Learning In The Age Of Multiple Careers
How does learning have to evolve in an era where someone can have multiple careers in a single lifetime? Dan White, the director of Ezra's Impact Lab, discusses the idea of multipotential talent.
Longer lives, shortening the period of relevance of skills learned – how do we re-deploy people once, twice, more times in a career?
I’m getting my coronavirus vaccination tomorrow (it’s early May in the UK), which is code for, “I’m not a young man anymore!”. I creak a bit now and my body needs time in the morning before it’s ready to do very much. But I can take comfort in the fact that I am only halfway through my career – there’s still plenty of time left to see where that goes, even if physically I may be well past my peak!
This got me thinking about careers, and how long they are becoming, and how long our lives have become.
In my lifetime, life expectancy here in the UK has increased by around eight years. That’s two months for every year I have lived. So for every year of my life, I have gained two months of life! At the same time, the state pension age has changed not at all (for men) and by five years for women, aligning the genders at a state pension age of 65. For men, at least in the UK, this effectively meant that the average time between retirement and death has doubled. The effect for women is less marked, as their retirement age has increased during the last 20 years and their life expectancy was always longer and continues to be so.
This is all very comforting, but of course, the pension age is steadily rising. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it is approaching 70 by the time I retire. And even that might seem young by the time I get there.
What this is doing is steadily increasing the length of our working lives.
Longer working lives are being met with faster cycles of change. According to the World Economic Forum, two-thirds of primary school children today will do jobs that do not yet exist. Meaning we will increasingly see people having more than one career, where specializing in just one area will become more challenging as those specialisms may not remain relevant.
Specialism is something I think we have for a long time felt to be inherently positive – but I wonder if that could be changing as our lives and careers lengthen. Consider the following passage:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
— Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
Robert Heinlein wrote those words in the 1970s in the context of a science fiction book about a man who lives for 2000 years. We may be somewhat of that, but the point is interesting. As lives, and in particular working lives, lengthen the drive to specialize changes. People will still specialize but may do so serially, diving deeply into several areas in a lifetime.
This begs the question: do you have multipotentiality? (Fisher, n.d.)
Someone with multipotentiality is simply someone who can excel at more than one, or indeed several, topics at once or over a period of time. For example, I would argue many patent attorneys fall into this category. They usually are highly specialized in both patent law and the technical area they are working in. For example, I used to work with pharmaceutical patent attorneys, who were often fully qualified medical doctors and fully qualified lawyers. That’s a lot of study time!
At Ezra, we met a multipotential person in Maggie Semple OBE who helped out with a white paper we published on the impact of coaching on diversity, equity and inclusion. Maggie has a career spanning several decades in learning and development, specifically focused on diversity and inclusion. Maggie’s OBE came from her involvement in the millennium dome, a vast interactive learning exhibition built in London to celebrate the year 2000. (Werther, 2011). I suggested a friend look her up, and they came back to me to say the only Maggie Semple they could find ran a fashion house. “But that’s her!” I replied. Maggie has many talents.
In the future, there will be an increasing need and expectation for people to be multipotential, able to turn their hands to more than one type of skill.
General Assembly is our sister organization within the Adecco group of companies. They specialize in redeployment, taking on large-scale projects to reskill employees, whether for redeployment back into their current employer or elsewhere. They focus on skills such as UX and design, coding, marketing and data.
At Ezra, we offer career transition coaching for people seeking support as they navigate anything from a change of role to a complete career transformation.
It seems likely that these kinds of services will become increasingly sought after, needed and normal as we find more and more people needing to reskill and reimagine their careers once, twice, or maybe more times during their lifetime.
It is feasible that you could pursue a career, become financially stable and then start again, twice or even three or four times. Which begs another question: what do you want to be when you grow up next time?
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Fisher, T. (n.d.). Multipotentiality – Unwrapping the Gifted. Retrieved 5 5, 2021, from Education Week Teacher: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/unwrapping_the_gifted/2010/08/multipotentiality.html
Werther, C. (2011). Rebranding Britain: Cool Britannia, the Millenium Dome and the 2012 Olympics. Retrieved 5 6, 2021, from https://research.cbs.dk/en/publications/rebranding-britain-cool-britannia-the-millenium-dome-and-the-2012