Heather McGowan on key trends in the future of work

Alexandra Mousavizadeh
6 min readMay 15, 2020

Heather McGowan, is a highly respected future of work strategist, who along with Chris Shipley, a co-author of a new book The Adaptation Advantage.

It’s a book that charts the move toward a fully-digitized economy, one that is reshaping both what and how work is done by humans, and posits the theory that the models of employment and education developed in the early twentieth century to prepare a workforce for a relatively stable economy no longer work.

The book then seeks to not just explain the dynamics and impact of technology and social change and what it means means to individuals and their identity, but also advises business and societal decision makers on how to lead in this learning-centric future of accelerated and continuous change.

The book is available here.

This article is part of Tortoise Media’s pre-read content for the upcoming Global AI Summit on Friday 15 May. It’s open to all — register your place here.

Your new book The Adaptation Advantage outlines the profound changes happening in the world of work. It was written before the Covid19 outbreak? So which of the ideas that are expounded in the book do you think the culture created by the virus has confirmed, and what, if anything, has surprised you?

The book was written before we even know of the novel coronavirus. But even though we turned in the manuscript in September 2019, we are finding many of our predictions and suggestions eerily prescient to this moment.

We wrote the book with the premise that exponential growth of technology coupled with an expansive and interdependent global economy are radically reshaping work. We are coming out of an era of discrete buckets of education, career, and retirement to a new one of overlapping phases of learning (throughout one’s life), leveraging (work and learning done in combination) and longevity (where a relatively short period of retirement at the end of life is being replaced by a fruitful and productive period open to new types of engagement). In this new paradigm, we are defined less by what we do (fixed occupational identity) and more by why (purpose) and how (ever expanding capacity through continuous learning) we express ourselves in work.

The coronavirus has simply accelerated the trends we saw, most notably our transformation to digital, which was never really been about the technology or the tools, but rather about how we, as humans, transform and adapt. If nothing else, the virus has unequivocally proven that we are a highly adaptive species often unaware of our potential until faced with an existential challenge like this global pandemic.

How do politicians, social commentators, legislators and technology seers look beyond the short term to imagine a better future? And in the world of work, what do you think are the key changes that need to be instituted?

First and foremost, we need to shift our thinking. The education-career-retire paradigm, the fixed singular occupational identity, the one-time single dose of education for life, and screening talent based solely on past skills and experience have been dead or dying for more than a decade. Further, we need to stop asking children what they want to be when they grow up, asking university students or trade folks to pick a major or trade based on the thin slice of life they have been exposed to in high school, and we need to stop greeting each other by asking “What do you do?”. We found in all our research that the socialization of a singular occupational identity with all the systems of work and learning designed as a factory pipeline to a single position in a future space are major hinderances in our ability to adapt.

If we have to learn and adapt for life, which we do, we need to focus folks on connecting their internally driven motivation, their fuel source, to their purpose, their passion, and their curiosity. Then, we can set the expectation that we will all have to reskill (acquire new skills, port our abilities to new domains) and upskill (deepen our skills and knowledge in our existing domains) continuously. We need the systems of lifelong learning and the means to access them at scale so that we can collectively and repeatedly unleash more human potential. We need to nurture new workers to keep our economic engine running and to do so requires a mindset shift (adaptability), a change in expectations (learning is your responsibility), and accessible systems for continuous learning.

What do you see as the process of businesses becoming more purpose oriented? Does this always have to be driven from the top down, or are there key roles for employees to play?

Imagine a world where you join an organization not through your efforts to fit into a predetermined box (job description) but rather based on your shared sense of purpose, a common mission, or aligned values coupled with challenges that allow you to flex and grow your professional and personal capabilities. Screening candidates to match artificially set checklists for job descriptions, which are often based upon past challenges, is not a great way to find talent for new challenges yet unknown. The rates of change — measured in the longevity of products, services, business models, or even entire companies — are compressing, so to define your organization by its outputs, namely brand and product, is to do so by lagging rather than leading indicators. If Netflix defined itself by shipping DVDs by mail or Amazon by selling books online or Apple by making desktop computers, those companies would have ended more than a decade ago. When companies define themselves by their purpose, as Simon Sinek observed more than a decade ago, they have a greater connection to both their employees and their customers. We take that notion further by observing that a purpose-centered definition of why a company exists with a focus on how it adapts to new changes creates the conditions for greater agility as markets and conditions change from exponential growth in technology, shifts in a hyperconnected global economy, or massive short term transformations by a global pandemic.

Ultimately do you envisage a world in which we are materially poorer, but perhaps less stressed and more content in our work and private lives?

We believe this virus is the third existential threat of our lifetimes: climate change, income inequality, and now the global pandemic. In this third challenge where we have temporarily placed our most vulnerable and our healthcare systems above our short term economy creating the rare opportunity to rethink our challenges. In all likelihood this massive social experiment, whether you call it the great pause, the reset, or the realization, will shift how we spend and value our time relative to our assets. As Warren Buffet said when the tide goes out you find out show is swimming naked, which for him was a comment on how broken business models can hide in raging economic growth for some period of time but that analogy holds when looking at our society. We have had rising income inequality across much of the developed world, notably in the US, and most economists note that rising income inequality leads to lower GDP growth. We have the opportunity in this pause to create a more just society, where more of us unleash our human potential, in an economy in greater balance with the earth’s natural resources.

This article is part of Tortoise Media’s pre-read content for the upcoming Global AI Summit on Friday 15 May. It’s open to all — register your place here.

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