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Shaping the Future of Work: Gen Z and Beyond

Consider this. Children entering kindergarten in 2024 will graduate in 2037 and likely work beyond 2075. So, shouldn’t educational leaders be focused on the future as we plan for today? 

If you search Future of Work, dozens of reports from Deloitte, McKinsey, Gallup, WorkHuman and more return. Many professional conferences this year center on this theme. Every organization seeks insight into the future as we emerge from unprecedented disruption.

“I agree that the old normal is gone. But I believe that we have entered what I call a never normal,” Futurist Greg Verdino told a crowd at a recent Marsh McLennan Agency Thrive Into the Future Conference. “Our organizations, our teams, us as leaders, you as leaders, will need to grapple with wave after wave of change. And it’s not going to be like any other change we’ve experienced because it will be faster.”

It is widely accepted that the rate of change now outpaces human capacity to keep up, and the explosion of artificial intelligence will impact every organization. 

Verdino reminisced about the 2010s, spotlighting the rise of tech giants and their impact on consumer expectations and business operations as catalysts for digital transformation. Yet, the crux of his message is on the post-COVID era’s acceleration towards a more profound change. He described the pandemic as a “digital stress test” that has irrevocably altered consumer behaviors and business practices.

Verdino’s future vision is both a caution and a call to action. He illustrates an age dominated by AI, where the distinction between human and machine intelligence blurs, presenting challenges and opportunities in equal measure. This new era demands a paradigm shift in how businesses perceive and implement technology, focusing on leveraging AI not as a replacement for human capabilities but as a complement to human creativity and innovation.

Adaptability, Learning and Relearning

To navigate this never-normal successfully, Verdino encourages leaders to perceive change not as a threat but as an opportunity for growth and reinvention. He emphasized the importance of adaptability and shared an “adaptive manifesto” that outlines principles and practices for building resilience and agility within organizations. It’s a clarion call for embracing ambiguity, becoming students of change, and moving as efficiently as possible from analysis to action. “In the absence of absolute certainty or predictable outcomes, don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.”

During the Future of Work Symposium sponsored by Minnesota Leaders in Education, leaders were inspired to adapt to a changing landscape for Minnesota Schools — both for students and employees.

Workforce development expert Mark Perna brought energy and a sense of urgency from a generational perspective. Speaking to school administrators, Board members and association executive directors, Perna urged every leader to be future-focused. In a rapidly changing world, there is a dire need for a paradigm shift in how we educate, engage, and prepare our youth. 

The Importance of Relationships

Perna’s central theme to understanding Generation Z and subsequent generations is a non-negotiable human connection to thrive. This generation, marked by its quest for authenticity, respect, and a purpose-driven life, mandates an education that sees them first as human. Information and content are at their fingertips. They need exciting and inspirational guides to make sense of it. 

Schooling today is not just about academic rigor or imparting technical skills, though these are undeniably important. It’s about fostering professional and interpersonal skills like leadership, communication, work-life balance, and emotional intelligence—skills that form the bedrock of success today.

Perna spotlighted a stark chasm between the available workforce and the skills employers require. “It is not just a gap; it’s a gaping hole. With millions of jobs unfilled,” he said. The urgency to bridge this divide has never been more critical. He believes a holistic approach to education creates seamless pipelines between education, employment, and economic development, thereby ensuring the viability of our communities. And with labor shortages, local businesses are finally willing to partner with local school leaders.

Reframing: Career Planning or Lifestyle Choices

Relationships, Perna espouses, will let adults help students understand what lights kids up. “Do students see a light at the end of the tunnel? Do they know what they are working for?” he asked, “The tunnel is the time you spend with us in education and workforce, right? It’s the work, the labor, the effort, the skill development, the academic rigor; it’s everything necessary for them to feel comfortable taking a step, and then another step towards their light at the end of their tunnel,” Perna said. “Our challenge in America today. We have way too many young people standing still in the tunnel. They either don’t know what they want, or they are afraid to go after it.”

When discussing careers, they see the grind of going to work. If we flip the message to talk about lifestyles, we can help them create a vision for their future.

“The light at the end of the tunnel for our students—their careers, lifestyles, and aspirations—is only reachable if we, as educators, parents, and community members, illuminate the path with purpose, passion, and a deep understanding of their unique needs and challenges,” Perna says.

Purpose-driven, Meaningful Work

Let’s face it. For generations, when students asked why they had to learn something, our answers were “because we said so” or the state says so. “You’ll need this when you get older” was a popular refrain. Now, generations of adults report they have not used ________ [fill in the blank, math formulas, science concepts, their musical instruments] since they were in high school. Adults disparage memorizing information for a test, only to forget once it is completed. So today, with the world’s information at their fingertips, this generation asks WHY more than before. And if they don’t have that answer or aren’t interested, they will disengage.

Inspiring Student Agency and Ownership of Learning

As employers, parents or educators, the task is monumental yet invigorating. We are called to be the architects of a new era in education, one that resonates with the heartbeats of our students and envisions humans working with machine intelligence. Effective educators tap into interest and ownership for learning (and relearning) to meet the need for human connection and value future generations’ individuality, struggles, aspirations, hopes and dreams.

To be future-thinkers, we must embrace the idea that education is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It’s a diverse, multifaceted journey where each student’s path may be distinct, but every path is equally significant. It’s about understanding that career readiness doesn’t necessarily equate to college readiness and that the true measure of our success lies in how well our students navigate the complexities of life, armed with the knowledge, skills, and resilience we’ve helped instill in them. 

Published on: February 8, 2024