M K Rao hails from a lower middle-class Mumbai-based family and needed a job. As luck would have it, soon after he completed his 10th exam in 1970, a friend referred him to a multinational company that was looking for office attendants. Rao’s smattering of English was enough for him to land the job.
Given that the staff in that company was unionised and job guarantee was a done deal, he could have continued as an office attendant and retired at the age of 58 after serving the company for 40 years. Most of his fellow office attendants had been with the company for 20+ years.
Rao, however, was made from a different material. He decided to attend evening classes for doing a BA degree. Fortunately, he found a suitable evening college near his office and graduated with flying colours. A request to the management got him a move from the ‘Peons Corner’ to the position of a clerk in the marketing department.
Rao was inspired by what he saw the marketing team was doing. He did not want to retire as a marketing clerk. His search revealed that a leading business school offered a part-time, evening-class based certificate in marketing management. It was gruelling work for three years but Rao managed to complete the course.
The path from being a marketing clerk to becoming a brand manager is indeed steep. But Rao’s commitment and dedication got him a junior executive position in the marketing team. He was told that he was moving out of the ‘Chathra Chaya’ [umbrella] of the union and would now have to fend for himself.
Rao moved from being a data analysis clerk to the position of Assistant Product Manager. He continued to work hard, learn new skills, got promoted as regional sales manager and later returned to the Head Office as a Marketing Services Manager. In this position, he played a key role in streamlining the sales representative’s incentive system.
Rao managed to transition from the role of an office assistant to a clerical assistant to an executive, in the span of a decade and more. This was the age of physical classes and notes. He did not have internet to help him in his learning journey. But he managed a miracle in career transformation.
Finally, when he retired a few years ago as General Manager Sales Operations, no one would have guessed that Rao had started his career as an office assistant 45 years ago. Interestingly, Rao is now settled in Mumbai helping his son-in-law streamline his film post-production business.
Why is his story so relevant to all young job seekers today? As we enter the post-COVID world of work, we are going to see several disruptions in the way we work and the way we learn.
Manish Kumar, MD & CEO of the National Skills Development Corporation, says it well: “Some jobs are at risk, but many new ones are going to get created post-COVID.”
“Going forward, the key is constant reskilling and upskilling….In addition to domain skills, complex problem solving, communication and team work will become very important”Manish Kumar, MD & CEO, NSDC (Financial Express, May 2020)
Adam Grant, a Professor at the Wharton Business School, has a fascinating podcast on the future of work and life [WorkLife with Adam Grant a TED Podcast]. In a World Economic Forum discussion, he points to two big trends:
- One, leaders should take the opportunity to give their employees more control over their schedule
- Two, companies should reflect on what they have learnt from the enforced lockdown and home working.
The concept of redistributed retirement is interesting. One expert mentioned that you may start seeing double income households opting for bouts of retirement; in the past it was only the working woman who took a break to look after kids, going forward you may see even the menfolk taking three or five year breaks.
What does all this mean to today’s employee, that too a millennial employee?
Let me start by quoting Piyush Sharma, an Executive in Residence at ISB [from his Fortune opinion piece]:
“Life will change from the chunky three-stage model – education, work and retirement- to a fluid almost ongoing multistage model where education, exploration, employment, self-employment, retirements and a portfolio of paid and nonpaid work will all be in a continuum. Education will be all through, work will be much longer, and retirement will be perhaps redistributed.”
If you have a B Tech in Computer Science or a B Com degree, or a professional degree like CA or an MBA, chances are that a lot of that knowledge will be completely outdated 10 years hence. A scary thought indeed.
But look at it another way. When I was in business school in the late 1970s, we did not have a computer in our campus. We did not know about word processing, spread sheets or power point presentations. The 60+ generation too have had to learn a lot after they left their schools. But that was at 30 kmph (kilometres per hour).
Today, that speed just changed to 300 kmph!
Nandita Gurjar, former Chief Human Resources Officer of Infosys, feels that many Millennials are already embracing a dual career life, one that is pure work and one that is pure passion. “This has been aided by the double career liquidity,” says Nandita. Having two highly paid members in a family opens up many possibilities of flexible career moves and breaks when needed.
She is quick to point out that both the executive and the system around him/her needs to embrace a great level of flexibility since the Gig Economy is here for good. Gig Economy for the uninitiated is where all jobs are parcelled out to freelancers; more and more jobs will get absorbed by the Gig Economy.
The idea of people switching jobs several times during their life is not a new concept. It was proposed by Alvin Toffler in his hugely popular, epochal book Future Shock. Toffler, while writing his book in 1970, was comparing the jobs of the 1970s and 1980s to the jobs of the early industrial era.
The knowledge revolution was then just entering the work scene. Computers were being used in large corporations. The IBM PC made its entry in 1981 and that was a major transformation of sorts. To be followed by the internet revolution. Toffler was probably foreseeing all this when he wrote his book.
So if you have to be prepared for an ‘N-Career Life’ what should you be doing?
Deepali Nair, CMO-IBM India and South Asia has coined a nice term to describe something that all of us should start developing. She calls it ‘Learnability Quotient’.
In other words, your learning does not stop after you complete your higher education. It, in fact, starts then.
But you may wonder how you would know if you are losing touch. How would you know that you have hit a glass ceiling? Are there any signals?
In the new economy, the signals will be all around you. You may not get the big project you were hoping to land. You may not get the promotion you wanted.
So what do you do? Fret and fume, or realise that you need to reboot, the way champions do. Go back to the drawing board.
And do what, you ask?
There are two approaches here. One is to dig deeper and become an expert in a narrow domain so that your expertise is in greater and greater demand. If, for example, you take digital marketing, you may want to become better at data analytics and focus on learning AI systems and better analytics methods.
The opposite to this approach is to go broad, from digital marketing go to the broader areas of marketing. Maybe find out how to use Design Thinking methods to do a better marketing job.
Depending on your current job you can try and visualize three or four future paths your career can take. What you need do is see how you can prepare for it by doing the courses that will help you.
Choosing the right course
What is so wonderful today is that so much is possible just by sitting in front of your computer. You do not have to go to a night college like our friend Rao. You can enroll for a multitude of courses and then pick the one or two you want to complete.
For example, last year I did a course on Digital Marketing with Udemy. Found it of great value. Will I use all that I learnt? No. But will it be useful for me to understand what a 23-year-old social marketing expert is talking about? You bet!
There is one big challenge with taking online courses. The loneliness. It will be ideal if you can find a friend or two who can join you on your learning journey. That way you can motivate each other and learn from each other. Believe you me, the day you can combine peer-based learning with digital learning, you would have opened the magic box of learning.
Should you be worried? Yes. But should you also be energized? Definitely. With the growth of technology, you are going to see a number of new job options opening up. The question is whether you will be ready to grab those opportunities. To do that you need to do to refresh and relearn.
Constantly. At every stage of your life and career. And be prepared for the sharp career turns that are bound to become necessary in the coming years.
Five-step process to prepare for an N-career life
This applies to all those who are starting their career or those who are in the early stages of their career.
- How do you rate your performance in your current career: How are you being rated by your superiors? Are you getting rewarding and challenging assignments? Are you learning new things every few months?
- What are the potential existential threats to your current career progress? Is there an AI/ML disruption that can destroy your job? Will WFH / WFO change the way your job is organised?
- What adjacencies can you identify to your current job? What are the closest roles you could switch to with some upgrades to your existing skills? Are there skills that are in demand that you have, but have not used till now?
- What will it take to make a switch now, before you are pushed into it? What are the downsides of making a career change? What are the upsides if the move works to your advantage?
- How will you measure the success of your move: Do you have a mentor or an advisor who can evaluate your performance? What defines success in your new career?
And then, repeat these questions to yourself every two years to build a robust N-Career Life. As Abraham Maslow has said, “In any given moment, we have two options: To step forward into growth or to step back into safety.”