London: 31 July 2016

Careers advice can’t keep up with the jobs revolution

Few decisions matter more than choosing how to earn a living when you’re young.

Traditionally, career advice is provided according to classic definitions of disciplines and occupations.

Society hopes young people are guided into work that matches their formal qualifications and interests. The lucky ones pick a vocation that provides personal fulfilment and a steady and adequate income. As the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: “The crowning fortune of a man is to be born to some pursuit which finds him employment and happiness, whether it be to make baskets, or broadswords, or canals, or statues, or songs.”

But jobs in the 21st century are changing rapidly — and many of the old professions are dying, usurped by automation or outsourced to emerging economies. Previous shifts in technology did away with manual and industrial workers, and now jobs in areas such as legal services, financial services, administration, transportation and retail are under threat. Creative destruction is spreading from blue collar to white collar.

At the same time, we cannot easily discern what the new paid work will be in the West. A few years ago, I co-hosted a conference at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce about the job market of the future. Beyond vague ideas about the sorts of skills young people should acquire, almost none of our expert witnesses really knew where the opportunities ahead were.

Careers advice — be it in schools, through local authorities, via the National Careers Service, in further education colleges or at universities — could be more forward-looking. Plenty of students do benefit, but the quality of these resources is patchy. For example, the online facilities at my alma mater, Oxford, are feeble compared with the career websites across the Atlantic at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. More effort needs to be put into areas such as self-assessment tools, mentoring, employer links, alumni connections and work experience.

An alternative way of looking at careers is to try to understand the types of places in which people want to work. I believe the issue of the workplace should matter as much as what individuals actually do in it. Everyone considering their career should ask themselves the question: do I want to work in a large organisation or a small one? Big institutions can offer a more obvious path to promotion, better benefits, training and the comfort of a known name. But they can also suffer from bureaucracy and stifling hierarchy. Moreover, staff might feel they are a meaningless cog in a giant machine.

By contrast, small organisations may provide less security, a lower salary and fewer perks — but they might well offer more variety, greater responsibility at an early stage, and the possibility of rapid promotion. Interestingly, 85% of the jobs created in the UK from 2008 to 2013 were in firms with fewer than 50 staff.

A second crucial question is the following: do I want to work in the private sector, the state sector or the non-profit/charitable sector?

My experience is that the culture and mindset of those working for the state are quite different to attitudes in the private sector.

Public sector jobs offer stability, defined-benefit pensions and unionisation. By contrast, the private sector is much more dynamic and volatile; objectives and targets are likely to be much clearer; and pay and prospects more heavily subject to performance rather than seniority. Even teachers and doctors do not have to work for the state; there are plenty of private schools and hospitals.

A third question, which applies only to the private sector, is: do I want to be an employee, or work for myself? A corporate post can give status, routine and at least the appearance of safety. By contrast, self-employment can provide freedom and independence, but it might also mean a more precarious living — and very long hours.

Nevertheless, more people than ever seem willing to break away from the nine-to-five existence: approaching 5m are now classed as self-employed. But educational institutions are weak at giving help and information to would-be entrepreneurs. Perhaps this is because those who supply such career counselling are particularly ill-equipped to understand the profits and perils of being your own boss.

Tomorrow’s workers will need to be mobile, flexible and technically literate. Ambitious students starting work now must be prepared to move to pursue their dreams — quite possibly abroad. Globalisation, robotics and the digital revolution mean more opportunities for savvy Millennials but greater threats to the prosperity of the unskilled. People in this generation are likely to have several careers, and must be willing to retrain to stay productive. The key to success will be lifelong learning.