Is the Talent Economy in for a Role-Less Future?

Technology already appears poised to replace many human jobs. But the more dramatic change it might bring to the future workplace may be more in the roles humans take on at work.
Role-Less Future

The future of jobs as we know them is under siege — but not in the way you might think.

So much has been put into the idea that AI-enabled robots are poised to replace human jobs in the future that I wonder if business leaders are overlooking other potential changes to the impending nature of work.

Take, for instance, an idea advanced by Ryan Jenkins, a generational expert and keynote speaker, on an upcoming episode Talent Economy’s Talent10x podcast. It’s an idea that I can’t seem to get off my mind.

In a discussion on the podcast about Generation Z, the group that will succeed millennials, Jenkins mentioned this up-and-coming generation’s desire to not just job hop between companies — something millennials have developed a reputation for — but for what he called role hopping. That is, instead of wanting to switch jobs between companies, Gen Z appears interested in switching roles within companies.

Imagine starting a job at a firm as an accountant and then, after a few years, switching within the company to a new role as a marketing manager. Maybe a few more years pass and you switch again, this time from marketing to finance or sales. Maybe eventually you get to work in IT.

Let’s take this example to a more extreme case. Imagine a worker spending years in a company as a copywriter before moving into the computer programming and engineering department, building websites and maintaining databases. Given the dichotomy of skills required for these roles, it seems unlikely today that someone would be able to do this successfully.

Or, let’s go one step further. Think of a company where there are no job titles or defined roles — an idea that isn’t entirely foreign to some companies nowadays — where employees actively roam between tasks and responsibilities across departments, often within the same day. A lot of startups operate like this today … to a degree.

Yes, artificial intelligence will likely replace certain jobs in today’s economy. But the bigger influence will likely come with the jobs they change, not eliminate. And in a future where more and more of work tasks are automated entirely, Jenkins and others aren’t crazy to think that a role-less future might be upon us sooner or later.

Now, there is a lot standing in the way of this becoming a reality in the near future. Our education system, from grade school all the way through college, still emphasizes a system of individual specialty. We’re taught in grade school in a way that prepares us for the future workforce, and we’re taught in college that the future workforce is still comprised of individuals who are specialists in given fields.

So you go to college and learn how to become a computer scientist or an engineer or an accountant or a journalist. You get an entry-level job as a result of your skills in that field, and you rise through the economy earning better and better jobs in that field with those skills. Sure, there will be new learning and skills to acquire along the way but, by and large, the way things are today, it’s unlikely that you will switch fields or specialties entirely.

Things, however, are changing. Our education system is poised for disruption, which could help propel the idea of a role-less future of work. With the proliferation of cost-effective online education, more and more people could reskill for different jobs in entirely different fields or industries. Companies currently don’t view these education channels as credible compared with a traditional college degree, but that doesn’t mean that someday they will.

Also consider the change in how skills are valued in the economy. Technical skills for many are still their ticket to a well-paying job, but the larger trajectory of many careers — especially for those that aspire to become executives and other types of leaders — places more emphasis on soft skills like emotional intelligence. This will only continue into the future. Hard skills will be less important, thanks to automation and other developing technologies, but soft skills related to people and leadership — like empathy, compassion, persuasiveness and communication — will find enhanced value.

This will indeed bolster the notion that the future of jobs within companies may become role-less. A worker’s skills won’t be measured on their ability to write a piece of marketing copy or build a website or construct a forecasting model to plot out the firm’s financial future.

It will be in the softer, relationship-building skills — both with people and with robots — that will likely allow employees to switch seamlessly between monitoring job tasks across functional departments within a single company.

Maybe it won’t pan out quite like this. Either way, leaders should be prepared not just for the jobs technology will replace, but the other ways the workforce will change as a result of their continued development.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.

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