Career development in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: work in progress?


About the author:
Martina Gianecchini is Associate Professor at University of Padova, Italy
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The World Economic Forum considers the technology-driven changes going under the label of Fourth Industrial Revolution as a ‘new chapter in human development’ that is radically affecting the way we live, work and relate to one another. The first analyses on the impact of the new technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, virtual reality) on employment depicted apocalyptic scenarios about the disappearance of thousands of jobs and disruption of skills for a great number of workers. Over the last months, researchers and observers have been assuming a more balanced perspective, suggesting that the technological changes are not only destructive but they are also producing an unexpected creation of new job opportunities: for instance, together with ‘data’ experts – such as data scientists and big data engineers – new positions are created, which require the ability to generate meaning from information and interact with the machines – such as artificial intelligence trainers and business intelligence analysts.

But what are the consequences of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on career development?

A first, intuitive, effect is related with a significant change in individual career cycles. Whereas Baby Boomers entered the labor market expecting to develop a life-long career within one company gaining mastery and knowledge in one area of expertise, in the early 80’s Generation Xers started to experience the effect of the increased complexity and turbulence of the work environment: individual careers have then progressively become a sum of work experiences, in many companies and in different professions. Nowadays, all the generations who are active in the labor market are experiencing careers which are not only highly mobile but also less structured. As technological changes produce a skill shortage, individuals are required to rapidly acquire new abilities that the education systems are still scarcely equipped to provide. In addition, as new jobs are created, companies may be not able to define the professional requirements of these jobs and to recognize them in the work background of the individuals. All these elements generate a high level of uncertainty for the individual’s career, as the traditional professional patterns are punctuated by jobs and skills which are still ‘under construction’.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is also favoring the diffusion of ‘agile’ organizational models, characterized by a combination of efficiency and flexibility in the organization of work. These new models urge individuals to participate in the company activities on the basis of their competences and willingness to contribute. An interesting feature of some of these models is the elimination of job titles, as workers can take part in many projects (even simultaneously) with different roles. Whenever workers who developed their career in companies like the one described want to move in more ‘traditional’ organization, how could their professional background be translated into a ‘conventional’ set of roles at the same time valuing the uniqueness of their work experience?

Another relevant issue related with the diffusion of new technologies concerns the employability of older workers. Regardless their career trajectory, the physical and cognitive abilities of the individuals go through significant changes over their life. A worker in her fifty, who can expect to spend 15 to 20 more years in the labor market, probably wrote her graduation thesis using a typewriter, sent her first applications by mail (not e-mail!) and started to work in organizational contexts where the Internet was not present. Now, the same worker is required to exchange messages (almost) 24/7 with her smartphone, set appointments on a shared calendar, update her professional profile on different social media, learn contents through Massive Open Online Courses, assess the performance of her colleagues using an app on her tablet. The technological changes affect not only what workers do but also how they perform their jobs, therefore forcing individuals to learn new instruments in order to remain employable. In this process older workers risk to suffer a disadvantage related not only to their abilities but also to their learning style.

In conclusion, the technological changes related with the Fourth Industrial Revolution represent a discontinuity that should be carefully managed by individuals, companies and institutions in order to exploit its positive potential and to limit its negative effects on weaker segments of the labor force.

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