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Work in the beginning of the 21st century Published: Sunday, December 19, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

        The world has never been static, simple or certain. But it surely never has been as dynamic, complex or uncertain as it is today—and the turmoil and volatility already unleashed and still to come will have profound impact on how we work, the work we do, where we do it and the way we organize it. To explore creatively the nature of work in the 21st century, we must challenge many of our deeply held assumptions, beliefs and perspectives. There are six fundamental shifts in mindset I believe to be imperative, for both national and corporate competitiveness: 

         First, the concept of “job” is dead. One of the stickiest ideas of the 20th century was “the job.” Essentially invented in the 1900s through Frederick Winslow Taylorism and Henry Fordism, the modern idea of the job gradually became synonymous with the timeless concept of work. The job’s many connotations have further shaped our expectations: jobs are for life; jobs are static; jobs are acquired, learned and then delivered consistently, usually until you retire. Truth is that the job is finished. Nobody can expect to learn a particular trade or skill and then spend 40 years deploying it. Nobody can have a job—or even an employer— that will last 20 or 35 years.

         Second, one conclusion that seems inevitable is that we’re entering into the post-retirement world. People with experience are going to be too valuable not to have them working. In addition, they’ll be living longer. And because the economy will have too few young people coming up behind them, we won’t be able to encourage retirement at 60, even 65. We’re going to see people working, at some level and in some manner, well into their 70s and beyond.

          The developed countries are facing a fundamental collapse in the potential support ratio (PSR), which is the ratio between those of working age and those of non-working age, as traditionally defined. For some countries, like Germany, Italy and Japan, this imbalance will be extremely dramatic; by mid-century, their support ratios will fall below 1.5:1. Even in the United States, we’ll see the ratio drop to the level of around 3:1. In contrast, the global PSR, in the middle of the last century, was about 10:1, with developed economies running around 7 or 8:1.

         Third, who wants to balance life and work when you can integrate it? For most of us, work is a significant chunk of our life. We can’t balance between them; we have to seek fulfillment through their integration. 21st century workers don’t see what they do as being separate from who they are and how they live. They’re going to want a much more holistic approach to their lives, in which work will be an important ingredient, albeit not the only one. They’ll want to get a sense of their meaning and purpose in life and spiritual fulfillment from their work. They’ll want to do work that they believe is of value and not just rewarding in the financial sense. Forget work-life balance; at the societal and the corporate levels, we need to think about how we make it possible for whole human beings to show up and integrate who they are and what they do every day.

         Fourth, it’s the experience economy. The next wave, which we’ve been talking about for a long time, without fully understanding, is that people want, and will pay extra for, experience in all aspects of their lives. That’s a huge driver of demand. It becomes increasingly important among people who have reached a close-to-saturation point with material goods and want to buy experiences as well. Now high-end experiences are creeping into every sector of the economy. This is an enormous opportunity, because experience requires people; it’s hard to automate the creation of high quality experiences. We’re going to see more and more of the work of the post- industrial economy, not simply moving into services, but moving very aggressively into the design and delivery of high-end experience.

        Fifth, co-creation and empowerment are more than just buzzwords. They are critical dimensions of the future of work and already of fundamental importance. Most organizations’ value-creation systems have become more complex and sophisticated, and require productive relationships across multiple boundaries. The co-creative process now typically transcends the traditional borders of the organization itself, involving deep collaboration with partners, allies, stakeholders, and, most of all, customers. This poses new challenges: behavioral, relational and educational because cross boundary co-creation demands more than traditional teamwork. It requires the ability to: hold and appreciate multiple perspectives; integrate multiple disciplines; listen deeply; understand interpersonal dynamics; work across cultures; interpret confusing data sets; find win-wins in circumstances hitherto regarded as zero-sum games; embrace and exploit creative tensions; navigate through ambiguity; and discover and articulate actionable answers to complex puzzles.

        Finally, the evolving organizational imperative is not simply harnessing human energy, but liberating it as well. It is impossible to make sense of the future of work without also reflecting on the future of organizations. It’s easy to forget that the autonomous organization—enjoying considerable lassitude in its mission, actions, choices, priorities, and innovations, is a relatively recent invention. Indeed, most of the defining characteristics of organization that we take for granted today were evolved through the course of the last century—and reflect the imperatives and the environment of that period. As our environmental context changes, it is unsurprising that our traditional notions of organization are being challenged—and, arguably, transformed.

       Grown interest in preparing workers for the future has brought sharply into focus the differences between the skills and competencies needed by the workers of the industrial era and the workers of the future. While technical and job-specific skills have sufficed in the past, it is increasingly being accepted that the worker of the future will need a more comprehensive set of competencies, “meta-competencies” such as learning skills, life management skills, and communication skills that are not occupation specific and are transferable across all facets of life and work. The economic value, to individuals and the nation as a whole, of a workforce equipped with these “meta-competencies” cannot be underestimated and their development cannot be left to chance.

       As the service economy becomes the experience economy, the work will follow, because it depends on people. Even if there were a machine that gave haircuts, most of us would prefer to feel the barber or stylist’s hand in our hair and be asked questions about our holidays. Since an economy is about people creating and satisfying each other’s needs and wants, as we move up Maslow’s hierarchy, more of those will become experiential wants. So we need to embrace work as creating high- end experiences and recognize the value that creates. We should also prepare people for this shift.


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