Are you an adult at work?

The relationship between companies and their employees is undergoing a fundamental shift.

It was an exciting year – economic turmoil in Europe, extraordinary growth in many of the developing countries, the rise of some companies and demise of others. 


What is clear is that we are in the midst of an industrial revolution greater than the world has ever seen with all the turbulence, the challenges and the opportunities that previous revolutions have brought. Partly as a result of this, it seems to me that the relationship between companies and their employees is undergoing a fundamental shift. All over the world the old Parent to Child relationship is moving towards a potentially more balanced Adult to Adult relationship. This is generally good news - but don’t underestimate what this will mean to your working life and what you will have to do to make the most of it.

I’ve looked back over my own experiences of 2011 – multiple trips to Asia and the USA, some fascinating work with the World Economic Forum on leadership, and the research of my team on the future of work. Mulling over this it seems to me that there are 5 questions we should all be asking ourselves about our preparation for the future. All of them in some way resonate with this shift from a Parent to Child relationship at work, to a more balanced Adult to Adult. Yet whilst there are great aspects to being an Adult at work – it also shows that this brings with it responsibilities and commitments. Here are five questions to ask yourself:

1. Am I letting my context overwhelm me?

Spending time in China last month I was struck by the upbeat enthusiasm of Chinese youth. It’s clear they have much to play for. It was a stark contrast to an earlier visit to Madrid where I heard at first hand the impact of 40% youth unemployment. Being a young graduate in a country with near zero growth is not pleasant, and we know what psychological scarring this experience can have. Context can indeed be overwhelming, and it can feel as if there are no real options against which choices can be made. But looking forward it seems to me that it crucial to see choices even in these potentially more restricted contexts. That’s why, for example, last year I supported my son Christian Seiersen to spend a year in China and India before he went to university. What is clear is that we are at the beginning of a major re-balancing of world’s growth and prosperity. You need to be very clear sighted about this and work out the choices you have – and then go for them – even if that means re-locating to the other side of the world. Children wait for Parents to make the world good for them – Adults try to make their own context.

2. Am I a Technological Child?

One of the exciting research projects we undertook this year at the Future of Work Consortium was to look at how Gen Z’s (those under the age of around 12) think about work and technology. We have video clips of kids less than two years old working proficiently with iPads and using Skype with ease and saw a real excitement in this group to engage with leading edge technologies such as holograms. But what we also found is that it’s not simply age that defines technically savvy. In the ‘technology and productivity’ survey we undertook with our consortium members this month, we also found some Baby Boomers and Traditionalist just as excited and knowledgeable. There are indeed enormous opportunities for each one of us to use technology to significantly boost our productivity and indeed create greater innovation. Many of us are choosing to do this by buying our own technological tools rather than waiting for our company to do this for us. This makes sense. It’s all part of the bigger Adult to Adult shift we are going to see. Parents buy their Children their computers: Adults make their own choices.

3. Am I in control of my competencies?

We have just completed a 72 hour ‘Jam’ where we asked 1,500 Gen Y’s from one of the global professional firms to enter into a world-wide virtual conversation about their experience of work. I was slightly surprised by the extent to which this generation (now in their 20’s) is defining work almost exclusively in terms of how much they are learning from it. Good Work provides opportunities to do exciting, stretching work with talented peers: Bad Work may pay well, but in the long term erodes your intellectual capital. It seems to me that this is a group of people who are preparing for a world where the only game in town is to develop deep skills, preferably in more than one area. Work then moves from the old deal (which I talked about in my book The Shift) – ‘I work…to buy stuff…that makes me happy’ – to the new deal – ‘I work…to learn stuff…that makes me long term employable’. It’s a good trade – between short term gains to longer term personal resilience and capability. Sounds like an Adult to me… the Child would go for the ‘buy stuff’ anytime (although having said that the Gen Z’s we watched seemed mad about learning).

4. Do I have the courage to make the hard choices?

Here is the emerging deal about work. Your working life will be shaped by the shifting patterns of longevity (you are likely to live considerably longer than your parents) and demography (in many regions there will be a much higher proportion of people over 50). This means that looking back to your parent’s working lives is not really going to give you much of a handle. Moreover, your current employers are unlikely to take a parenting role in really looking after you in the long term. So it’s time you faced up to some of the hard choices you face:  1. To build a career that enables you to work longer (at least into your late 60's or early 70’s), 2. Be prepared (like the Chinese who save around 40% of their income) to save a significant proportion of your income throughout your working life, 3. Consider ways to reduce your consumption and live more simply. You don’t have to make all of these hard choices – but you are going to have to take at least one. It’s about making choices as an Adult.

5. Am I making the most of the future?

No question that Number 4 was a tough one – so let’s finish with a more uplifting question. The future of work will require us to make some tough decisions – but it will also provide some great opportunities. Here are my top four opportunities:

  • To live a longer, more healthy and productive working life.
  • To spend more time working from home in an increasingly flexible way.
  • To hook up with people across the world via rapidly developing ‘collective intelligence’ technology.
  • To get technology to do the mundane stuff – leaving you to build deeper skills and engage in more meaningful work.

How far advanced are you in making them happen? Over the next couple of years there will be many opportunities for each of us to craft exciting and meaningful working lives – let’s make sure we don’t simply wait for others to make them for us.

Comments (0)