Ade McCormack on Careers in the Digital Age

I have seen significant changes in the overlapping trends associated with the digital economy and skills. As the main author of the first edition of the “e-Skills Manifesto” (2010), I flagged what lay ahead if Europe did not take radical action. My more recent work in respect of how our anthropological past is impacting our digital future from a talent management /career perspective suggests we need to act with some urgency.

To provide an overview:

Half a century ago, people typically had one career and one employer. More recently we saw one career and many sequential employers. Increasingly today we have people who are having multiple careers with multiple employers and clients.

Young people do not want to turn up day after day to the same factory (or office) at fixed time. We are mobile creatures and this goes against our nature. Similarly we are social creatures, and would prefer not to have to wait until the end of the working day to progress our personal lives.
Who wants to be a corporate cog, where creativity is stifled and independent thought is frowned upon? In fact who wants a very well paid job that has you in a constant state of anxiety and with no time to enjoy your cash surplus?

Millennials make up the majority of the workforce today and will likely do so for another half a century, so HR cannot simply wait for this highly demanding cadre of the workforce to move on. The expectations I have described are here to stay. Organisations that fail to adjust will fail. Good talent attracts good customers. If organisations cannot attract and retain the best talent, they will witness their clients gravitating to where the best talent is employed.

This feels like talent utopia. But it is not so straightforward. Not so long ago, economy status aside, you chose a career and simply hopped on the conveyor belt associated with that career. The conveyor belt might have led you through tertiary education and onwards in an upward trajectory entailing greater pay and greater responsibility.

But whilst we know we will continue to need doctors, lawyers and architects, we cannot be sure to what extent these roles will be automated. Much of the human element may well disappear. This may have the effect of reducing the overall headcount required. What looks like a safe career today, may be an automated service in the near future.

Those about to embark on their career are facing great uncertainty. So are those of us who are in the midst of our career. Though many of us have little time to reflect on this reality. It’s a great shock for those who leapt onto their chosen conveyor belt, expecting the journey to last a whole career, only to discover that they have been unceremoniously offloaded into a skip at the back of the factory, so to speak.

We need to become like the competitive Nordic skiers, who grind out ten meters then look up to see if they are on track. If they have veered off track they can adjust their path. Failing to look up can have career ending consequences.

Silicon Valley gives us a clue as to how we address this. Imagine your career is a lean start up. You have an idea of the direction in which you want to proceed, but before you invest too heavily, you test the market. Testing the market is critical. If there is no demand, then, at best, you are pursuing a hobby. So in the parlance of Silicon Valley, you will need to either abandon your path or pivot, that is to say change course. Perhaps we can call this a Minimum Viable Career?

Whilst demand is important, so too is passion and competence. Talent in the digital economy is engaged because it can do things that create differentiated customer experiences that computers cannot (yet) do. Creativity will be a key element of this. It is emotionally taxing being creative professionally. If you choose a path that does not fill you with passion then you are unlikely to last the distance.

Having a career in the digital economy will be highly rewarding, but it requires proactive career management, agility, passion and great competence. It also requires political action by Europe’s governments in respect of education and employment policy.

Ade McCormack is a digital strategist and author of several books. For more information: