The future of work: what does this mean for Career Development?

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About the Author: 
Emma Parry is Professor of Human Resource Management and Head of the Changing World of Work Group at Cranfield School of Management. You can contact her on or on Twitter @dremmaparry.

Nowadays, it seems that we cannot escape the rhetoric around the changing world of work. Headlines such as “Robots will take our jobs. We’d better plan now before it’s too late” (Elliott, 2018) are common place and we are constantly surrounded by conversations pertaining to how aspects such as emerging technologies, changing workforce demographics, attitude shifts and global integration are affecting work, the workforce and the workplace. Most of us would accept that the world of work has transformed to the extent that it is very different to the one in which many of us started our careers. Indeed, much of the focus in career scholarship in recent years has looked at new forms of careers, such as the emphasis on self-directed careers and those without physical or psychological boundaries. To what extent however, have we considered how the changing world of work might affect the nature of careers, and how we might better prepare individuals (including ourselves) for the careers of the future?
In recent research undertaken with colleagues at Cranfield School of Management, we examined the evidence on the future of work and sought the opinions of a series of experts in human resource management, careers and futurology to understand how the changing external context is likely to affect the way in which we manage people and their careers. We found a number of key trends in the changing world of work that present challenges for individuals and organisations in the way that we manage careers.

Emerging technologies and automation
The rapid advancement of technologies and increased automation of manual and cognitive tasks is likely to have a profound effect on the roles that people undertake and the skills that they need. Advances such as artificial intelligence and machine learning mean that any task that requires the processing of large amounts of information to make decisions can be more efficiently and effectively undertaken by technology. While large-scale replacement of humans by machines is unlikely in the short-term (the robots are not taking our jobs just yet!), we are already seeing growing use of these emerging technologies to support and augment human roles in areas such as Customer Services, Sales, Law, Medicine and Finance, as well as in manufacturing. On the one hand, this means that new careers are arising in areas such as data science, coding and technology, and talent connected to creativity and dealing with complexity are becoming more important. On the other hand, the skills that most individuals require will change dramatically throughout their careers – as parts of of their role become obsolete, as they need to develop new skills, for example, in working with technology and data. Our experts predicted that organisations will move away from recruiting fixed skills sets and instead, seek softer skills around learning and agility. This means that there is a challenge for employers and careers professionals in providing career support that focuses more on supporting people through career changes and on lifelong learning to ensure that they can navigate their changing careers effectively.

Agile ways of working
Emerging technologies are also affecting the way in which people work and contract with organisations. The past 50 years have seen a move away from the concept of a job for life with a single organisation; now we see this trend evolve towards more and more people working via the gig and talent economy and potentially being connected with multiple organisations at once. Digital technologies allow people to work away from a physical workplace, either at home or on the move, while some agile businesses have removed their physical office completely. In addition, organisations are under pressure to operate in a way that is more agile, in order to increase their resilience against uncertainty and the volatile economic environment. These trends have profound implications for how careers are managed, outside of a traditional employment relationship. The question to be asked is what the role of employers is in managing careers in a world of increased flexibility and how, as a society, we support individuals who develop their careers completely outside of organisations?

Changing expectations
Technological advancement has also affected the attitudes and expectations of people regarding their career development particularly. In particular, those who have grown up using the Internet and social media have particular expectations of their career development For example, the availability of information via the Internet means that younger individuals expect to receive constant informal feedback in relation to their performance and careers, rather than to work within formal structures such as the annual appraisal. Experience with digital technology has also led to increased individualism and expectations regarding the personalisation of terms and conditions, including career support. As career paths become more complex, and individualised, people also expect the support that is available to be tailored to their needs. The challenge for employers is how to satisfy these needs, while also managing the careers of older individuals, who are working longer, and are used to more traditional approaches to career management.

There is a concern that many of the trends above could have damaging effects on individual’s wellbeing. Experts in our study noted that the increase in flexible and agile working, gig economy and automation could lead to an erosion of the relational psychological contract and reduced trust between employer and employee. There is a question as to how those working outside of traditional organisational boundaries receive support for their careers and in relation to their work more broadly. In addition, the increased connectivity associated with digital advances has been shown to have negative effects on work-life balance and broader wellbeing. Some organisations, for example, have re-introduced elements of a physical workplace in order to encourage workers to interact and build relationships. A further challenge for organisations therefore is in addressing the tension of flexibility and freedom with support, relationships and wellbeing.

Concluding remarks
The changing work of work presents a series of opportunities – but also challenges – for individuals and employers in relation to their careers. There is much work to be done in understanding how organisations can balance organisational and individual needs, by promoting careers that are agile and personalised, while also ensuring that the structures are in place to ensure people’s security and broader wellbeing. I would urge careers researchers, HR professionals, managers and governments to take up this challenge in order to develop career development that is fit for the future.

Elliott L. (2018). Robots will take out jobs. We’d better plan now before it is too late. The Guardian.

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