Every year, the secretary of my alumnus body invites me to speak at the school careers day and, every year, I can’t make it. So, if I could, this is what I’d say…
I’m not here to persuade you that a glittering future awaits you in the exciting world of Human Resources. If you’re already thinking about it, then I’m not going to dissuade you. If you’re not, good. I’m yet to meet an HR person who didn’t find themselves in HR accidentally whilst pursuing some other career.
Life, it’s said, is what happens while you’re making other plans. And, my word, you all have a lot of life still waiting to happen to you, so by all means make plans now, but von Clausewitz taught us that no plan survives contact with the enemy and, when your enemy is the rest of the world, believe me: nothing will turn out the way you expect it to. But that doesn’t mean that all plans are worthless, or that it’s not worth making a plan. I began my professional life as an officer in the British Army and, whilst there are many things the Army does not do well, one thing it does very well is planning – enemy or not. And that start of any plan is to identify your Purpose and your Main Effort. In civvie-speak: what are your priorities?
This is, very much, something worth thinking long and hard about now, before the start of your professional lives. The class of 1994 left school right at the end of the era when “pick a career, work hard, retire, die” was all the plan anyone ever needed and we’ve spent the last twenty years trying to work out what’s supposed to replace it. Being in HR, I and my colleagues have been right at the sharp end of this experience as the social contract between employer and employee has… not broken, but changed beyond all expectations. The class of 2017, meanwhile, is entering a world of change, flexibility, adaptation and challenge that, if not settled, then at least better understood what it and the future will look like.
You will all, most likely, have not one career but three or even four. Education won’t stop at one degree: you will find yourselves back at college at least two more times after the first, acquiring additional degrees, postgraduate qualifications or entirely new skill-sets. And even when you’re not in formal education, I’m afraid to say that structured learning is now a life-long pursuit. But there is also good news.
You will enjoy a more equal, less paternalistic relationship with your employers. You will be a scarce resource for which they will have to compete. But the weapon of choice, in the battle of competition won’t be money. Sorry. Rather, it will be opportunity. Employers will be competing to give you the opportunity to travel, to learn, to work in ways that suit you rather than ways that suit them. The emphasis is moving away from top-down instruction, to collaboration and cooperation.
As digital natives, you should already be aware that your data, as a consumer, is a valuable commodity, not to be shared lightly or without fair reward. But the same will apply to your data as an employee. What you think about your employer, your colleagues, your managers and your work will be valuable information and the price your employers will pay to obtain it is going to be visible, tangible influence on the bigger picture.
And all this feeds into something that my generation has pursued as a Holy Grail, but which your generation will now have to make a conscious decision to grasp, because it’s there for you to take.
Right now, I’m sure, you are itching to be free from the constraints of education. Work, and what it brings – i.e. money – might seem like the Promised Land in which you have an income controlled by nothing more than you own ability, talent and willingness to trade time for cash. But cash is a renewable resource. Time isn’t.
There’s an old joke that no one ever lay on their death-bed and said “I wish I’d spent more time at work”. But with a new model of what “employment” means still forming in ideas like “zero-hours contracts” and “the gig economy” and “flexible working”, there will come a time – not far from now – when we will recognize that work and what it offers are fulfilling in their own right in a way very similar to family life and the pursuit of our hobbies, interests and passions. In fact, increasingly for your generation, the lines between those things are going to be blurry.
Older generations were given the equivalent of an on-off switch. When they turned it on, they worked and money came in. When they turned it off, they retired and lived on whatever they had saved. But you are being given something more like a volume control switch. You’ll have the ability to turn it up high when you have the opportunity, and turn it down low when you need to. This will be great when it comes to being able to have “a life” – to have relationships, commitments and pursuits outside your professional life. You’ll be able to travel, build friendship networks, volunteer, or get involved with politics or your community to whatever degree you want to, for the most part; simply shifting your work commitments proportionately.
But there’s a down-side to this utopian vision of the future of work, because your volume control doesn’t come with an “off” setting. For many of you, you may, simply, never retire. You will be working – hopefully on a low volume! – right up to the end. But – and this is the up-side of that grim prognosis – this also means that you will never be obsolete. The next ten years, for every generation before you, has been the Golden Age, with every year beyond that an inevitable slide to irrelevance. But not for you. For you, every new step will be a new Golden Age. Every change of direction, new opportunity or fresh change in pace will be another opportunity to influence the world around you for the better. This is why now is the time to work out your priorities, because those are what are going to help you decide where and when to turn the dial.
And having said all that – I hope you’re still with me – the profession of HR is, excitingly, working right at the bleeding edge of change, guiding and enabling employers to be ready and responsive to a new generation of work. Would you like to know more? Well, you could do worse that to skip back through my blog if you want a sense of what the career involves.
#shamelessplug #hella #downwiththekids #micdrop
 Literally. I am literally not here…