The future of work and what we’ll have to learn

The structural changes awaiting us GenXers in work environments, careers, and employment relationships have been debated at least since Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work (1995). More recently, the macroscopic uncertainties facing GenY have taken center stage. For both generations, especially in Europe, there is a stark awareness that the concept of retirement our parents relied upon no longer applies to us: I have friends who retired at 58, yet my own expectation (currently being enshrined into law by the Italian austerity package) is that I’ll be well over 70 before I can draw a pension from the coffers into which I’ve been contributing since my first paycheck, 20 years ago this year.

Yet it is not just employees who will have to adjust to staying in paid employment much longer: it is also employers.

As employers, I am afraid we have no idea how to deal with this. Companies have, if at all, offered “early retirement” (say, a 3-year parachute to 55-year-olds) in order to downsize, restructure and make space for a few more young people at the bottom. Once “early retirement” means 68 or so, they’ll have to find work that vast masses of employees in their 60s can be productive at; perhaps part-time, with a different cognitive load (and physical effort), in different shifts or what have you. Have you ever been served by a call center representative in their 60s? I don’t think you have – but you will.

As employees, we will have to accept that not everybody can reinvent themselves as a “consultant”: people will just have to remain employed. We will also see, if organizations are at all meritocratic,┬áthe complete decoupling of the corporate pyramid from the age structure of the corporate population. It used to be that, as employees aged, a few managers floated to the top and the rest in their age group magically disappeared along the way (women, unfortunately, much earlier than men). No longer. Not only will we see people from our own generation at every possibile level in the organization (we’re just too many), but late in life those same people will have to deal – realistically – with having a boss much younger than they are. I am talking about employees in their 60s reporting to bosses in their 40s or even 30s. We haven’t seen this type of employment relationship, I believe, in the past half century or so. And yet this is the future of work, and this is what we’ll have to learn to deal with.