"Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change," said Stephen Hawking.
Some change, though, is tough to negotiate. Especially when so many of life's certainties are shifting like sand under our feet. The pandemic is a case in point. It has changed so much in our social and cultural landscape.
In some areas, Covid-19 has sped up changes that would have occurred even without a pandemic - perhaps over a longer time frame. Employment is a prime example. In 2021, we’ve seen what some economists call the “Great Resignation”.
At the end of 2021, the UK unemployment level is just over four per cent. This is far better than many people expected once the government’s furlough scheme ended. That said, one study in the UK and Ireland this year found that 38 per cent of workers surveyed planned to quit in the next six to twelve months to a year.
In the US, 15 million people have quit their jobs since August 2021 - 4.2 million of them did so in October alone. The largest share of these people worked in small businesses, which often have fewer perks.
The Great Resignation is partly due to a re-evaluation of peoples’ priorities during lockdowns. Working remotely removed people from the communal side of work, too, which weakened collegiate ties that keep people coming to work.
Some people are moving on because of the way they feel their employer has treated them during the pandemic. Employers that offered support, logistically and in terms of mental health, have won greater staff loyalty. Other bosses have felt too stretched by economic and other strains on their business to attend to such things. It is costing them now.
Whatever the reasons, many people are taking the plunge. The rate of resignations will probably slow somewhat in 2022, but the trend will continue. Partly because of the growing presence of artificial intelligence in the workspace and a new awareness of remote working.
Where will people go in the wake of the “Great Resignation”? Some will explore the world of freelancing. There are 1.4 million British freelancers working across all sectors, a growth of 14 per cent in the past decade. Freelancing is attractive because 78 per cent of Brits believe that it - along with flexible working - offers the possibility of a better work/life balance.
The fact that people actually spend, on average, one hour per day more at their desks when working remotely only adds to the sense that they need more control over their time.
Other people will try their hand in the world of startups, especially with social enterprises that work for the common good. Social enterprise solves social problems in profitable ways. A child of the digital revolution, it creates solutions related to everything from access to banks, to healthcare and regenerating the environment.
Today, there are schools for social entrepreneurs and dedicated sources of funding such as the Social Enterprise Support Fund, which will give £16 million in grants for 500 businesses this year.
However, intrepid souls who launch start-ups face another challenge. In the UK, six out of ten businesses fail in the first three years. Twenty per cent don’t even make it beyond their first year. During the Great Resignation, people need training and support, not just to start well but to maintain and scale a business over time.
There are great opportunities here for universities and companies that can train people in transition skills. Many young people now in higher education or entering their formative work years will retrain several times in their careers - not just for a new job, but for an entirely different livelihood. That will be one consequence of AI in the workplace.
AI and Jobs
Despite the fact that we use smart apps every day, many people are concerned that artificial intelligence will one day soon overtake human capacities and rule the world.
AI doesn’t just affect lower-paid jobs anymore; it also impacts professions like medicine, law and journalism. Throughout history, new technology has always birthed novel forms of work. The question going forward, though, will be whether we can transition quickly enough to take advantage of those jobs.
That said, it’s vital that we keep a sense of perspective. Artificial intelligence is just that - artificial. Yes, AI and artificial neural networks can do some amazing things. For example, some machines learn to carry out complex tasks, like driving cars, not by being programmed to do them but by watching human beings carry them out.
These computer networks analyse huge amounts of data, then identify patterns in the data, infer rules from those patterns and apply those rules to carry out tasks. That’s impressive - for some, worrying.
Machines, however, can’t yet display AGI - Artificial General Intelligence. They’re good at thinking in straight lines. They can’t necessarily carry out multiple complex tasks at once, not to the extent that our brains do, every minute of every day.
In the year ahead, many more of us will find ourselves working alongside AI-driven machines. Companies will train people to communicate with it via “language modelling”. This is a process that allows machines to understand and respond to us in a language we understand. Microsoft and other companies are working on systems that generate computer code from spoken human languages. This will allow you and I to code computers simply by speaking to them in everyday language. It potentially represents a great step forward in the democratisation of coding - though people may need some grounding in ethics to handle this power wisely.
Some of the biggest developments in AI this year will protect us against cybercrime - hacking, ID theft and the like. In the UK, cybercrime costs individuals, businesses and governments around £21 billion per year. Globally, the annual cost is six trillion dollars! Some 200,000 Brits are likely to be victims of ID theft in 2022.
If AI can help reduce that, well and good, but we will need to see governments, BigTech and business networks working together to establish national and global codes of ethics for the development of AI. This has already been done with some aspects of bio-engineering. As a society, we must know where we might need to pause for a re-think on how we approach ever more powerful forms of automation. Technology is a great servant, but a terrible master.
I’m Moving On
If you’ve already become a “great resigner”, or you’re thinking of doing so, it’s important to add clear thinking to the emotional pull to move on.
Transitioning successfully begins with identifying your “carry forward” - the skill sets and types of thinking that have served you well in past areas of employment. Which skills are likely to serve you best in your next role? Realising, of course, that those skills you’ve relied on to this point might not be the ones you need most going forward.
Do some research. Talk to people in the industry or sector you’re moving into. Read industry publications, subscribe to blogs, follow key industry leaders on social media. Try to discover what skills are most important in that sector and what shifts are already reshaping it. Then upgrade your current skills in those areas - using online courses, YouTube tutorials and the like.
You’ll also need to face and overcome “imposter syndrome”. Preparing to move to a new role can inspire the feeling that you're not qualified enough. Facing imposter syndrome is a reality of life for anyone who wants to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone. But moving past it is the only way to stay relevant in the long term.
Truly successful people, in the age we're coming into, will be those who’re willing to succeed in more than one area or sector. That requires that you’re willing to pass through seasons of obscurity, going from one spotlight to another, with times of adjustment and struggle in between.
You’ll want to think about your work environment, too. Where will you do your best work - at home, in a rented shared working space, or in an office? I’ve written elsewhere about the opportunities and challenges presented by the pandemic-inspired workplace revolution.
Remote working brings great benefits for the environment and to employers - in terms of worker satisfaction. But if you’ve become your own boss, you suddenly need to know how to discipline and motivate yourself. You also need to find new ways to connect with others in order to collaborate and innovate. Many people collaborate better in physical space than a digital one.
This article is part of a series entitled “The Shape of 2022”. In a future instalment, I’ll outline projections on new technologies we’ll see in 2022. Some of these will change the way we work yet again.
For now, though, let’s approach change intelligently, as Professor Hawking suggested. The world of work will shift again in 2022, whether we stay in our current positions or move on. We can't future proof our lives or careers, or isolate ourselves from the exigencies of life. We can, however, decide to be proactive about the future, to be as ready as possible to make the future work for us.
To cite another fine thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”