Surviving the New World of Work

In a post last month, we featured an excellent special report from The Economist on the new world of work, a topic dear to the hearts of all freelancers.

In it, I pointed to an article of particular interest to freelancers called, “My Big Fat Career,” a kind of self-help article about how to survive in this new world. Here’s an excerpt (then a link to read the rest).

The growing need for workers to keep upgrading and adapting their skills is one of the themes of a new book, “The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here”, by Lynda Gratton of the London Business School. She argues that the pace of change will be so rapid that people may have to acquire a new expertise every few years if they want to be part of the lucrative market for scarce talent. She calls this process “serial mastery” and notes that the current educational system in most countries, from kindergarten through university, does a poor job of equipping people for continuous learning. There is likely to be a wave of innovation in further education, particularly online, that will cater to this need in a more flexible, personalized way than the traditional degree or postgraduate course. For some people, this evolution will take place within a single firm offering long-term employment. But for a growing number of workers the trick will be to jump from one company to another to take advantage of changing skill shortages.

According to Ms Gratton, people will also have to invest more in their personal “social capital”, which will involve three elements. First, they need to build themselves a “posse”, a small group of up to 15 people they can turn to when the going gets rough, says Ms Gratton. They should have some expertise in common, have built up trust in each other and be able to work effectively together.

Second, they need a “big-ideas crowd” who can keep them mentally fresh. This echoes the discussion of “managed serendipity” in last year’s business bestseller, “The Power of Pull”, in which John Hagel and John Seely Brown argued that the successful worker of the future will live in clusters of talented, open-minded people and spend a lot of time going to thought-provoking conferences. Third, they need a “regenerative community” to maintain their emotional capital, meaning family and friends in the real world “with whom you laugh, share a meal, tell stories and relax”.

In a world where more people may work from home, there is a danger that they will become isolated. One remedy is the emergence of “collaborative workspaces” or “hubs” in big cities around the world. These are often more than shared offices with hot desks for people who prefer to be with other people even if they are not working for the same employer. The hub operator may also organise courses for professional development—on marketing or taxation, say—and social events.

Moreover, working from home will not be so isolating if home is next door to where potential workmates live. As Richard Florida argues in “The Rise of the Creative Class”, talented knowledge workers are choosing to cluster together in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, London and Shanghai so they can interact with each other easily, both formally and serendipitously. This has obvious implications for the price of property and other goods and services in areas where these workers choose to live, work, play, mingle and spend some of their ever-growing wealth.

Ms Gratton’s main message—that workers will have to take responsibility for their own future—makes good sense. People who work their way up the corporate ladder in the traditional “Organisation Man” way will increasingly be the exception—and that is surely a good thing. “The pleasures of the traditional working role were the certainty of a parent-child relationship. You could leave it in the hands of the corporation to make the big decisions about your working life,” Ms. Gratton explains. Now the world is moving towards an “adult-adult” relationship, which will require “each one of us to take a more thoughtful, determined and energetic approach to exercising the choices available to us.”

Read the rest here.