Sunday 19 January 2020

No more jobs for life - get used to chopping and changing careers

Celebrating their Leaving Cert results at Castletroy College were Shane Doherty, Patrick Zheng, Dion Smalle, William Hayes, Neil Ryan, Thomas Minogue, and Michael Desmond.
Photo: Gareth Williams / Press22
Celebrating their Leaving Cert results at Castletroy College were Shane Doherty, Patrick Zheng, Dion Smalle, William Hayes, Neil Ryan, Thomas Minogue, and Michael Desmond. Photo: Gareth Williams / Press22
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Tens of thousands of (mostly) young people received their Leaving Cert results yesterday. Some will immediately enter the world of work, but most will move into a new phase of further education and training before they start to earn a crust.

Regardless of their choice, one thing is clear: their working lives will be longer than in the past.

Most of today's school leavers will be toiling into their 70s, as retirement ages rise in line with increasing longevity.

Other changes in aspects of the world of work in the coming decades are harder to predict; in fact, some are entirely unpredictable. That said, if we consider how much the average working life has altered over the past 50 years, as well as the ongoing acceleration in the pace of change, it is safe to say that there will be even more change again over the working lives of those clutching their results this week.

As often when we look to the future, there are those who fear the change that the future inevitably brings and there are the eternal optimists who believe things can only get better.

Based on the changes of the past 50 years and a range of trends, I think the optimists' case is stronger than the pessimists. Careers today, on average, offer greater variety, involving more rewarding and creative types of work than the repetitive jobs of old - think of assembly line workers and box-ticking paper shufflers. There is every reason to believe that that trend will continue.

Not everyone agrees, though. One of the great fears, going all the way back to the Luddites, if not further, is that man will be replaced by machines in the production process, but that he won't be able to find alternative employment.

If that were to happen, the pessimists say, we would face not just bouts of high unemployment during recessions, but permanent mass unemployment.

These fears are even greater today as globalisation means that jobs can disappear to other countries with alarming speed.

Despite these fears being quite pervasive, there is little evidence from the developed world to support claims that technology and globalisation have damaged job creation or pushed up joblessness.

Let's start at home. In Ireland, from the time of independence until the 1990s, there was no significant growth in the total number of jobs in the economy. For 70 years up to the 1990s, the number at work in the State stagnated at a tad above one million.

Then everything changed in the mid-1990s. Employment growth exploded. There are now two million people at work in Ireland and that is despite suffering a depression in 2008-2012.

An even better measure is to consider the proportion of the adult population that is working (countries with strong population growth, such as Ireland, tend to see strong jobs growth, but that doesn't necessarily translate into greater prosperity).

Back in the mid-1990s, just as the Celtic Tiger was taking legs and when globalisation was really getting going, 54pc of working-age people in Ireland worked. Today almost 64pc do, according to Eurostat.

So not only are there more jobs in absolute terms compared to 20 years ago, but more working-age people are working.

That's the good news from Ireland. But we are no exception. Most of our peer countries have had similar experiences.

Over the past 20 years among the 23 richest countries in the world - from New Zealand to Japan and Israel to Canada - every country bar Greece has experienced an increase in total employment.

When we consider the share of the adult population at work over the past two decades, 20 of these 23 richest countries have recorded increases.

Benighted Greece is among the three countries which have suffered a decline. Denmark, somewhat surprisingly, is too. Even more surprisingly, given its long history of economic dynamism, is that the worst performer in the entire rich world is the United States.

When the proportion of adult Americans at work peaked at the turn of the century, almost three out of four of them worked. In 2015, only 69pc did. This explains, in part at least, the rise of Trump.

The very unusual US experience may be down to fewer government programmes to help those who lose their jobs get back to work, compared to other developed countries. That issue brings us nicely to another fundamental change in the world of work in recent decades - the widening gap between those with low or no skills and those who have skills and what can be done to ensure that as many people as possible are equipped with the skills to get ahead in the modern working environment.

A majority of those who have received their results this week will go on to do a post-secondary qualification - Ireland now has the highest rate of education to third level in Europe. As is well known, Ireland's education system, which is good but far from perfect, has been a central factor in bringing jobs to the country.

But one of the most likely changes in the future will be the need for workers to continue to invest in education and training over the course of their working lives.

As the job for life continues its long decline, people will need to be prepared for more frequent changes of employer and even full-scale career changes as industries disappear or require fewer workers as a result of automation.

That will require a greater focus on re-skilling and life-long learning.

The days of getting a degree, settling into an organisation - even a public sector organisation - and staying there until retirement are going the way of the dodo. All those starting adult life should be aware of that and plan for it accordingly.

Irish Independent

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