The future has always been unpredictable, but when it comes to career planning, decisions are based primarily on the notion that the nature of most jobs won’t change much in one to five years. Last year, however, brought that premise into question as the pandemic upended many industries. While businesses continue figuring out the new normal, it’s also a good time to re-examine the process for career and workforce planning.
Career plans typically focus on helping employees identify the next job that aligns with their talents and passions. The usual course of action is to consider what positions and career tracks already exist. This process doesn’t, however, take into account how the company will or should change in years to come. In addition to asking employees where they see themselves in five years, employers also should ask employees to consider where the company or industry will be in five years. The focus then becomes less about job titles and more on preparing to do the work of the future.
This shift helps organizations lean into the future and employees see multiple possible career paths. It also encourages more people throughout the organization to practice strategic foresight, which is critical to professional, organizational, and societal success. Almost every decision we make is based on assumptions made about the future. The challenge is that many of us were never taught how to approach thinking in such a way. And while we all can’t be futurists, we can learn from understanding more about this type of reasoning.
Below are five basic principles that I’ve borrowed from futures thinking to help me plan my career as well as exercise strategic foresight in my work as a learning leader. I am by no means a futurist, but I continue to challenge myself to explore this discipline to expand my understanding of what’s possible.
Principle 1: There are multiple possible futures.
Most people speak of the future as if there is just one possibility for it—what will be or will not be. In all actuality, there are numerous possible futures. That’s why the method of reflecting on what’s coming is called futures thinking—it accounts for all possibilities. One approach to this is to consider futures from a pessimistic, optimistic, status quo, and transformational viewpoint.
Principle 2: Looking for signals is just as important as looking backward.
While it is important to learn from history, looking backward does not account for present-day innovations and shifts. History helps us identify potential catalysts or triggers of future events and transformations, but we also need to look for signals in the present day of what’s coming next. For example, when music first appeared on the internet, it was a signal of a future where the majority of music would only exist digitally. What transformations caused by the pandemic are signals of change in work in the next one to five years?
Principle 3: Change is fast and change is slow.
The dramatic changes in life and work over the last year may trick us into thinking that all change will be just as quick and disruptive. This sort of change usually gets the most focus, but slow, continuous, or iterative change also shapes our futures. A change in leadership or restructuring can be a fast change that affects career planning, but slow changes probably should be a key consideration. The pandemic has accelerated change in the workplace, but that should not distract us from slower change like the retirement of baby boomers over time. How will this affect the workforce and how should the remaining generations plan for this in their careers?
Principle 4: The future is shaped by external forces.
Based on how our brains are wired, humans struggle to think about things outside their immediate control. We operate with the assumption that we have more control in our careers than perhaps we do. We often ignore the societal, technological, environmental, economic, and political impact on our work, team, organization, and company. External forces such as these consistently affect the way we work and the skill sets will need during years to come. In the United States, the recent change in presidents, for example, will yield new policies and regulations related to wage, labor, immigration, trade, the environment, and so on. How will these affect your industry? Could these changes create jobs that didn’t exist before?
Principle 5: No one can truly predict the future, but we all can influence it.
It is a challenge and can be overwhelming to think about all the possible futures. There is a way to narrow it down by considering the future in terms of what is plausible and what is preferred. We all have a role in shaping our future. The decisions and actions we make today influence tomorrow. Therefore, in planning for the workforce and careers of the future, we also need to consider how we can impact the plausible future to be the future we desire.