The Future of Work for All Generations

Go to the profile of Debra Whitman
Oct 07, 2019
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This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation and the New Societal Contract. But it doesn't stop there – wherever you are, become a member of the global Forum Network community to comment below and continue the conversation!


Co-written by Heather E. McGowan, Future of Work Strategist.

We know that technology is fundamentally transforming jobs, from the types of tasks we perform to the very structure of companies and organisations. As business models adapt to this digital revolution, employers are redefining their workforce hierarchies and job roles. This is truly a game-changing mega trend, altering work as we know it forever.

Meanwhile, less attention has been paid to another trend that may produce equally profound changes in the workplace – longevity. 

Though difficult to imagine, a lifespan of 100 years will become the norm in many countries in the not-too-distant future. Increased healthy longevity will ensure that the traditional idea of retirement continues to fade into the mist. For more and more of us, a traditional “retirement” milestone could be followed by 30 to 35 years of healthy, productive life.  

Working Longer and Differently: The 21st century innovation model

Working Longer and Differently: The 21st century innovation model

The combination of healthy longevity and financial need will make a more age-diverse workforce inevitable. By the middle of this century, adults aged 60 and over will represent 22% of the world’s population – double their share today. Many will work well into their 70s or even 80s to support longer lives. 

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Yet as age diversity and technology reshape the workplace, a risk is coming into view. The danger is that employers will discount their experienced workers, along with them, one of society’s greatest assets: the wisdom that comes with experience. That would be a costly mistake. 

Discussions of the future of work often idolise young billionaires and startup founders. Yet many of the skills needed in the emerging workplace may correlate with age and experience – capacities involving judgment and emotional intelligence that are refined over time. 

Once, we were educated in the first third of our lives, and then it was off to work until we hit retirement. In today’s era of rapid change, however, a single dose of education is not enough. Explicit knowledge is easily accessible from our devices and ripe for automation. Workers maintain their value by continuing to learn and adapt. In this reality there may be a silver lining for our increasingly seasoned workforce: the tacit knowledge advantage of wisdom.

Smart Skills: Putting the digital transition to work

Smart Skills: Putting the digital transition to work

Valuing Technical Skills

In building out the computerised third industrial revolution – and the early infrastructure for the fourth – we have placed far more value on skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, know-how typically found in young digital natives. The median age of tech employees at Apple is 31; Amazon, 31; Google, 30; LinkedIn, 29; Salesforce, 29; and Facebook, 28, this while the median age in the United States workforce is 42 – and growing older every year.  

Young people don't feel ready for the future of work

Young people don't feel ready for the future of work

Age bias in the technology world is not subtle: Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, said in 2007, “If you want to found a successful company, you should only hire young people with technical expertise. Young people are just smarter”. 

Uniquely Human Skills and the Experience Premium

Yet Zuckerberg ignored an important consideration. Jobs of the future that do not exist today will require skills we haven't even identified yet. If prediction models (Frey, Osborne) are at all correct, and some large percentage of our work tasks can be automated, what skills, abilities, capabilities and knowledge should we value? 

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Analysts tell us that the answer will involve far more than technical skills.  Nearly every top-ten list of future important work skills – for example, those of the World Economic Forum, the Institute for the Future and the online learning platform Udemy – favours uniquely human abilities, often referred to as “soft skills.” These are hard-to-codify abilities, traits and mind-sets like empathy, social and emotional intelligence, judgment, design mind-set, sense-making, collaboration and communication. They require both training and practice – otherwise known as experience.  

In this environment, constant upskilling of workers will be the new normal. Abilities related to the 5 Cs of soft skills – critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, change management and collaboration – will be prized more than ever. And mature, mid-career individuals will be ideally positioned to help colleagues build these capacities, because they have had a lifetime of experience to develop them.

Putting Hard Edges on Soft Skills: The future(s) of artificial intelligence and skills in the emerging digital economy

Putting Hard Edges on Soft Skills: The future(s) of artificial intelligence and skills in the emerging digital economy

Age Disrupters

Consider examples from two youth-obsessed industries: sports and fashion. Tom Brady is more than a decade older than the median age of starting NFL quarterbacks, and Bill Belichick is 15 years older than the median age of NFL head coaches. They are not just keeping up with younger players – they are breaking records with their Super Bowl wins. How? Perhaps they win the mental game by having more experience to map through when making a decision. As Belichick says, “The less versatile you are, the better you have to be at what you do well”. Is this where the depth of experience meets learning agility?  

“The less versatile you are, the better you have to be at what you do well”. Is this where the depth of experience meets learning agility?
Photo by Lindy Baker on Unsplash

Diana Nyad was successful in her fifth attempt at being the first human to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark tank. Nyad reflected, ''I believe endurance grows…what you are capable of is infinitely higher at this age [64] than when you are a young twenty-something”. 

"I believe endurance grows…what you are capable of is infinitely higher at this age [64] than when you are a young twenty-something”.
JEFFERY A. SALTER/REDUX


In fashion, most modeling agencies, seeking to capture the fleeting beauty they see in youth, have an explicit practice of not hiring models older than 21. But at 97, Iris Apfel just signed a modeling contract. Why do they want Iris? Because she has something more enduring than beauty. "I'm not pretty”, she said, “and I'll never be pretty, but it doesn't matter. I have something much better. I have style”. 

Why do they want Iris? Because she has something more enduring than beauty. "I'm not pretty”, she said, “and I'll never be pretty, but it doesn't matter. I have something much better. I have style”.
Brad Barket/Getty Images

Updating the Social Contract

Increased longevity is an opportunity for individuals, companies and the larger economy. But to seize it, we must re-evaluate the public, private and non-profit sectors’ roles in ensuring that economic prosperity and individual potential are maximised. This calls for reimagining the social contract, based on a multi-sector, collaborative effort at the national, state and local levels.


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Business leaders have a clear self-interest in moving the process forward and pioneering inclusive policies to optimise the value of all workers. As one important step, AARP has teamed up with OECD and the World Economic Forum in an effort called Living, Learning and Earning Longer. Over the next two years, we will refine the business case for age diversity and highlight best practices from around the world. This work will culminate with the release of a digital learning platform at the 2021 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. 

Living, Learning and Earning Longer: A Collaboration from AARP, OECD and WEF

Employer participation is vital to the success of this program. Through regional workshops, webinars, newsletters and other touch points, we will share existing resources. Where knowledge gaps exist, we collaborate on new research to help build, support and sustain multi-generational workforces. To join the discussion, visit www.aarpinternational.org/llel

AARP is also encouraging companies to sign the AARP Employer Pledge program. Signing the pledge is a way to establish your organisation as a role model of age-inclusive policies on everything from lifelong learning to hiring and retaining employees.  

Employers Can Lead the Way 

The twin mega trends of changing technology and increasing longevity are already reshaping the workplace. They only are going to accelerate. 

We urge business leaders to recognise the promise of age diversity as a way to strengthen the workforce, and to implement inclusive policies in training and other areas that support the needs of all their workers.  

Employers who do so will have the future on their side. They will reap the benefits of human skills and experience that a constantly changing workplace demands more than ever.

Continue the conversation and help us co-create the agenda

All of the discussions you have on the Forum Network inform our thinking for the OECD Forum event each year – join to respond to Debra and Heather's article and comment to help us co-create the agenda

Related Topics

Future of Education & SkillsArtificial IntelligencePrivacy & Cybersecurity

Banner image: Kayla Farmer on Unsplash

Go to the profile of Debra Whitman

Debra Whitman

Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer, AARP

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