see a lot of apprenticeships, where companies are going to be looking at the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed… kids out of high school or out of trade schools, out of community colleges. They’re not as expensive, and they’re going to hire them into their companies and they’re going to train them in apprenticeships — to learn the software, to learn to be a data technician, and those kinds of things. And that’s a good thing. Companies have sort of steered away from those kinds of apprenticeships over time because they felt like they were training people for their next job outside of their company.
I think that liberal arts degrees are going to be important because we don’t know what jobs are tomorrow, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Right now there’s software that writes columns and writes articles. They may not even need you to conduct this kind of interview — the software can call me up, ask the questions, I give the answers and they put it into an article that can be done through artificial intelligence. So we’re not really sure what all the jobs of the future are going to be, but one thing is absolutely certain: You’re going to need people in the workplace, and you’re going to need people who have empathy, people who know how to build relationships, and know how to think, who are critical thinkers and problem solvers, who can adapt to change… and that comes from learning, but that doesn’t necessarily have to come from a four-year college degree.
In your book, you describe the ways the workplace is changing for millennials, but how are millennials themselves changing their own workplaces, aside from the obvious — a ubiquitous embrace of social media and tech?
I think, rightly, millennials are really redesigning what it means to have a career. They’re spending more time in different areas, they’re coming into workplaces to learn and they’re taking that learning to other workplaces. So I think they’re changing the workplace from the point of view that you don’t have to work inside a building, you can work from anywhere. Smart companies are understanding that, and they’re putting in place policies and regulations that enable working from anywhere at any time.
There was a great story of some millennials who were just out of college and attended a board meeting at a major corporation. And they were in the board meeting, and they were on their cell phones the whole time. And when they all broke for lunch, people came up to the CEO and said, “See, those millennials, they can’t get off their phones. They’re texting and on Facebook and that kind of stuff.” … And the CEO said, “No, no, they’re taking notes.” So, people have to change their view and I think millennials are changing their views of what kind of technology and how technology gets used… I do think that redefining how work gets done and what work gets done is going to be a big change. Companies 15 years ago wouldn’t let people in the building use their cell phones. That’s not going to happen.
Which companies are adapting to these changes most successfully?
I think Google, Facebook — they’re leading the way with their campuses. They’re communities. They’re not in traditional-looking office buildings like you would think. There’s a dry-cleaner’s, there’s a hair place, there’s outdoor food kiosks and different restaurants. I think you’re going to see more and more of that. People are going to be treating the workplace, or the work community place, as a congregation for creativity and innovation and ideas.
I think you’re not going to see hierarchies… I don’t think you’re going to see a manager and 35 people. I think you’re going to see leaders, with people working on projects… I think it’s going to be much more fluid.