All I want for Christmas is...a career? Is that too much to ask? The talk these days is all about the "gig" economy, the march of the machines, the rise in self-employment and the crumbling of old certainties about the labour market. And yet it was not so long ago that "careers advisers" were still telling young people at school or university to get professional training and plan for a long and presumably steady lifetime at work.
Has the concept of the career had it? Clearly in some lines of work there are still reasonably familiar career paths. Doctors and teachers have not yet been made redundant by new technology, although even in these areas tech devotees will tell you that smartphones and Moocs (massive open online courses) can do almost everything that human beings ever could. Accountants and lawyers need to recognise that some well-crafted code could soon start to make some human beings look like an expensive luxury.
The so-called "hollowing out" of middle class, white collar jobs by automation has brought the insecurity felt only by semi-skilled people in the past into the heart of previously prosperous societies. Last week the Pew Research Center reported that the US middle class was now outnumbered (for the first time in decades) by the poor and upper classes. This is another indication that the classic career route is coming under pressure.
The newly emerging labour volatility raises problems for employers and employees alike. For businesses the old "talent management" approaches may not be of much use. Lesley Uren, a talent management expert at PA Consulting, says that a far more fluid approach to people's working lives is required. Businesses should think in terms of the capabilities they need, rather than trying to fit people into old organisational charts or job titles.
Uren recently completed a research report for PA Consulting titled The Future Is Fluid, based on 70 one-to-one interviews with CEOs of international companies. She found that while businesses recognised the need to adopt cleverer way of dealing with unpredictable skills requirements, few were really managing to do so.
Two thirds of the CEOs who spoke to PA rated talent management as one of their top five challenges, but only a minority of these businesses had a formal talent management approach in place. Under 4% of them had a system for collecting, storing and managing data about their best people.
And then there is the problem of "talent inflation" − 66% of CEOs said they expected all or most employees will be described as "talent" in the future, compared with 34% today. But if everyone is talent, then no-one actually is − the term ceases to have any meaning if it is applied to everybody. Worse, if employers do not know who genuinely "adds value," they will fail to spot the people who could help raise the business's long-term performance.
Uren suggests that predictive analytics on workforce matters could be used to help forecast when talent will be plentiful or scarce, to understand how people move between roles and to predict the turnover of staff.
The flipside of this employer confusion is that employees should also brace themselves for a less certain future. Employers cannot be relied on in the same way as they were in the past. Already pension arrangements tend to be far less generous than they were a generation ago. That is the most obvious symbol of a changed employer/employee relationship.
But clearly the more temporary and even precarious nature of work must change employee expectations. Good employers will still want to generate loyalty in their workforce but to do that will mean showing they want to offer employees more than a short term "gig". There will have to be not only jobs but, even now, some sort of meaningful career path, even if that career in fact refers to the opportunity to develop more skills and capabilities, rather than acquiring ever more senior job titles.
This new world of work may look both unfamiliar and unappealing to those who were brought up in a very different world. To the so-called millennials, however, it is perhaps not so surprising. In the future success will come to those, whether employer or employee, who can adapt, make the most of the opportunities available and not get bogged down in nostalgia for a world which, even if it had many attractions, is probably gone forever.