Next-Gens? Prepare for a New World of Work.

A wise person once told me that being parent is like being an archer, complete with a bow and arrows. Our children are the arrows, and our job as parents is to aim them in a certain direction, draw our bow, and let them fly. With, of course, earnest hopes they’ll hit their mark.

One of my children is 16, and she’s soon to decide which subjects she’ll take her exams–what in England we used to call “O-Levels.” All our thoughts–hers, and her Mum’s and Dad’s–are turning to what she wants to do later on. And with my being part of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, for once she might actually listen to what I have to say!

The Financial Times , Wall Street Journal, and the Economist have been awash with stories about robots, portending a great hollowing out of the professional class. But from my perspective, there’s no need to sound the death knell of the human job or career just yet.

Survey data from Cognizant’s latest report, People—Not Just Machines—Power Digital Innovation, show that job prospects for the future are rather good. According to our survey, 40% of respondents expected staff numbers to increase over the next three years, while 40% expected they’d stay more or less constant. (Don’t underestimate the power of culture and vested interests to keep a wave of automation at bay!)

But the truth runs deeper than that: Anyone who works in the field of robotics knows the limitations of what they’re working with. Companies developing robots want humans in the loop because it will make their machines more socially acceptable and less threatening. From what I have learned, most people operating in what we can now call “the robot industries” say people will have an important role to play in directing the activities and work flows of human-like machines for decades to come.

I believe people will always work much in the same way in future as they do today–just as we’ll still eat three times a day and pay taxes. Some (though fewer) will doubtless work for one company all their lives. Some will build careers in a few places. But many others will move around much more than our generation did. Maybe we get away from the metaphor of a career path, and think instead of a career direction: The next generation–our children–will weave work assignments and gigs into a broader career narrative.

From Knowledge Acquisition to Learning How to Learn

As parents, we have to update the career advice we give our children. Educational achievement will absolutely count for a lot; but building a career now has to be more about how individuals learn rather than the knowledge itself. Learning the habit of learning, and staying open to new directions, is going to be more important. Re-skilling oneself for changing circumstances will be the norm. Qualities like perseverance, agility, social intelligence, resilience, and communication skills will be highly helpful.

People—Not Just Machines predicts some of the new roles that are emerging as jobs or gigs in the digital age. For example, as populations in many advanced economies are aging, and as people live longer, an older population will require different levels of care. Are we to see more aging specialists? Well-being consultants? Life-style motivators? Alongside these, mightn’t new types of entertainment evolve? Different sports? Other personal services?

woman helping elderly womanRobots won’t fulfill these very human needs. And in every industry, the better the technology becomes, the more people will need to focus on the skills that make them human: that is, on leadership, motivation, compassion. Because you won’t get these from a computer.

Too, when I meet young people today, I’m impressed by the energy and the sense of self-determination most of them exude. Many don’t want to work for “the man”; they want to work for themselves. One need only point to the astonishing rise of co-working spaces–WeWork is the example I give in my report. And if you’ve not seen a WeWork in your city, look again: The company’s growth is phenomenal and it might open soon...

Rather than being worried about the future, which is an easy trap to fall into, the world that my children are growing up in is full of promise and opportunity. Yes, there are uncertainties. But aren’t there always? The ability to travel and experience different countries and cultures is easier than it ever was. The mindset of our younger generation on the purposefulness of life seems to be evolving from a desire to have things to a desire for experiences. (Check out this IKEA executive outlining new business models and the concept of peak stuff.) My generation tends to raise its eyebrows when we hear “work-life balance,” but while today’s younger generation is ambitious, their ambitions seem to focus on creating balanced approaches to life. I say good for them.

Our challenge: Educate children so their education delivers meaning and purpose as well as resilience and perseverance. A challenge, indeed. It will be fascinating to see how we–and our children–respond.

Euan Davis

Euan Davis

Euan Davis leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work in EMEA. A respected speaker and thinker, Euan has guided many Fortune... Read more