A close headshot of a man with greying hair and slight stubble. He’s a future of work expert, smiling and wearing a suit.
Prof David Collings, DCU. Image: DCU

What will the future of work be like for today’s graduates?

3 Sep 2018

Those who graduate now are heading into a very different working world than the traditional one they may be most familiar with.

When we talk about the future of work, we often think about it in terms of what it will mean for the current workforce.

We talk about the jobs that may disappear in the not-too-distant future and how the current workforce can upskill in order to future-proof themselves.

But what about today’s graduates? It’s safe to say that they’re walking into a very different working world than the one they might have envisaged.

So, what do they need to know about the future of work? How can they best prepare themselves?

Prof David Collings from Dublin City University (DCU) said the key thing graduates should recognise is that the job they will be doing in 15 or 20 years’ time is likely to be very different to the one they will do when they first join the workforce.

“I think Bill Gates’ famous quote on the future of personal computing is really apt for graduates thinking about the future of work: ‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.’”

Collings is a professor of human resources management and associate dean for research at DCU Business School. His research has focused on talent management, global mobility and, more recently, the future of work.

Putting his advice to graduates about the jobs they will have into context, Collings noted that the World Economic Forum estimates that 65pc of children entering primary school today will work in jobs that don’t yet exist.

“Think about that from a graduate’s perspective. That is in about 15 to 20 years’ time, at which stage today’s graduates will still have 30-plus years left in the workforce,” he said.

“A second trend that we expect to become more prevalent is the shift to the freelance economy, which is also reshaping the nature of work in important ways.”

He cited Deloitte’s Future of Work survey, which predicted the usage of contractors, freelancers and gig workers to increase by 37pc, 33pc and 28pc respectively by 2020 alone. “Already, the average tenure of an employee in Ireland is only six years, according to LinkedIn data. In Silicon Valley, it is as low as two years.”

Future-proofing your skills

One of the biggest changes graduates can expect to see from their parents’ generation is that upskilling will become vital.

“They cannot expect to leave education and become a teacher, a lawyer, an engineer or whatever, and that to be their career job,” said Collings. “They will simply have to evolve and develop their skills and capabilities as their career unfolds. That means that they will have to future-proof their skills.”

So, what does this mean for graduates? Collings said the first thing they should do is look at the skills on their CV or LinkedIn profile, and rethink what is most marketable.

“In contrast to the past, where being an expert in using a particular technology platform or programming in a particular language could differentiate someone in the workplace, I think it is likely that this will only open the door in the future,” said Collings.

“What will really matter is likely to be the ability to learn and develop one’s competence as technology advances and AI enters the workplace to a greater degree.”

He added that softer skills such as taking initiative, leadership abilities, and a good capability in creativity and problem-solving skills are likely to be in demand.

“I don’t think there is a magic bullet in terms of future-proofing skills, but I would certainly point to three key things today’s graduates could focus on.”

Collings said graduates must first continue to develop those soft skills that are becoming more in demand.

“Second, given the likely prevalence of AI in the workplace, developing at least a rudimentary understanding of coding is likely to be an advantage in almost every profession.” He added that it is becoming clearer that we are all in the tech business and this will only increase in the future of work. Therefore, it would be remiss of graduates not to arm themselves with some tech knowledge.

“The third set of skills I would suggest are important are capabilities around adaptability and learning agility,” said Collings. He cited research from McKinsey, which suggests that by 2030, approximately 15pc of today’s work activities will be automated, and somewhere between 75m and 375m workers globally will need to shift occupational categories. “This will require significant adaptability for all concerned.”

Controlling the controllable

“Of course, change makes us uncomfortable and there is no doubt the world of work will change. My advice is to focus on controlling the controllable,” said Collings.

“The key is not being lulled into inaction. Graduates need to be proactive in rounding out their skills and capabilities towards softer skills, technological skills and the like.”

He added that education should not end on completion of a bachelor’s or master’s degree or even a PhD. It needs to be something that is continuous, and lifelong learning will be essential to evolve and develop our skills and capabilities in the future of work.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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