What skills will you need in the 21st century?

Source: Management Team (30/04/2019); Author: Katleen De Stobbeleir

Today, you cannot attend a management course or open a management magazine without being confronted with ‘skills for the 21st century’. Creativity, learning, openness to external input, a proactive approach, critical thinking, cooperation and flexibility often rank on top. I totally agree with this and those lists probably do reflect the current reality, but I also find myself mildly (and sometimes not-so-mildly) irritated.

Way back in 1964, American psychologist Daniel Katz proposed those same ‘future skills’ as essential for survival in the then labour market. So why this fuss all of a sudden? Surely, cooperation was just as important then as it is today?

Of course the labour market has structurally changed, which comes with specific challenges. So let’s have a closer look at that, before we relapse into platitudes that say very little about the exact implications for today’s employees. In other words: what should collaboration look like nowadays? Which skills do people need to properly collaborate in today’s world?

Although relatively little academic research is available on the topic, we are kicking at an open door when we say that today, collaboration calls for the ability to deal with various profiles via a range of different channels. Creativity and critical thinking probably are also somewhat different than in the 1960s. In a recent article, Professors Susan Ashford and Brianna Barker Caza recommended that before we focus on skills for the future, we properly look into the challenges we face. In other words, do not rush into finding a solution if the challenge is not entirely clear yet.

In their very commendable work, the authors provide an overview of five specific challenges that today’s employees face and for which they will probably need to develop further skills. Moreover, they see ‘employees’ as a very broad concept, which includes not only traditional staff within the classic business boundaries, but also hybrid forms of work and gig workers.

A first structural challenge is job insecurity. That may sound surprising, given the historically low unemployment figures, but studies show that more and more people feel uncertainty about the future of their job. Just think of all the job lists highlighting positions that are likely to disappear as a result of robotisation and digitisation. Apart from this insecurity on the future of jobs long-term, there are also doubts about whether work will still guarantee the same level of financial capacity.

A second challenge is linked to increased autonomy and independence. It may once again sound somewhat counter-intuitive, because isn’t that what the trade unions have been advocating for the past few decades? And didn’t we want to get rid of punch clocks and timetables? Recent studies show that performance (and rewards) increasingly linked to your own efforts and decisions cause a lot of stress, not only in terms of decision-making, but also cognitive overload.

A third reality is that this increased autonomy has made career paths less clear, less predictable and at times maybe even less relevant. If you like an adventurous existence, a zigzag career path may give you great satisfaction. However, the lack of a clear professional identity can also result in a lot of uncertainty.

A fourth challenge is the transience of competences. That transience affects not only employees whose specialisations need to evolve at a rapid pace but also positions that seem immune to change. The only certainty we can offer today’s employees is that their skills will become outdated increasingly quickly, and they will need to accept that lifelong learning is the only way to remain relevant.

A last structural evolution is that more and more employees are working in an isolated manner, or at least physically separated from their direct colleagues. Cross-silo working, virtual teams and the like will result in colleagues feeling more and more like strangers.

These five evolutions will force employees to trade a coherent work life for more versatile, hybrid roles. We have found that the disappearance of a real professional identity and the sense of meaning that comes with it has resulted in an increasingly high number of employees struggling with their emotions and with emotional ups and downs. So is today’s labour market doomed? Of course not. There are many opportunities as well, but people will probably need to be supported in a more targeted manner instead of us bombarding them with generic lists of ‘skills for the future’.

And if you, as a manager, want to develop one competence to make your employees ‘future-proof’, make it the skill to feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations. “Who knows... maybe occupational psychologists will be the managers of the future”, posit the occupational psychologists.

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