Work in the digital age
Like everything else, work in the digital age is subject to disruption.
Take this scenario: You have worked hard. But that was never a problem because you are passionate about your goals. In many respects, you have designed your own personal hands-on MBA through a mixture of formal education and real-world experience. So you are more than competent. These last N (where N > 1) years have been tough, but you have kept your eye on the prize and have engineered yourself for that job you coveted since childhood.
But as you ‘go live’ in terms of starting on your career destiny, you discover that either the demand isn’t there, or the financials do not stack up. That expensive medical degree was more about making the connections than acquiring the knowledge.
Unfortunately one of your student peers has developed some technology that has turned the prestigious career of heart surgeon into one not dissimilar to a tyre fitter technician.
Dinner parties from hereon in are going to be a little uncomfortable.
Welcome to the digital age and to work in the digital age. A period where technology is hunting down careers like a Pac-man consuming pac-dots. And where the career advice your parents have to offer is essentially toxic because they grew up in an era of relative certainty.
Careers aren’t what they used to be
The aspiration for many people in the late industrial era was to have a career. Ideally one that paid well and came with a built-in social status ramp. For most of the industrial era, whether the work was fulfilling or enjoyable was a poor second to whether it would pay the bills. Much of the employment today is based upon fulfilling the lifestyle needs of those with a disposable income.
The advance of technology and the emergence of frugal capitalism, courtesy of globalisation and the Lehman Brothers, is leading to a reset in respect of disposable spending.
If your white-collar career is now effectively ‘blue collarised’ thanks to robotics and AI, whether you are a lawyer or an architect, you should rethink your lifestyle expectations.
The Gig economy is for everyone
The gig economy has been maligned for its exploitation of those trapped at the bottom end of the skills spectrum. The sporadic nature of such work, coupled with commitments of typically a few hours, creates a degree of uncertainty in people’s lives that ultimately harms their mental and physical health. Such gigs might include delivering goods, handling customer service enquires or stewarding a concert.
But we also see gig work in the form of producing an illustration, writing an article or coding a piece of software. For some it is supplemental income to their ‘nine to five’ contract. Some have identified market opportunities that enable them to enjoy a mosaic career comprising many clients addressing a variety of demands.
Those that have made this transition whether by design or misfortune might be called digital hunter gatherers.
They live on the digital savanna and only get to eat what they kill or pick. You live on your wits. It’s Darwinian. Clients will treat you well when they need you. And some will act as if you won’t exist in their eyes when they don’t.
A career for life
A career for life is now becoming a life of careers. Having a diverse skillset will be the equivalent of having a balanced financial portfolio. When the demand for software engineering slackens, you can up the number of martial arts students you take on as a personal coach. And / or the number of personal protection gigs you commit to. In the digital age, career swaps can take place on an hourly basis.
So how do we stay economically relevant in this gig-driven world? The first action to take is to come to terms that this is not an issue for other people and their less robust careers. No one can guarantee that their current skillset will be in demand in 12 months’ time.
Here are some other recommendations:
- Recognise that careers are not what they used to be. It is no longer a case of pick a career, get qualified and hop on the upward sloping career conveyor belt. The belt is becoming increasing frayed and likely to come to an early and abrupt end just above a garbage container.
- Recognise that passion and competence without market demand equate to a time-consuming hobby. Follow the market.
- Review your career options on a regular basis. Many pre-millennials would have done this once around school leaving age with their parents or a career advisor at school. I recommend weekly or more frequently.
- Test your market value. You may not be looking to change your job, but it might be wise to occasionally test whether you are under or even over paid.
- Get your brand act together. Be Apple and not Radio Shack. What are the few things you have to offer where you can deliver real value to a needy market.
- Develop the universal skills needed by all digital hunter gatherers. The term T-skilled has been used in the past. The vertical line of the T are role-specific skills. The horizontal line represents that skills increasingly needed regardless of the role. Such skills include:
- Personal brand management.
- Commercial management.
- Service management.
- Sales and marketing.
You might be looking towards your career finish line and thinking that you might just get there before your industry and role are disrupted.
You might just be one of the lucky ones and manage to catch the last train out of the industrial era.
But in any case, I would encourage you to reflect on what your plan B is should your end game not work out as planned.
Work in the digital age is such that you need to treat your career less like a sculptor carving marble in a countryside workshop and more like a super-stoked entrepreneur steering her portfolio of lean startups through the high seas of economic volatility.