The 2030 Talent Agenda

By James Bellini The Talent Foundation

A new report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills looks ahead to 2030 and to ‘a future landscape of rapid and profound change’. How relevant are its conclusions? A fifteen year horizon is a dangerous gamble. Did we foresee the huge impact of revolutionary social media or a host of other, more recent digital innovations that are transforming working practices?

What is changing?

Indeed that future landscape surveyed in the UKCES report promises to be far more transformational than any previous time frame. Over the next decade or so we are likely to see more disruptive innovations than in the whole of the 20th century. And not just in communications technologies: in areas such as robotics, next-generation genomics, advanced materials (think graphene and carbon nanotubes), energy storage, 3D (and then 4D) printing and autonomous (self-driving) vehicles we will see significant, game-changing developments with immense implications for the labour market of the future.

Even so, some observations about what it acknowledges as ‘an unknowable future’ are worth considering as key drivers of tomorrow’s skills marketplace. For example, we can expect more and more innovations to happen at the borders of disciplines and sectors. This means there will be more combining of existing disciplines with new developments and a resultant trend towards ‘hybridisation’ of skills. Put simply, there will be a growing premium on people who are comfortable with cross-discipline collaboration. As one global thought leader interviewed for the report puts it: ‘Big innovations will come from people who are capable of translating one paradigm of a discipline to a paradigm of another discipline’.


Another trend highlighted by UKCES is already re-shaping the skills marketplace but is likely to accelerate sharply in the years ahead – the ‘shrinking middle’. Jobs that have traditionally occupied the middle of the skills hierarchy, such as white collar admin roles and skilled blue collar functions, are declining at a rapid rate as patterns of work organisation are impacted by new technologies and a more globalised, interdependent economic environment. So while the high-skilled minority of creative and problem-solving types will have growing bargaining power, their low-skilled counterparts will face the cold winds of hiring policies geared to greater flexibility and ‘flatter’ business structures based on an increasingly external ‘free agent’ contingent workforce.

The report also identifies an important issue that currently attracts scant attention: the rise of a four-generational workplace. Through the 2020s pre-digital generations – not least post-war baby boomers – will encounter growing cohorts of ‘digital natives’ who were born since the advent of the Internet and all that came with it. By 2020, over half the UK workforce will be from that ‘Facebook’ culture, young people who have grown up connected, collaborative and mobile and have very different concepts of workplace relationships.


So, apart from specific issues like exactly what kinds of skills that 2030 economy will need, we also need to think hard about how this multi-generational workface is to be managed. Traditional ideas of hierarchy and seniority, above all the static notion of ‘the job’, will clash with attitudes towards work and interaction shaped by the digital revolution. While digital natives are more comfortable with continuous learning, a pre-requisite of continual up-skilling, older age groups will need to abandon fixed thinking and embrace technology if they are not to be frozen out of the future labour market.

How business leaders approach this challenge will impact on their business performance and the bottom line. More enlightened enterprises will be more likely to attract and retain the best talent. This, in turn, will affect key areas like customer engagement, which will increasingly rely on the role of tech-supported individuals. In customer-centric sectors like retailing, for example, the movement of digital technologies ‘to the edge’ – away from old-style centralised computing – is transforming the very essence of the customer experience and turning hitherto low-skill staff into important brand ambassadors.

Retailers such as John Lewis, for instance, now arm their in-store associates with tablets to help them deal with customer queries and even handle payment transactions at any point across the shop floor. Not only will long queues at the tills become a thing of the past, this empowerment ‘at the edge’ will call for ‘softer’ people-facing interpersonal and collaborative skills. No matter what industry or sector you are in, this will become a universal truth.

As this UKCES report concludes: ‘Skills like resilience, adaptability, resourcefulness, enterprise and cognitive abilities will be at a premium in the future’. Whatever the shape of the world in 2030, driven no doubt by a new wave of technological wonders and Star Trek innovations, that defines tomorrow’s agenda for every talent professional.

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