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Book Summary: The Adaptation Advantage – Let Go, Learn Fast, and Thrive in the Future of Work

The Adaptation Advantage (2020) explores how to navigate the future of work – without worrying about the robots taking over. It provides actionable insights on how to tap into uniquely human attributes like adaptation to excel.

Technology is transforming the world of work faster than ever. At the current crossroads, you face a choice: to dig in or adopt a new mindset. In this week’s reading recommendation, Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley explain how you can come out on top of the technical, business and cultural shifts affecting the workplace by detaching your identity from your job title and connecting it to your sense of purpose.

What’s inside?

Humans have extraordinary skills that no machine can master – and that’s a good thing.


Future of work experts Heather E. McGowan and Chris Shipley argue that while technology may be the engine for massive change, humans remain in the driver’s seat. Only people have the “organic cognition” required for creativity, collaboration and adaptation. Acknowledging a new era of unprecedented uncertainty, McGowan and Shipley posit a future in which humans share knowledge and build meaningful workplace cultures.


  • Technology is transforming the world of work faster than ever.
  • Technological augmentation, atomization and automation mean you must upskill and reskill for the future.
  • Don’t tether your identity to your job; rather, think in terms of skills.
  • Businesses must change their focus from extracting value to creating new value through learning.
  • “Silicon cognition” cannot replace the “organic cognition” humans have evolved over 3.8 million years.
  • The boss shouldn’t get the last cookie. Hiring only the best might result in top performers turning on one another.
  • Culture and capacity define the workplace.
  • Adaptive teams must hire for value alignment instead of past skills and experience.

Introduction: Learn how to embrace adaptability in the workplace.


That was the sound of one second. And what happened while you were listening?

Well, among other things, Visa processed 1,700 transactions; Amazon robots packed 17 packages; Twitter users posted 9,000 tweets; and people searched 76,000 things on Google. Oh, and 2.8 million emails were sent as well.

It’s hard to imagine the sheer scale of it all.

Stuff is changing fast these days. And if all this happens in a single second, imagine what happens in a day, a week, a year.

One of the many consequences of “things happening” is that the world of work is evolving at a pace that will make your head spin. You know this already – the media’s constantly declaring that robots are taking over our workspaces and coming after our jobs.

And it looks like we have a pretty good reason to be afraid – before too long, we’ll be out of work, sitting at home with nothing to do . . .

But, according to Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley, authors of The Adaptation Advantage, perhaps the opposite is true. Instead of believing we’re in competition with tech, we can use technology to our advantage, benefitting from the additional time that tech saves us in order to continue evolving. And this is our big advantage: our capacity to adapt.

Things are changing fast at the moment – and you’re already adapting.

Not to freak you out or anything, but if you think things are changing fast now . . . just you wait!

The rate of change is increasing exponentially. Which means that right now is actually the slowest rate of change you’ll ever experience.

Here’s just one example of the huge-scale changes that are underway.

When you think of the biggest populations on Earth, you probably think of China and India. But what about social media populations?

There are 2.2 billion Facebook users, compared to China’s 1.34 billion people. And 1.9 billion YouTubers, compared to 1.23 billion Indians.

WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger also beat India when it comes to population size. And these are communities that have sprung up over just a few decades.

And there are other changes too. Demographically, huge shifts are taking place in the Western world in terms of race, religion, gender identity, aging populations. While attitudes towards issues like racism and sexual harassment have changed almost overnight. So it’s hard to imagine where exactly we’ll be in a decade’s time.

And when it comes to changes in the workplace, there’s, of course, the impact of technology, but that’s been going on for a while now. Computers have been changing the workplace for decades. So have smart digital assistants – like PalmPilot which launched wayback in 1996.

And there’s a good reason for this change: machines are genuinely better than humans at routine and well-defined tasks. That is just a fact.

But this doesn’t mean we’re about to lose our jobs to robots, in fact, we might say the opposite is true. Think about all the ways that technology already helps you in your work. Most of us use phones or laptops daily, we stay connected with people all over the world. You might use platforms like Upwork or Fiverr to outsource work, platforms that help you break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable units – also known as the atomization of work.

Meanwhile, tech is also behind the automation of many work processes, from batch-sending emails to automatically updating calendars. We use tech in some cases to enhance human capabilities, a concept called augmentation. Just think of surgical robots helping doctors in ER – or of GPS systems allowing drivers to navigate their city quickly.

So, yes – tech is rapidly changing the workplace. But we are accommodating it. And it’s helping us. Thanks to these three A’s – atomization, automation and augmentation – tech is far from stealing our jobs, it’s actually giving us back precious moments which we can re-invest in ourselves; from learning new skills to re-prioritizing romantic relationships.

We need to stop defining ourselves by “what” we do.

So, how do you capitalize on this additional time? How do you figure out what to do with it? What to achieve in your personal life and career?

A good trick is to begin by shifting that question from “what exactly do you want to do?”, to “why exactly do you want to do it?”

How often have you been asked, “What do you do for a living?” And, be honest, how often have you asked the question yourself?

The exchange is ubiquitous. Chances are, when you meet someone, this is one of the first things you talk about. In fact, we define ourselves by our work – and we expect people to have clearly defined careers like “lawyer” or “doctor.”

We even encourage this attitude in young people. We ask children what they want to be when they grow up – and subtly nudge them in sensible directions when they tell us they’d like to grow up to be “a unicorn.” We also ask students what they want to major in; even in those incredibly formative years, we’re expecting them to specialize.

The narratives we tell ourselves about our careers are limiting. They drive people down particular paths that may not suit them and reinforce stereotypes – just think, for example, how few women have traditionally gone into scientific fields.

And these narratives do something else as well. They shield us from the most important truth about the world of work today: we cannot just do one thing any more! The world of work is changing incredibly fast and we have no option other than to adapt.

So, instead of thinking about a career in terms of a “What” question, think of it in terms of an evolving “Why” question.

Along the course of your career, you’ll experience setbacks – everyone does. Even the mighty Steve Jobs was famously fired from his own company, Apple. But as he reflected afterward, getting fired turned out to be a huge positive. Jobs found himself starting again. He tapped into a rich, new stream of creativity, founding Pixar and achieving huge success in a new industry – before triumphantly returning to Apple and steering the company to enormous global success.

We all need to develop an agile mindset and tap into what makes us unique as humans.

So how do you put your adaptation advantage into practice?

In short, it comes down to being agile – and to do this, you need to be constantly learning.

You’ll need to learn on an individual level, but also on the level of your business. There are four stages in the learning process that form a kind of S-curve on a graph: explore, experiment, execute, and expand.

In the first stage, you’re exploring what you or your company needs to improve. Maybe sales are sluggish; maybe your product is out of date. Then you start to experiment with new ideas – that’s when the curve of the S starts to shoot up in the middle. The execute stage puts the best of your new ideas into practice, and the expand phase optimizes them as you continue to learn about performance.

This isn’t just a one-off process; it’s something you need to repeat over and over, as and when your business requires it. Explore, experiment, execute, expand. And this is where agility comes into the equation. As other variable change you need to be able to keep moving – to keep embracing new projects, or new approaches to old projects.

Now, you may find yourself panicking at this stage. Maybe you’re wondering whether all of this continual, agile learning is also going to involve devoting time to picking up a bunch of brand-new skills, like engineering or coding. But thankfully, these aren’t the kind of skills that are going to be most useful to you on your journey.

According to the Institute for the Future, the skills that we need most of all, in fact relate to social intelligence and thinking in novel and adaptive ways. The World Economic Forum similarly values creativity and emotional intelligence above so many other skills. In a nutshell, social skills are key. They’re critical – maybe even more important than the tech skills we tend to want to prioritize, like STEM subjects in education: science, technology, engineering, and math. All across the world, it’s assumed that these hard, scientific skills are the ones we need in our new digital age. But according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2019 survey, 77 percent of CEOs said they couldn’t find workers with the uniquely human skills they needed: skills like creativity, problem solving, leadership, and – it’s in the title – adaptability.

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Tech is getting ever more effective at carrying out well-defined, mathematical tasks. But it’s still largely useless when it comes to things like creativity. These are our skills, they are our opportunity, with our non-machine brains, to excel.

The new world of work will require different things from its leaders.

So, who is going to be taking the lead in this bold new world of work?

Not the robots, that’s for sure! As we’ve learnt, leadership requires a uniquely human skill set.

But not everyone is a born leader. And in fact, many people have alarming tendencies when given positions of power. An amazing experiment from 2015 proved the point well. Dr. Dacher Kelter from the University of California, put groups of three people together to collaborate on a routine task. He randomly put one of the three people in charge and left them together in a room with nothing else but a tray of four chocolate chip cookies – four cookies between three people.

Dr. Kelter observed something interesting: in each study group, every single time, the person to take the extra cookie was – surprise, surprise – the leader. And according to Dr. Kelter, they enjoyed themselves – gleefully covering themselves in crumbs as their subordinates looked on.

If we look to history, as well as science, it becomes clear, there’s something inherently corrupting about power. So, how do we take steps to prevent bad leadership? We have to devote time to learning good leadership skills.

According to the author there are two key components to good leadership: first, you must model the way, next, you enable others to act.

Modeling the way is leadership in the truest sense: it’s being unafraid to go first, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and making sure your employees trust you. Given how much change is required in the workplace these days, leaders need to act with confidence when taking leaps of faith; this will help their employees to trust them.

Enabling other people to act, meanwhile, is about leaders trusting other people. Things aren’t just complicated these days; they’re complex – there’s an element of unpredictability. So a single leader is probably not going to be able to understand every part of their company’s work in detail. Leaders need to be OK with their employees knowing more than they do on certain topics. Leaders also need to create a work environment that allows other people to thrive, with an emphasis on wellness, respect, and psychological safety. Leading, quite simply, is not all about the bottom line any more – it’s about creating a great place for other people to work.

One last aspect of good leadership in a fast changing world: you need to know when to pivot. It sounds crazy, but it’s often the most profitable companies that find themselves at the greatest risk these days. Because when we get too comfortable, we forget the advantages of adaptation and we get stuck in old habits.

An adaptive organization is one that puts culture and capacity first.

We’re going to end by asking the question, what makes a successful organization? One traditional view is that organizations exist purely to serve their shareholders – that’s the view famously put forward by Milton Friedman in 1970. Friedman’s belief was incredibly influential for many years. But these days? Not so much.

Instead of focusing so relentlessly on the financials, it’s possible to look at organizations across two key areas: culture and capacity.

We’ve already touched on culture. It’s the atmosphere that leaders help to create within a company. A healthy company culture is likely to lead to prosperous and innovative work. Think of culture as your company’s heart.

Capacity, on the other side, is your organization’s brain. It’s how able you are to respond to challenges and opportunities – how well you cope as things change. There are practical concerns, like how much product you can make and which markets you can reach – but it’s also about your company’s mental capacity to handle change.

This is a more radical suggestion than it sounds at first. The goal of your organization isn’t value creation. It’s increased capacity – the ability to do more of what you do, even as things around you change.

The products that you’re creating, become an expression of your culture and proof of your capacity. They’re not the point of your company in and of themselves – not in a world where you might have to pivot at any moment and start making something else.

Recruiting for this adaptive organization is therefore extremely important. Let’s start with how not to recruit: by using job descriptions and resumes. That is far too old-fashioned. Because what an employee has to do today might not be what they’ll have to do tomorrow.

Imagine your company suddenly pivots to produce a new type of product out of necessity. Meanwhile, your employees continue doing exactly what their job description specifies. It doesn’t work.

Instead of a job description, offer potential employees a description of the company plus a description of your ideal candidate. Recruiting purely for specific talents isn’t quite right either – instead you should be aiming for people who are a good cultural fit, with a similar – but not too similar – sense of purpose.

In other words, diversity is also a key component – in every sense. Neurodiversity is hugely important, as well as employing people across different age ranges and from different backgrounds. Everyone can, and should, be learning from everyone else.

After all, that’s the advantage of being unique – take that, robots!


Technology is transforming the world of work faster than ever.

The world is undergoing three “climate changes” – in the environment, in the market and in technology – which are forcing people to become more adept at adapting. Jobs change so quickly that your current job may not exist in 18 to 24 months. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty believes that artificial intelligence (AI) will likely transform 100 percent of jobs in 10 years. The world is on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which cyber and biological systems will combine to create a completely digital economy. Change is now happening faster than ever in human history. As New York Times writer Thomas Friedman puts it: “Later is over.” To avert catastrophe for the next generation, humans must adapt, now.

“Work is deeply engrained in our psyche. It drives our sense of value, purpose, and identity. If work shifts, we shift.”

Market climate change is on the horizon. Currency, collaboration and contracts, among other transactions, will all become digital and move at the speed of light.

The three climate changes will reshape ethics, community, geopolitics, politics, work and education. A “left” and “right” political choice will give way to governments that are responsive, adaptable and swift. People may feel changes within the realm of work most keenly, because work is very personal: It provides people with a sense of identity and purpose. The straight line from education to career to retirement will disappear.

Technological augmentation, atomization and automation mean you must upskill and reskill for the future.

Three forces drive work in the modern age:

  • Automation – This work is repetitive, inexpensive, low complexity and of lesser value.
  • Atomization – Predictable and discrete, this work is medium cost and of moderate complexity and value.
  • Human and Augmentation – This work is ambiguous, complex, higher cost and of greater value.

Computers and computerized equipment have transformed humanity’s relationship with physical labor. Increasingly, these technologies are making inroads in the knowledge economy: fields like law, finance and medicine. Algorithms will “unbundle” complex jobs into component parts. They can then automate or atomize these parts and distribute them to the cloud where humans will compete for them.

“Every time you hand off something to an algorithm, you need to reach for something new.”

“Upskilling” means gaining deeper knowledge of your professional domain. “Reskilling” means training for a different profession entirely. Companies that were once “containers” for jobs will become “platforms” that combine human and technological know-how. They will require five types of talent:

  • Foundational” – People who operate a company.
  • Rotational” – People who do work required only periodically.
  • Contingent” – People who do work specific to a specialized need.
  • Transformational” – People who help a company navigate change or develop strategy.
  • Executive” – People who organize other talent for a company or an event.

Don’t tether your identity to your job; rather, think in terms of skills.

Young graduates can expect to work in 17 different jobs during their lifetimes. Don’t ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, ask what they want to do. Children need to learn how to adapt, how to build resilience and to cultivate agency. By the time students finish university, the career they want may not exist or may have changed dramatically.

“Whatever you do now, unless you are closing in on your target retirement years, is unlikely to be your last job.”

Kids need foundational knowledge that helps them put data in context. They also require fundamental literacies in traditional reading and quantitative skills, digital intelligence, creativity and collaboration. The popular online learning site Khan Academy, for example, organizes students by independence instead of age. By untethering learning from preconceived identities, youth will become more adaptable. Young people must understand identity as a constant negotiation between internal beliefs and observations and social and cultural forces.

Businesses must change their focus from extracting value to creating new value through learning.

Open and connected systems help learners recognize the signals of change and respond appropriately. These systems encapsulate three organizational learning generations. The first focuses on acquiring knowledge and storing expertise. The second observes product life cycles and optimizes for efficiency, while simultaneously anticipating new iterations. The third encompasses the autonomous learning loop in which the learning rate accelerates and builds new efficiencies and iterations in real time. Wise companies become “self-tuning” in their processes as their people use unique skills to drive innovation and improvement. The famous “S-Curve” macro-process demonstrates this in four stages: “Explore, Experiment, Execute and Expand.”

During third generation acceleration, the first two phases, Explore and Experiment, occur more frequently than during the Execute and Expand phases. Design thinking helps because it grants companies deeper understanding and problem-solving capacities and builds user empathy and solution matching practices. It places the user at the center.

“In the past jobs were about muscles, now they’re about brains, but in future they’ll be about the heart.”

The new work environment requires soft skills – such as working well with others. Employees must also possess less obvious capacities such as a willingness to learn and a capacity for understanding their purpose within the larger organizational framework. These abilities form the base of the “iceberg” that determines success. In a world where “the pivot is the new business model,” mental agility, feeling safe admitting ignorance and monitoring self-awareness are no longer optional, but vital. Workers must have social and emotional intelligence, creative thinking, communication and judgement skills, along with “sensemaking” ability and empathy. Hyperspecialization hinders your capacity to adapt, and remains more prevalent among older people.

“Silicon cognition” cannot replace the “organic cognition” humans have evolved for 3.8 million years.

People differ from animals by their “pedagogical learning stance:” an ability to take what they have learned and apply it to different situations and problems. Continuous learning and disruption is uniquely human and enables people to adapt to changing circumstances. Humans are creative, generate ideas, make connections between unrelated phenomena and see things from different points of view.

“Human cognition has benefited from 3.8 billion years of evolutionary R&D.”

What differentiates humans from animals also differentiates humans from – at least today’s – machines. Silicon cognition (AI) cannot replicate sentience or wisdom that comes from the organic cognition that humans evolved for millennia. Machines lack common sense.

Prioritizing STEM capacities for the next generation may be a waste of time: Machines will do those tasks better. Graduates in STEM programs make more money in their first ten years, but if they don’t work on the aforementioned skills, their value will decline. Ironically, corporations and universities neglect the cultivation of human skills even as the demand for them increases globally. In healthcare, education and government, machines can, at best, only augment but not replace human capacities such as empathy.

The boss shouldn’t get the last cookie. Hiring only the best might result in top performers turning on one another.

The days when the shareholder is king and workers are merely a cost that companies seek to minimize are almost over. Maniacal reliance on quarterly earnings is a poor long-term strategy for any enterprise.

“At its heart, leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow. It is the quality of the relationship that makes the difference.”

The meaning of leadership – its “content” – hasn’t changed much since the Third Industrial Revolution, but the context of leadership has evolved. Leaders need to be more mindful about where they lead their people and how. The Milton Friedman assertion that a leader’s job is to extract value from processes and people is phasing into Fourth Industrial Revolution reliance on adaptability and learning faster than your competition. Two experiments highlight the challenges leaders face today:

  • “The Cookie Monster” – From a group of three people, one is randomly selected to lead. They receive four cookies to share. Each takes a cookie. Almost every time, the leader took the remaining cookie. When a person feels powerful, they stop caring what people think and lose their sense of empathy, fairness and collaboration. It is not surprising, therefore, that CEOs consistently score lower on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) tests.
  • “The Super Chicken Paradox” – An evolutionary biologist tested a strategy for producing the most eggs from the best laying hens among nine flocks by putting the best together in one cage. Of the nine top producers, only three survived, having pecked the others to death. The better option: spreading out all the hens from the highest-producing cages. Within a few generations, egg-laying improved 160% and no hens murdered another. The lesson? Searching for the “best” candidates from the “best” schools and making them compete for the highest ranking positions guarantees counterproductive conflicts.

Let go of the cookie. Forget about creating super chickens. Be more vulnerable and available and share your values with your people. Unlearn strategies that hold you back from adapting to new scenarios. Fail and get better.

Culture and capacity define the workplace.

Instead of focusing on what your company produces, focus on the conditions in which you create and produce. These conditions are culture and capacity. Culture is a sense of purpose and value and which companies create either intentionally or accidentally. Workplaces with intentional cultures offer benefits that mirror company values. For instance, a business which doesn’t stock its vending machines with junk food reflects a desire for a healthy work environment. Accidental culture occurs when culture evolves without intention and almost always proves toxic. Every great culture has a sense of purpose that the company and its leaders must model daily. Identify and eliminate anything anti-culture.

“If culture is the heart of a company, capacity is its brain.”

Capacity is a company’s ability to respond to opportunity. Shifts in context help businesses acknowledge their biases. By nurturing a working environment which bolsters capacity, companies can learn from, and seize the opportunities presented by these bias-busting moments. Technology used to be something you learned to use to do your job. Increasingly, technology and people learn from one another.

Adaptive teams must hire for values alignment instead of past skills and experience.

The job description and organizational chart no longer matter. Fit springs from aspirations, not qualifications. Hire people for their capacity to learn, rather than for what they already know. Companies might resemble film and television projects, bringing people in for a limited period of time to perform certain tasks. They can apply what they learn from that experience to their next “tour.”

“By looking beyond conventional signals and tapping into unusual sources of talent, you’re more likely to attract a phenomenal and diverse team.”

A good job posting should start with a description of your organization. Describe the ideal candidate, not the job. Explain how you want the applicant to embrace the job. Building adaptive teams means embracing adaptive hiring strategies. The best leaders hire for mission and mind-set, but can be uncomfortable with people who think differently than they do. Cherish alternative points of view; they bring cognitive diversity to your organization.

Build adaptive teams that are purpose-built to deal with a particular challenge or goal. For example, a team could have specialists – engineers, designers, project handlers – who rotate frequently, and a research group that scans the horizon for new opportunities. Your teams need “clear eyes focused on an unclear horizon” while leaders raise the bar to meet new expectations. How can leaders encourage fearlessness when the future is so uncertain? Pay attention. Let go. Move fast. Make the future what you want it to be.

Final Summary

The key message in this summary is that:

Yes, the robots are coming – but they’re not here to take away all our jobs. In fact, the three a’s: atomization (the ability to split large tasks into smaller ones), automation (the ability to do things automatically, like send bulk-emails and update team calendars) and augmentation (using tech to enhance human capabilities) all these things are actually freeing up time and giving us more opportunity to tap into the skills that make us uniquely human – to work in ways that are truly suited to us. Leaders, for instance, can work on their emotional intelligence and social skills, while employees can devote time to creativity and innovation. As the world of work changes ever more rapidly, adaptation, the ability to pivot and change tack, is key. If you can harness this agility-mindset you’ll be able to create products that are a reflection of your company culture and proof of your capacity, rather than necessarily being the main-event. Ultimately, capacity and culture are the two main areas organizations need to focus on – It’s no longer just about the bottom line.

And to give you just one last piece of actionable advice. If you’re feeling nervous about the fast-pace of change, take some time to reflect on one of the hardest lessons you’ve learned.

Steve Jobs isn’t the only person whose worst career moment turned out to be his best. In fact, things that initially feel like bad news often have a way of benefitting us in the longer term. This is because we’re forced to adapt and go beyond what we initially thought was the limit of our capacity. So, think about the hardest experiences you’ve faced so far in your career, take a moment to write down the answers to these questions: What did you learn from the experience? How did you adapt? You’ll probably discover that you’re already much more agile than you thought, so, hold onto that, and before you begin to worry about not being skilled enough in tech or science, take a deep breath and remind yourself of your uniquely human skill set. This is what is really going to give you the edge in life.

About the author

Heather E. McGowan and Chris Shipley are leading voices in the Future of Work movement and have been collaborating on the nature of work, culture and innovation since 2015.

HEATHER E. MCGOWAN ( is an in-demand, internationally known speaker and Future of Work Strategist. She assists corporate clients ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies in rethinking their business models, teams, and organizational structures to become resilient in changing markets.

CHRIS SHIPLEY ( spent thirty years entrenched in the technology industry as a journalist and technology analyst, observing and predicting business and social transformations brought about by digital innovation. She advises companies on positioning, business modeling, and innovation practices, and serves on the boards of several startups and advisory panels.


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Table of Contents

Introduction xix
Breaking with Identity to Seize the Adaptation Advantage xix
So What’s Changing? xx
How Did We Get Here? xxi
How Big is the Challenge? xxii
The Adaptability Gap xxv
Amid Rapid Change, Keep Calm and Adapt On xxvi
So What’s in This Book? xviii
Who is This Book For? xxix
Notes xxx

Part I: Adapting at the Speed of Change 1
1 The World is Fast: Technology is Changing Everything and Planting Opportunity Everywhere 3
Wait a Second 3
Technological Climate Change 5
Environmental Climate Change 8
Climate Change of the Market 10
The Force of Three Amplifying and Interlocking Climate Changes 12
Notes 15

2 The Only Things Moving Faster Than Technology are Cultural and Social Norms 17
Shifting Ground Beneath Our Feet 17
From Linear and Local to Exponential and Global 19
Race 20
Religion 22
Age 23
Family 25
Gender Identity 25
Truth and Trust 26
Consent and Power Shifts 28
Death of Distance Reshapes Human Relationships 30
So, Who are You? Occupational Identity and Expertise 30
Notes 32

3 You’re Already Adapting and Not Even Noticing 35
We’ve Already Begun to Outsource Our Memory 35
People Aren’t Horses 37
Atomization, Automation, and Augmentation 38
Atomization in Action 39
Automation in Action 39
Augmentation in Action 41
Putting Atomization, Automation, and Augmentation Together 41
Notes 46

4 Getting Comfortable with Adaptation: The Slowest Rate of Change is Happening Now 47
The Power of Pause 47
From Scalable Efficiency to Scalable Learning 48
From Stocks to Flows of Knowledge 53
From Learning to Work to Working to Learn Continuously 54
Identifying Patterns to Build Bridges 56
Notes 60

Part II: Letting Go and Learning Fast to Thrive 63
5 What Do You Do for a Living? The Question That Traps Us in the Past 65
The Questions That Limit Our Identity 65
The Identity Trap 71
How Identity is Formed 71
Narratives Can Trap Us in the Past and Limit Our Future 73
Gender, Narratives, and Identity 73
The Confidence Gap 74
Identity is Never Done 77
An Occupational Identity Crisis Isn’t Limited to Job Loss 78
Notes 80

6 Finding the Courage to Let Go of Occupational Identity 83
What Does the Parable of the Three Stonecutters Have to Do with You? 83
The Day 1 Mindset: You are a Prototype; Start with Why 85
How Job Loss Can Be a Gain 89
Modeling Vulnerability: We Share Our Hard Lessons 91
What Do You Do Now? 95
Notes 95

7 Learning Fast: Why an Agile Learning Mindset is Essential 97
Learn Fast—What Does That Even Mean? 97
What Do We Mean by Learning? First-, Second-, and Third-Generation Learning Organizations 98
The S-Curve of Learning: Explore, Experiment, Execute, Expand 99
The Curse of Expertise: The Challenge of Unlearning 102
The Iceberg: The Substance Beneath the Surface 102
Identity: The Core of the Adaptive Mind 103
The Agile Learning Mindset 104
The Enablers: Uniquely Human Skills 108
Why We Need the Agile Mindset: The Broken Education-to-Work Pipeline 111
ABL: Always Be Learning 114
Notes 114

8 Rise of the Humans: Developing Your Creativity, Empathy, and Other Uniquely Human Capabilities 117
Play is the Way Forward 117
The Uniqueness of the Human Drive to Learn and Create 119
The Predictive Markets Declare Future Skills Favor Humans 122
Understanding Uniquely Human Skills 127
Chasing STEM at Our Peril 128
The Skills Battleground: Humans Need Apply 132
The Return on Being Human 133
Return on Humans for All Jobs: The Special Power of Empathy 134
Evolving Beyond Shareholder Value: The Purpose of a Company 135
To Maximize Human Potential, Place the Human in the Center 137
Notes 139

Part III: Leading People and Organizations in the Evolution of Work 143
9 Leading in Continuous Change: Modeling Vulnerability, Learning from Failure, and Providing the Psychological Safety that Builds Trusting Teams 145

You are at the Wheel 146
Leadership, Power, Cookies, and Chickens 146
What Makes a Modern Leader? 153
Transformational Leadership 167
Transformational Leadership and Change Management Models 168
Leading with Fear: The Burning Platform 170
Putting It All Together 173
Notes 173

10 The Adaptive Organization: Creating the Capacity to Change at the Speed of Technology, Market, and Social Evolution 175
What Should We Measure? 175
The Power of the Culture and Capacity Focus 177
Culture at the Core 177
Capacity: Culture’s Partner 184
Capability and Context: The Scissors Metaphor 186
In Accelerated Change, Focus on the Inputs Rather Than the Outputs 187
Becoming a Learning Company 190
Notes 193

11 Capability is King: Looking Beyond the Resume to Design Your Adaptive Team 195
No More Little Boxes 195
The Job Description is History 197
Job Descriptions Become Traps 198
Fire Your Job Description 200
Hire for Cultural Alignment 205
Hire Adults and Let Them Do Their Jobs 208
Turn the Right People into Great Teams 209
Embrace Cognitive Diversity 212
Get Comfortable with Failure 214
Live in a State of Continuous Learning 215
Manage a Multigenerational Workforce 216
How Do We Get from Here to There? 217
The New Leadership Imperative 218
Notes 219

12 Getting Ready to Seize Your Adaptation Advantage 221
Notes 223

Additional Resources 225
Books 225
Videos 226
Acknowledgments 227
About the Authors 229
Index 231


A guide for individuals and organizations navigating the complex and ambiguous Future of Work

Foreword by New York Times columnist and best-selling author Thomas L. Friedman

Technology is changing work as we know it. Cultural norms are undergoing tectonic shifts. A global pandemic proves that we are inextricably connected whether we choose to be or not. So much change, so quickly, is disorienting. It’s undermining our sense of identity and challenging our ability to adapt. But where so many see these changes as threatening, Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley see the opportunity to open the flood gates of human potential—if we can change the way we think about work and leadership. They have dedicated the last 5 years to understanding how technical, business, and cultural shifts affecting the workplace have brought us to this crossroads, The result is a powerful and practical guide to the future of work for leaders and employees. The future can be better, but only if we let go of our attachment to our traditional (and disappearing) ideas about careers, and what a “good job” looks like.

Blending wisdom from interviews with hundreds of executives, The Adaptation Advantage explains the profound changes happening in the world of work and posits the solution: new ways to think about careers that detach our sense of pride and personal identity from our job title, and connect it to our sense of purpose. Activating purpose, the authors suggest, will inherently motivate learning, engagement, empowerment, and lead to new forms of pride and identity throughout the workforce. Only when we let go of our rigid career identities can we embrace and appreciate the joys of learning and adapting to new realities—and help our organizations do the same.

Of course, making this transition is hard. It requires leaders who can attract and motivate cognitively diverse teams fueled by a strong sense of purpose in an environment of psychological safety—despite fierce competition and external pressures. Adapting to the future of work has always called for strong leadership. Now, as a pandemic disrupts so many aspects of work, adapting is a leadership imperative. The Adaptation Advantage is an essential guide to help leaders meet that challenge.

What do you do? That social ice breaker imprisons us in the past. In a fast-changing world, we have to look past our work-based identity, move beyond the comfort of our current knowledge and skills, and prepare ourselves and the organizations we lead to adapt continuously to a rapidly changing future of work.

Heather E. McGowan and Chris Shipley share three core beliefs. First, success in the future of work centers on our ability to learn, unlearn, and adapt. Second, to succeed, we need to let go of “the way we’ve always done it” and—more importantly—our professional identities. Third, leaders must get comfortable with failure, not knowing, ambiguity, and vulnerability to create the requisite psychological safety to lead our teams.

Economic and social shifts are unavoidable. With the lessons found in The Adaptation Advantage, you’ll learn to ride these waves to a more successful and fulfilling future of your work.

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Video and Podcast


“The Adaptation Advantage is the clearest, most compelling, and original examination of the present and future workplace. The big surprise in this book is that it’s not about learning to live with more robots, but rather learning to become more human. Whether you were born digital or born analog, The Adaptation Advantage is an indispensable resource for thriving in a world that is transforming as you read this.” – Jim Kouzes, Coauthor of The Leadership Challenge and Executive Fellow at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Leavey School of Business

“Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley are prophets of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Their extraordinary insights and tools challenge and empower organizations, leaders, and people across society to thrive in a future marked by exceptional technological and societal change.” – Major General James Johnson, U.S. Air Force (ret), former Director of Air Force Integrated Resilience

The Adaptation Advantage makes sense of the confusing and scary world of change. McGowan and Shipley give us permission to be entrepreneurial by exploring the natural pathway to engagement in a context of uncertainty. Reading this book is a therapy session with motivational power. You’ll want to reread it again and again. – Stephen Spinelli Jr., PhD., President, Babson College, co-founder of Jiffy Lube

“Most books about the future of work put automation at the center of the story. McGowan and Shipley put humans at the center—as well they should. The Adaptive Advantage is a call to stop defining ourselves by our jobs, to extend formal education into lifelong learning, and to let curiosity lead us through the arc of our working lives. That way we remain resilient no matter how strong the waves of change become. Many essential capabilities can’t be replaced…creativity, collaboration, judgment, sensemaking, empathy, and other forms of social and emotional intelligence are uniquely human. While technology will continue to influence the way we work we have immense agency to determine and design what we do and why we do it.” – Sandy Speicher, CEO, IDEO

“How thrilling to read the book that encourages us to see change as a propellant, not a weight! This is an insightful explanation of the velocity and force of the elements of change. It offers leaders the insight and capability to creatively lead transformations.” – Lynne Greene, Former Group President, Estee Lauder Companies

“McGowan and Shipley’s The Adaptation Advantage nails it—adapting to change means adapting to a new identity It requires letting go of a job or skill-based identity in order to thrive in a world of rapidly changing societal norms and technologies. This is important reading.” – Jim Spohrer, PhD., IBM Director, Cognitive Open Technologies

“An indispensable guide to navigate this new era in the workplace.” – Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times

“The Adaptation Advantage is a masterclass in how individuals and organizations can and must develop the capacity to change fast and learn faster. Whether you were born digital or born analog, this book is your indispensable resource for thriving in a world that is transforming as you read this.” – Jim Kouzes, coauthor of The Leadership Challenge

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Foreword: From Flat to Fast to Smart to Deep

There are a lot of snappy, shorthand ways I could summarize Heather and Chris’s book, but my favorite is this phrase that they use to encapsulate the essence of what they are saying: the abiding cliché and dominant news headline in the workplace these days is that the robots are going to take your job. What you learn from this book, though, is that, yes, indeed, robots can take your job. But if we’re smart, they can also guide you to and define your next job. Because whether it’s robots or automation or digitization, two things are true and always will be: there will always be another technological advance that will devour existing jobs—and, yes, those advances will be coming faster and faster. But we will always need humans to translate and augment the latest technology and we will always need humans to make meaning, joy, and connections that entertain us, inspire us, and connect us the moment we put our technology down. Microchips cannot and will not replace relationships. Your next job starts where the robots stop. Learn to embrace that handoff.

The best way to do that, Heather and Chris argue, for both individuals and organizations, is through rapid learning, unlearning, and adaptation. These skills are the new normal. Rapid learning, by the way, is not just about how to augment machines as they spin off new jobs, but how to augment humans as they stay the same, always craving meaning, joy, and new forms of entertainment and connections in every new epoch.

Rapid unlearning and adaptation are both about how we embrace and absorb new skills and how we let go of old ones. To be able to do both effectively and constantly, they argue, requires a mind shift and an identity shift—a letting go of “who we think we are” and a regular reinventing of yourself. I find this the most original aspect of their book—the important role that identity plays in how and how much we can learn and adapt at the steady pace demanded by this age of acceleration.

Heather and Chris argue that those who do it best will be those who allow themselves to be vulnerable, forcing themselves to be more open to the new and to the other. And that is not always easy under any conditions, but it is especially challenging when social norms are rapidly changing, or new immigrants are arriving with greater speed and numbers, and your identity—your sense of home, work, and norms—feels like it is under assault. That people today all over the world are reaching for walls to slow down the pace of change and protect their identities is not an accident.

I will let them tell you the rest …

If there is anything I can contribute from my own research and writing, it’s the conviction that the technological forces that are requiring such rapid learning, unlearning, and adaptation—this new normal—are not going away. Indeed, they just keep getting faster and touching deeper into more areas of daily life, commerce, governance, and science. Why?

The short answer is that technology moves up in steps, and each step tends to be biased toward a certain set of capabilities. Around the year 2000, for instance, a group of technologies came together that were biased toward “connectivity.” Because of the dramatic fall in the price of fiber-optic cable, thanks to the dot-com boom, bubble, and bust, we were suddenly able to wire much of the world and, as a result, connectivity became fast, virtually free, easy for you, and ubiquitous. Suddenly I could touch people I could never touch before and I could be touched by people who could never touch me before. I gave that moment a name. I said it felt like “the world is flat.”

Around 2007, another set of technologies came together that had the effect of making the world “fast.” This was also driven by a price collapse—a collapse in the price of computers, storage, software broadband, and smartphones. This enabled us to do a huge number of complex tasks on the cloud with just one touch on a mobile device. We took friction and complexity out of so many things. Suddenly, with just one touch, on an Uber or Didi app, I could page a taxi, direct a taxi, pay a taxi, rate a taxi, and be rated by a taxi. With just one touch! Complexity became fast, virtually free, easy for you, and invisible.

Indeed, the year 2007 was a remarkable year. In 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. Facebook opened its platform to anyone with a registered email address and went global in 2007. Twitter split off onto its own platform and went global in 2007. Airbnb was born in 2007. In 2007, VMware—the technology that enabled any operating system to work on any computer, which enabled cloud computing—went public, which is why the cloud really only took off in 2007. Hadoop software—which enabled a million computers to work together as if they were one, giving us “Big Data”—was launched in 2007. Amazon launched the Kindle e-book reader in 2007. IBM launched Watson, the world’s first cognitive computer, in 2007. The essay launching Bitcoin was written in 2006. Netflix streamed its first video in 2007. IBM introduced nonsilicon materials into its microchips to extend Moore’s Law in 2007. The Internet crossed one billion users in late 2006, which seems to have been a tipping point. The price of sequencing a human genome collapsed in 2007. Solar energy took off in 2007, as did a process for extracting natural gas from tight shale, called fracking. Github, the world’s largest repository of open source software, was launched in 2007. Lyft, the first ride-sharing site, delivered its first passenger in 2007. Michael Dell, the founder of Dell, retired in 2005. In 2007, he decided he’d better come back to work—because in 2007, the world started to get really fast. It was a real turning point.

Today, we have taken another step up to another platform: now the world is getting “smart.” And it is being driven by still another price collapse—the collapse in the price and size of sensors. Now we can put sensors—“intelligence”—into anything and everything. We can put intelligence into your refrigerator, your car, your lightbulb, your toaster, your front door, your golf club, or your shirt. And with that intelligence, we can make your car drive itself, your refrigerator stock itself, and your shirt talk to your doctor and then tell your grocer which healthy foods to deliver to your home. And we can do all of that now with “no touch.” It all just happens by sensors talking to machines and vice versa. The other day I got a text message on my cellphone that said I had an appointment in my office in 30 minutes, but I was still 35 minutes away by car. It made me smart—or at least aware—with not even a touch, because it was sensing from my smartphone and GPS where I was, how far I was from my next meeting, and who that meeting was with when.

So what’s the next platform? I believe that when the world gets this flat, fast, and smart, what happens next is that it starts to get deep. How so? Well, when your shirt has sensors in it that can measure your body functions and then tell your e-commerce grocery store what foods are right for your particular body type and DNA and then order them for you at Walmart and have them delivered by an autonomous vehicle or drone to your refrigerator and restock them when the refrigerator announces that you are running low—that’s “deep.” And that’s where we’re going. Deep is the ability to hit that precise target you are looking for—no matter how small or hidden—in the precise context you are looking for it and then impact that target—heal it, fix it, track it, extract it, illuminate it, fake it, or destroy it—with an accuracy that a decade ago would have been dismissed as science fiction.

And that is why, in my opinion, deep is the word of the year. Have you noticed how many things we are now describing with the word deep?—deep mind, deep medicine, deep war, deep fake, deep surveillance, deep insights, deep climate, deep adaptation.

We discovered that we needed a new word, a new adjective, to describe the fact that “deep technologies” have two qualities that we could tell were a difference in degree that was a difference in kind. One is physical. Deep technologies literally get imbedded deep inside your neighborhood, your home, or your bedroom. Having Siri or Amazon Alexa in your bedroom is deep. Having 5G wired into the streets of your neighborhood is deep. Having a shirt that monitors all your key bodily functions is deep.

The other quality is existential. Deep technologies can reach into places so deep and produce outcomes, insights, and impacts so profound and accurate that we also needed a new adjective to describe them. Deep technologies are almost God-like in their powers to hit precise targets in medicine or war; to find the right needles in the right haystacks of data; to manipulate the right atoms and cells in science; to create machines that can defeat any human in chess, Jeopardy, or Go; or to fake any face, voice, or image—always with an accuracy or at a depth that was considered science fiction just 15 years ago. And that is why deep technologies also need to be governed in new ways, because they can be used for so much more good or evil in so many new ways.

As the world has gone from flat to fast to smart to deep, it is overturning and melting traditions, foundations, and bonds in every realm of our lives—how we work, how we communicate, how we learn, how we educate, how we conduct business, how we conduct trade, how families communicate with each other, and how governments control their people—to name but a few. In my opinion, this inflection point may in time be understood as the single biggest and broadest inflection point since Guttenberg invented the printing press. And you just happened to be here. And it’s not over—in fact, it’s just getting started.

Heather and Chris’s book is an indispensable guide to how navigate this new era in the workplace.

—Thomas L. Friedman

Foreign affairs columnist, the New York Times


Breaking with Identity to Seize the Adaptation Advantage

“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” psychologist Dan Gilbert famously observed in a 2014 TED Talk viewed by more than 4.5 million people.

It’s in that space, between work in progress and finished, that workers find themselves today. We are incredibly well prepared for the past, and woefully unready for a future of work that has yet to be defined. This in-between space can be—and is—unnerving when the future is so difficult to see. “Most of us can remember who we were 10 years ago,” Gilbert says, “but we find it hard to imagine who we’re going to be, and then we mistakenly think that because it’s hard to imagine, it’s not likely to happen. When people say, ‘I can’t imagine that,’ they’re usually talking about their own lack of imagination, and not about the unlikelihood of the event that they’re describing.”1

But change is happening, and happening at a rate that is only getting faster. The good news is that we can change, too. And while that might seem like a scary proposition, it’s important to realize that we are already very, very good at changing. Again, from Gilbert’s TED Talk: “The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting, and as temporary, as all the people you’ve ever been.”

Read that again: As all the people you’ve ever been. There is hidden wisdom in Gilbert’s assurance, a wisdom that finds itself at the heart of this book. Each of those “people you’ve ever been” is a version of a personal identity that has evolved over your life—a child, a student, a partner, an athlete, a traveler. Yet, when it comes to work, we cling to a professional identity to direct our understanding of work and career. We are executive or entrepreneur, teacher or technician, politician or plumber. We are boss or crew, leader or team member, foreman or lineman. That identity plays a critical role as a social signal and is, in many cases, the basis for self-esteem.

It’s also an anchor that makes the necessary reimagining of work much, much harder than it needs to be. It is the barrier to making the crossing from the past of work to the future of work. But cross we must because the future is coming at us faster than we can understand it. If we’re going to keep up, we’ll have to adapt. Indeed, the ability to adapt is our key advantage.

The first step to seizing that advantage is letting go of professional identity, and in that letting go, tapping into our imaginations to reimagine ourselves and our work.

So What’s Changing?

In a word: everything. In his eloquent foreword, Tom Friedman made the case that we are moving from flat to fast to smart to deep because of the exponentially expanding capabilities of technology. To his list, we add two more, seemingly at odds, elements of change: invisibility and visibility. On one hand, we can see things now that were hidden before. The data that flows like water brings insight into just about everything. On the other hand, we no longer see the working of everyday things that have been made invisible through automation. Our thermostats jumps to our preferred temperature when we walk into our homes. Already our phones and computers download and update software without our intervention. Driverless cars, one day soon, will automatically arrive to whisk us to our scheduled appointments, and groceries will be delivered to our doors from orders placed by a smart refrigerator that senses we are out of milk or need eggs.

With all this visible and invisible technology coming at a rate that is fast and only getting faster, what is a person to do? Who are we in the context of a rapidly transforming digital revolution?

In truth, we are all works in progress and we need to imagine, or rather reimagine, work. In order to do that, though, we’re going to have to confront who we think we are, at least professionally, so that we can reimagine, and reimagine again, and again, who we are in the context of a changing future of work.

That’s a tall order. And that’s why we wrote this book: to help you better understand what is happening to work and why it matters to you. In doing so, we hope you’ll gain the adaptation advantage.

How Did We Get Here?

The old model that parsed life into sequential steps of education, career, and retirement is blurring. Once, we were “educated” early in our lives enough to get us on a 40-year career ladder that we climbed until we retired and then, by design, soon after died. Today, considerable leaps in human longevity have stretched that career phase out a decade or longer.

A single dose of “education”—a process that infers an end state of being “educated”—isn’t sufficient for a career arc that looks more like a spiral. Instead, we need to swap education for learning, a continuous state of discovery and reinvention. Work, then, leverages that learning and the work itself becomes another form of learning. And retirement? Societally, we neither planned for nor funded the 20 or 30 years of retirement that is the reality of our longer lives. Simply, we need to imagine a different model that blends these three bands of life, mixing learning, work, and retirement in an iterative cycle that spans 50 or 60 years or more.

We’ve talked about this old economy/new reality dichotomy in hundreds of talks, workshops, and conversations, and something finally struck us. Many listeners accepted the old economy as their reality and assumed the new reality existed only for their children or grandchildren. Not so fast, friends. The truth is that many of us will have to leap from the old economy into the new reality, and with that leap we’ll have to navigate from a professional identity bestowed by degree and experience into a new identity we create for ourselves. In short, we will all need the adaptation advantage. This is something we’ll talk about in detail throughout the book, but especially in Part II.

How Big Is the Challenge?

In a 2019 report, IBM projected that 120 million people in the 12 largest economies alone would need to retrain in the next three years in order to keep pace with rapidly changing technological capabilities impacting work2. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2019 Employment Outlook predicted that 14% of jobs could be lost and 32% transformed through automation and that 60% of all workers lacked the necessary information and communications technology (ITC) or computer skills for that new work.

And this isn’t just a future state. The labor market, the OECD determined, has already transformed, resulting in a profound loss of middle-skill jobs. Specifically, the 20 years between 1995 and 2015 saw a 20% decline in manufacturing jobs and a 27% increase in service jobs that do not require little training or education.3 The greatest shift thus far has been in technology’s ability to consume routine work, giving rise to nonroutine work. This shift has restructured the physical labor market and very soon it will upend the knowledge labor market as well. In short, the OECD describes a world of work rapidly transforming while most of us are flat-footed, unprepared to respond, let alone proactively adapt.

Note: The bands indicate recessions as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In 2013, the famed but flawed Frey-Osborne model predicted that 47% of work tasks in the United States could be automated. Some argue that the numbers in the Frey-Osborne model are not entirely reliable because the formula did not account for the cost of labor or capital, the impact of political resistance, or whether replacement technology could actually free workers to focus on other tasks,4 which are all criticisms that the framework’s authors acknowledged. Even so, the report caused a bit of panic, as people saw a future that evaporated their jobs. Automation does replace some jobs, but mostly automation alters jobs. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty puts a fine point on this distinction: “I expect AI to change 100% of jobs within the next five to 10 years.”

Rometty isn’t alone in this prediction. The World Economic Forum places the value of digital transformation to the Fourth Industrial Revolution at $100 trillion over the next decade.5 A 2018 survey of 10,000 workers in the United Kingdom conducted by Barclays LifeSkills identified a significant employability skills gap. In the report “How Employable is the UK? Meeting the Future Skills Challenge,” Barclays found that nearly 60% of adults lack all the core employability skills needed for the future world of work, notably among them proactivity, adaptability, and leadership.6

It should be no surprise, then, that our old measure of potential success—IQ (intelligence quotient)—has given way to EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) and is shifting yet again to AQ (adaptability quotient). In the 1980s, skills learned in a university or on the job held their relevance for nearly three decades, about as long as a typical career arc. Today, skills have a shelf life of less than five years, according to researchers at the World Economic Forum.7

The First Industrial Revolution was marked by the steam engine and the Second Industrial Revolution brought electrification and the division of labor; together, these first two revolutions created tools that supplemented muscle. The Third Industrial Revolution delivered tools, in the forms of computer technology, that assisted our mental labor. Now, we are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, steeped in advanced software and real-time data and offering tools that augment, and in some cases even replace, human cognitive labor. Unlike the capital-intensive machines and robots that replace manual labor, the tools of this economic transformation are relatively cheap. They will scale very quickly and be incredibly cost effective. Are we ready? The answer is decidedly no.

The Adaptability Gap

Even as advanced tools and data become increasingly available, we are failing to harness the potential of that technology. Technology is growing exponentially, yet business productivity grows linearly. The management consulting firm Deloitte first noted this divide in its Deloitte Human Capital Trends report. “Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources,” the report noted, “show that productivity growth remains low despite the introduction of new technology into the business environment. In fact, since the 2008 recession, growth in business productivity (gross domestic product per hour worked) stands at its lowest rate since the early 1970s (1.3%).”8

Why the gap? The Deloitte report attributes it to “human capital strategies—how businesses organize, manage, develop, and align people at work.”

That gap does not appear to be narrowing. At IBM, for example, the company reported that the average of 4 days of training needed to close the skills gap in 2014 had jumped to 36 days by 2018. That works out to between 14% to 16% of all working hours now required for skills training just to stay current.

Amid Rapid Change, Keep Calm and Adapt On

The future of work need not be a dystopian nightmare. Rather, with careful planning and some essential policy interventions, this future could unleash the potential of humanity to create more and more meaningful work for everyone. The key is preparation for rapid cycles of adaptation and learning.

In order to better understand how to optimize adaptation, we began looking deeply at the questions surfaced by an unknowable future of work nearly five years ago. Finding the answers has taken us around the world (literally) to talk with hundreds of people who work by every definition of the term “job.” Whether “experts” in economics, psychology, design, or human factors or just “experts” in doing amazing work every day, these individuals have shed a bright light on the challenges we all face when the world moves faster than we’re accustomed to.

Dr. Jeffery LePine, professor and PetSmart Chair in Leadership at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, studies organizational behavior, specifically of teams and adaptability. Professor LePine helped us see the difference between two concepts often conflated: flexibility and adaptability. LePine told us, “Flexibility is the ability to pivot from one tool in your toolbox to another or from one approach to another. Adaptability requires you add something. Adaptability may require you to drop that tool and forge a new one or drop that method, unlearn it and develop an entirely new one.”

That insight became our guide for this book, and we hope this book will be your guide to becoming more adaptable and to thriving in the future of your work. The book is designed for easy reading. Each chapter begins with several key points, and we’ve included dozens of figures that we hope make concepts easier to understand. Skim them from chapter to chapter and you’ll be off to a good start.

If you take away nothing else, please absorb these three key points for the book itself:

The future of work, for both individuals and organizations, relies on rapid learning, unlearning, and adaptation.

To successfully learn and adapt, we have to be willing to let go of “the way we have always done it” and equally, if not more difficultly, “who we think we are.”

Navigating a world of rapid learning, unlearning, and adaptation requires that we become comfortable with ambiguity and vulnerability, allowing us to become champions of human potential in learning tours filled with unknowns.

Or as Peter Senge first wrote in The Fifth Discipline, “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”9

So What’s in This Book?

We’ve organized this book into three parts to help you in learning how to adapt, thrive, and lead people into the future.

Part I: Adapting at the Speed of Change

In Part I, we walk you through the existential impacts of accelerated change driven by both exponentially growing technology and rapidly shifting cultural and societal norms. We posit that in order to learn, unlearn, and adapt, you will need to develop a comfort with ambiguity and open yourself to vulnerability.

Rapidly shifting norms—our racial and religious compositions and majorities, definitions and fluidity of gender, shifting demographics of all types, and diversity in our family units, among other social changes—have landed some folks smack in the center of an identity crisis while leaving others with a feeling of long-awaited inclusion. In Chapter 3, we explore all the ways you have already begun to adapt to illustrate that the process is underway. As change continues to accelerate, however, you will need to become more aware and more intentional in your own transformations.

The slowest rate of change for the rest of your life is right now. We are moving, in the words of Deloitte’s John Hagel, from a world of “scalable efficiency” to a world of “scalable learning,” in which we need to become more adept at working in emerging flows of knowledge rather than recycling stocks of knowledge we stored long ago. We highlight some companies with the adaptation advantage, those that are making early strides in modeling what it looks like to be a learning-centric company.

Part II: Letting Go and Learning Fast to Thrive

Since our central thesis is that to thrive in the future of work we will need to continually let go of old ways of doing things, including fixed occupational identities, in Part II we do a deep dive into identity formation and the traps we need to avoid. We’ll look at the damage done by our social-normative question “What do you do for a living?” and explore ways we can move beyond this occupational identity trap.

Because we want to practice what we preach, we shared in Chapter 6 our experience with occupational traps, failures, and setbacks and how we’ve both emerged, adapted, and—we’d like to think—thrived as a result.

In Chapter 7, we propose a new foundation for adaptability, which includes a resilient identity, an agile learning mindset, and a strategy for nurturing our uniquely human capabilities. Some call these “soft skills”; we think they are what make us uniquely human. It’s our hope that this foundation will best prepare you to acquire new capabilities and discard irrelevant skills when needed, and to continue doing so for the rest of your life, just like you add, update, and delete apps on your phone as your needs change. We round out Part II by taking a deep dive into the uniquely human, hard to automate skills we believe are the hallmark of the future of work for humans.

Part III: Leading People and Organizations in the Evolution of Work

While this book is for anyone, anywhere, who has a job or wants to have one, we want to prepare those who lead teams and companies for a future of work that organizes differently from structures of the past. In Part III, we plunge into leadership issues most germane for this future of rapid adaptation. Through stories of research that include cookies and chicken (trust us, it will make sense when you read it), we show how some of our prevailing notions of strong leadership are actually weaknesses as we move into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In Chapter 10, we explain why organizations will thrive in the future if they adopt an almost maniacal focus on culture and capacity to achieve the adaptation advantage. And finally, in Chapter 11, we offer advice on how to recruit and organize talent for this rapidly emerging new world of work. By the time you reach this chapter, you won’t be surprised to learn that conventional ideas about credentials, screening for past skills and experience, job descriptions, and even team homogeny may be a liability.

Who Is This Book For?

We designed this book with organizations in mind and specifically created sections for teams and leadership. We hope this book will provide guidance to the worker, the supervisor, the middle-level manager, the C-suite executive, the student, and the parent. We have sprinkled exercises throughout the chapters to help you plan and take actionable steps toward adaptation and the future of your work.

In short, this book is for anyone who intends to work in the future of work.

We welcome feedback and ask that you please share your stories with us. And please visit us at

Notes, citing

Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1990).

Part I: Adapting at the Speed of Change

Key Ideas

In the midst of the greatest-ever velocity of change in technology, climate, and markets, we must become adept at adapting.

Dramatic shifts in cultural and social norms are challenging our sense of personal and professional identity, and our ability to navigate the identity crisis is dependent on our ability to define, own, and embrace the fundamental aspects and values of our complex selves.

The impact of technology on work can be alarming, but we have already begun to adapt. Our ability to continue to adapt with agility and without fear is fundamental to our future prosperity.

1: The World Is Fast: Technology Is Changing Everything and Planting Opportunity Everywhere

Key Ideas

We are in the midst of the greatest velocity of change in human history at the same time we are experiencing the greatest leaps in human longevity.

Three “climate changes” are happening all at once, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman tells us. These changes are happening to technology, the climate, and the market, and they are reshaping politics, geopolitics, community, ethics, and work and learning. This book focuses on work and learning.

When everything starts shifting so quickly, we have to become adept at adapting.

Wait a Second

Change is coming at us with the greatest velocity in human history.

In the single second it took you to read that sentence, an algorithm executed 1,000 trades. Computers at the credit card network Visa processed more than 1,700 transactions, no doubt a few of them providistockng payment for the 17 packages that robots helped pack and ship from Amazon warehouses. Right now, 76,000 Google searches are returning tens of billions of results links. Nearly 9,000 tweets and 930 Instagram photos have been added to an already overwhelming cloud of content. And at this very moment, more than 2.8 million emails are being sent, not all of them by actual humans.

Technology is accelerating the pace of business at unthinkable speeds, so much so that the job you have today, the workforce you currently manage, or perhaps the job you are training or studying for now is changing as quickly as you read this page. In the next 18 to 24 months, the job you have today—if, indeed, it still exists at all—will be very different from what it is today. While technology experts from many different disciplines offer widely different views of the jobs gained or lost in a newly automated economy, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty captures the impact succinctly: “I expect AI to change 100 percent of jobs within the next five to 10 years.”1

Despite this reality, our contemporary views of education, career, workplace advancement, and even retirement continue to plod along at a horse-drawn-carriage pace. If we can barely imagine a one-second’s-worth digital deluge, how will we get our heads around the implications for so much change, let alone adapt to it?

While it’s true that we are in the midst of the greatest velocity of change in human history, speed is only part of the problem. Change is coming at us from all sides. It’s not just technology that’s changing work; dramatic shifts in society and global economics are shaking up our worlds. And we’ve got to deal with them all at once; we’ve got to become adaptive.

We are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The First Industrial Revolution was marked by the steam engine, the Second by electrification and the division of labor for manufacturing, the Third by computerization and the beginning of automation of physical labor, and now the Fourth by the merging of biological and cyber systems into a fully digitized economy. In this push to a digital world, any physical or mental task with a predictable, repeatable outcome will be handled by an algorithm. Objects will contain sensors connected to networks where data drives decisions in real time. Many aspects of the biological world will be augmented by robotic and cognitive technologies. In this world, our relationship to work is no longer a monolithic career based on a single dose of early learning and compiled experiences. Instead, our careers will be defined by a state of constant learning and adaptation as new technologies, applications, and data alter the current state.

Celebrated New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman perfectly captures this moment in history in his most recent book, Thank You for Being Late. In it, Friedman argues that we are being buffeted by three simultaneous and interlocking “climate changes”: technology, the environment, and the global economy. These changes, he suggests, are rapidly reshaping our world.

Technological Climate Change

In 1965, semiconductor pioneer Gordon Moore posited that the capacity of a silicon processing chip would double each year, writing in the journal Electronics that “there is no reason to believe [the rate of change] will not remain nearly constant for at least 10 years.”2 A decade later, Moore revised his forecast, predicting that processors would double in capacity every two years throughout the next decade.

Moore, it turns out, was not nearly far-sighted enough. More than 50 years later, Moore’s Law continues to hold, even as the price of these now high-capacity processors continues to drop relative to their capabilities.

It’s difficult to imagine the impact of Moore’s Law, but consider this: the smartphone you no doubt carry everywhere has 100,000 times more computing power, 1,000,000 times more memory, and 7,000,000 times more storage than was aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft that carried astronauts to the moon. Yet even that comparison doesn’t fully capture the impact of exponential change in computing technology, so imagine this: if the Volkswagen Beetle progressed along the same trajectory as semiconductors, that car today would be able to travel 300,000 miles per hour, get 2 million miles per gallon, and cost just four cents.

There is yet another way to understand the impact of technological change, however: the change that we are absorbing at work. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, professionals entered a workforce where the Internet had little commercial impact, software came on floppy disks, a mobile phone was the size of a brick, social media was an evening book club, and artificial intelligence was science fiction. These people could expect to climb a corporate ladder, be paid a 401(k), and retire comfortably after 2030. If that sounds like you, and you are reading this book as it was published a full decade before that milestone, you know that work has changed, and that you will need to change with it. You will need the adaptation advantage.

A Note about Artificial Intelligence

From sci-fi depictions of autonomous robots with a “mind” of their own to Apple’s Siri answering our most basic questions, artificial intelligence (AI)—in pop culture and reality—has endured more than 30 years of hype, yet still comes up short of the bold promise of a broadly “intelligent” computing system.

Artificial intelligence is not one but dozens, if not hundreds, of component technologies. Throughout this book, we use the term “artificial intelligence” to discuss computing systems that are able to execute well-defined cognitive tasks. When a problem is specific and bounded, artificial intelligence techniques can solve it rather well.

In truth, a general AI—one able to fully mimic the complex thinking and manage the rapid context shifting of the human brain—is far from realized with today’s technology. Rather than AI, we tend to think of this capability as silicon or artificial cognition, and we use that reference from time to time in this book.

But when it comes to computer systems taking on the cognitive tasks once exclusively the domain of humans, tasks that are very tightly defined and with outcomes predictably certain, we use the commonplace, if imperfect, artificial intelligence or AI.

Today’s new workers were “born digital,” grew up programming, carried their mobile phones to elementary school, and are beginning to think Twitter and Facebook are passé.

Where technology-driven productivity shifts were once absorbed across a lifetime, allowing workers to adjust at pace, they are now on an exponential growth curve where change drives workers from job to job, employer to employer, and career to career.

How we adapt to this much change may well be determined by our age. Science is just beginning to understand how our brains change with age, but most agree that fluid intelligence—our ability to rapidly and easily adapt to constant change—peaks at about the age of 20. Why does that matter? Well, if you were 10 years old when Internet technology became mainstream, you adopted smartphone technology at about the age of 20. Your parents, and especially your grandparents, met the challenge of this change much later in their lives. Adapting to ubiquitous wireless communications at 50 or 70 is a very, very different cognitive lift.

There is no reason to believe that the pace of technological change will slow, and we’re going to need new skills to stick to the pace. Human adaptation has long been linear, each step equal to the last. Technology expands exponentially, each step twice the size of the one before. In fact, by all estimations, the slowest rate of change you will experience for the rest of your life is … right now.

What Does This Mean for Your Work?

Your work life will be one of constant adaptation. Every time you hand off a skill to technology, you must reach up to add capacity to your arsenal. We’ll come back to this again and again throughout the book, but for now just let that idea set in. Understanding the need for continuous adaptation is the first step in achieving the adaptation advantage.

Environmental Climate Change

While politicians may debate the cause of and response to environmental climate change, scientists aligned to academies, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world are clear on one point: our natural environment is changing at a rate faster than at any time in the past 7,000 years. Eighteen of the 19 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.

For millennia, CO2 levels had remained below 300 parts per million, until the 1950s, when atmospheric carbon dioxide surged to its current level of 412 million parts per million, their highest level in 650,000 years, according to NASA scientists.

The effects of environmental climate change increasingly are becoming evident. Sea ice is melting, contributing to sea level rise. In 2014, the global sea level topped 2.6 inches above the sea level of just 20 years earlier. Scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) predict that seas will continue to rise at a rate of about one-eighth of an inch per year, contributing to coastal erosion, devastating storm surges, and deeper in-land flooding.

In some regions, growing seasons will be longer. Others will face devastating drought. Hurricanes will be stronger. Heat waves longer. And the Arctic Ocean is expected to be ice-free by mid-century.

This environmental climate change, the New York Times’ Friedman contends, is fundamentally reshaping our geopolitical and economic foundations. And while you might not directly link environmental climate change to work, the effect of shifting climate will have a profound impact on human habitation. The World Bank predicts that as many as 143 million people will become “climate migrants,” leaving parts of the globe devastated by draught, floods, and failing crops.

Within the typical span of a 30-year mortgage, nearly $120 billion of US housing stock will be at risk from chronic flooding, according to an economic report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists. In other words, your house may be underwater, even if your mortgage is not. Worse, that number skyrockets to more than $1 trillion by the end of the century. Many of America’s largest cities, including New York, Boston, Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, are in grave jeopardy from sea-level rise, suggesting a profound disruption of the country’s economy and, by extension, its workforce.

Scientists at the United Nations predict that we have just 11 years to make the significant changes necessary to avoid catastrophe.

What Does This Mean for Your Work?

There is no more kicking the can down the road. We can’t just decide to deal with it later. As Friedman says, “Later is over.” In its annual survey of CEOs in both 2018 and 2019, PricewaterhouseCoopers found that executives view climate change as the leading threat to business. Similarly, the World Economic Forum found that environmental risks account for three of the top five risks believed by executives to be likely to occur and among the top four risks believed to have the greatest impact on business.

Every company will soon be forced to adapt to avoid catastrophe or adapt to catastrophe itself. There is no denying that this will reshape how and where work is done.

Climate Change of the Market

In the analog economy, global commerce moved only as fast as a ship could transport a container across the sea, and that container could easily be regulated, inspected, and taxed as it moved from port to port.

Not so in the emerging digital economy. Bits flow across international boundaries at the speed of light. There are no ports of entry, customs inspections, or tariffs on digital goods. The adage “information wants to be free” may not always hold, but on the Internet, it certainly flows freely.

Consider the speed at which Airbnb took off in Cuba after the US Embassy opened there in 2015. Within three months, the homeshare service listed some 2,000 accommodations. It would have taken years for even the most ambitious hoteliers to build that many rooms for tourists eager to visit the formerly off-limits island nation.

The scale of global trading partners affects the pace of business growth, too. Uber grew quickly in the United States. When Uber took its ride-hailing service to Miami, the city reached 1 million riders in just two years. An important milestone, no doubt. When Uber entered the market in Shanghai, however, they hit the million-rider milestone in less than two weeks.

Of course, countries with large populations offer more scale than smaller ones, but consider this. While China and India support the largest physical populations, they rank only fourth and sixth, respectively, when you consider the rise of digital communities. Facebook, YouTube, and Whatsapp all host larger populations on their social media platforms. And they amassed those populations in under four years, not over centuries of human population growth.

Facing a residential population decline, Estonia digitized its economy and became determined to grow virtually. For 100 euros, anyone can become a digital resident of Estonia and, by extension, the European Union. While an Estonian digital passport doesn’t convey the social and tax benefits of the country or the EU, if you want to establish a presence in Europe, open a European bank account, and be paid in euros, you can become a digital citizen for about USD110. Best of all, the entire transaction is done digitally; you don’t even have to travel to Estonia to become a part of the country’s now growing virtual population. In fact, in just over five years, the virtual population of Estonia is growing significantly faster than its physical population.

As worldwide economies cross the bridge from analog to digital, every part of global business—currency, credentials, contracts, collaborations—will be backed by and amplified by digital technologies. If the speed of digital commerce seems breakneck now, when less than 20% of the US economy has transformed to digital, just imagine the pace of a fully digitized, global economy.

What Does This Mean for Your Work?

Nothing can slow digital flows. We now live in a world in which any company can tap into the human talent cloud to identify the highest-quality, lowest-cost actor (human or technological) for any given task. In this reality, you must focus on how you uniquely add value, leveraging but not competing with rising technology and your own access to the talent cloud.

The Force of Three Amplifying and Interlocking Climate Changes

The effects of these three climate changes have far-ranging implications that demand we rethink our relationship to work, careers, and how we prepare for them. They demand that we recast our identities, not in a rigid mold but with a flexible framework.

Again, the New York Times’ Friedman is instructive here. The three climate changes reshape our world across five dimensions: politics, geopolitics, community, ethics, and work.

As entrenched as the US two-party political system seems today, Friedman predicts the concept of “left” and “right” politics will give way to an entirely new political system in order to provide effective and adaptive government in the face of complex changes. Our current, mostly binary choices—capital versus labor, big government versus small government—that define the left and right simply won’t be relevant. Instead, these real and unstoppable climate changes will require a more nuanced and adaptive government if we are to adapt and thrive ourselves. Friedman predicts that the United States will need to craft a new political party that is circular and based on natural systems—in short, a political party that is adaptive to changing social and environmental forces.

Moreover, our economy is interdependent with those of nations around the world, tying the United States to economic partners who are not always our closest allies. Where community once meant the people who lived and worked nearby, community has slipped physical ties to include the people we’ve connected and formed bonds with online, people we may never even meet in person.

As data and automation take on bigger roles in our lives, we must become intentional about defining the ethical guardrails between society and autonomous technology. Humans face fuzzy decisions every day; most of us navigate complex social ethics and cultural mores to make those decisions as fairly and effectively as possible. How will we program autonomous technology to make humane choices? What code will give a driverless car, for example, the judgment to crash into a lamppost, potentially endangering its passenger, rather than hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk? Will developers be incented to optimize their algorithms to favor business over workers? What data will we use to train machine learning systems without bias? These are the type of critical questions that humanists and technologists must work on together.

And finally, there is work, arguably the dimension across which this shape-shifting has the greatest impact. More than political ideology, geopolitical economics, ethical technology, or even community affiliation, work is deeply personal. Work is deeply engrained in our psyche. It drives our sense of value, purpose, and identity. If work shifts, we shift.

And shift it will.

We have entered what is often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution barely able to keep pace with the velocity of change. Prior economic transformations—agrarian to mechanized production, for example—were absorbed over many decades, even hundreds of years. An apprentice could enter a trade, master his craft across a lifetime, and pass those skills on to his sons and daughters. Family businesses thrived across generations, so much so that surnames, most notably for those of European descent, often described the family’s work: Carpenter, Baker, Smith, Parson, and so on. In the past century, one might reliably begin and end a career with a single company, perhaps even performing the same job. If you were born at the time of the steam engine, you had two or more generations to absorb the impact of that change, but if you are born today you will have to adapt to three, four, or five paradigm shifts within a single generation—that is where the velocity of change meets our expansive human longevity, and this is why we need the adaptation advantage.

That’s no longer the case. Indeed, the market is now retiring the last generation to view longevity at a single company or even in an industry as a virtue. We are now well into an era where specialization gives way to neogeneralism and lifelong learning. We are entering the fifth era in human history, an era that overlaps and maps to pre- and post-industrialization. It gets a bit confusing, so let’s sort it out. In the eras of hunter/gatherers and agrarians, humans needed a wide array of skills to subsist, let alone thrive. As the industrial era unfolded, humans could specialize, share, and trade their work. The information era shifted physical labor to knowledge work and drove even more specialization, storing up knowledge from classrooms and work experience. As we enter the augmented era in which we partner with sophisticated technology, knowing must give way to learning. The path through education, work, and on to retirement is no longer a straight line, if it’s even a line at all. Human beings must adapt, and quickly, yet our institutions, workplaces, and work policy are firmly stuck in the past. If we continue to ignore the clear signs that the future of work is fundamentally different from the past, we’ll find ourselves wallowing in unemployment, underemployment, and dispirited workers and workplaces.

To avoid that fate, we must find a new path, one that loops through the traditional notions of work, learning, and retirement in a continuous and adaptive cycle. Where we once learned to work and then used that learning to build a career over decades, now we must work in order to continuously learn to recognize and embrace the challenges and opportunities that these climate changes present. Working to learn is the cornerstone of the adaptation advantage.

That will be the biggest, most essential shift of all.


Gordon E. Moore, “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits,” Electronics, April 19, 1965.

2: The Only Things Moving Faster Than Technology Are Cultural and Social Norms

Key Ideas

While technology is moving at a breakneck pace, shifting social and cultural norms are actually moving faster and impacting us more deeply than the widespread adoption of quickly emerging technologies.

For many, individual personal and professional identity have been disrupted by some of these demographic, social, and cultural changes. For those experiencing an identity crisis, it is almost impossible to learn and adapt to change.

Psychological security will be dependent on our abilities to define, own, and embrace the fundamental aspects and values of our complex selves undeterred by external changing norms.

Shifting Ground Beneath Our Feet

The exponential growth in technological capability explains much about the changes we experience at work, but it hardly accounts for the profound changes we’re seeing today in so many aspects of everyday life, changes that inevitably also affect the workplace. Despite, or perhaps because of, the networks that bind us together, societies seem more divided. A smoldering discontent is easily fanned into outrage and anger. Even as empirical evidence shows trendlines that indicate a healthier, wealthier, even happier world population, many people believe the opposite to be true.

But why?

The simple answer is identity. Our identity is formed and reinforced at an early age. We identify with family, place, culture, ethnicity, and, perhaps above all, work. Consider the questions we commonly ask in conversations. We ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” College applicants are asked, “What is your major?” before even setting foot on campus. And who hasn’t broken social ice by asking someone, “What do you do?”

That may well make for easy social conversation, but the danger of tying our personal and professional identities together is significant. How can a child imagine a future self in a world changing so fast that many jobs of the future don’t yet exist? As the lifespan of many skills grows increasingly short, how wise is it to pursue a tightly defined curriculum when neither life experience nor future visibility provides any real signpost for moving forward?

How can we reasonably ask young people to focus on a future self when, according to research by the Foundation for Young Australians, they will likely have 17 jobs across five different industries in their now much longer career arc?1

And when we ask an adult, “What do you do?” we are asking that person to further embrace a professional identity. What, then, happens when that identity is threatened?

These questions, it turns out, are traps. They stand in the way of learning and adapting as work environments and opportunities shift and change. Instead, we should focus on learning and agility, heeding the guidance of IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, who suggests, “an average skill, particularly in technology, has got a half-life of three to five years. So, what do you do? You actually won’t hire for skills anymore, you will hire for propensity to learn.”2 In other words, you will hire for the adaptation advantage.

Anchoring identity in occupation will become increasingly dangerous to be sure. Still, we need to put the future of work and work identity in a large context. The truth is that many other aspects of our identity are becoming unmoored as well.

What’s happening?

The answer is that the only thing moving faster than technology is culture. Rapid shifts in social norms are tearing at our individual and social identities, leaving many of us struggling to answer the three basic and oft-asked questions that establish our identity and orient us in the world:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do for work?
  • Where are you from?

From Linear and Local to Exponential and Global

Answering those questions isn’t quite as simple as it once was when we lived in a world in which change was nominal and influence and impact were local. Adapting to shifting norms was relatively easy when change was linear, a series of sequential steps—1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Now, driven by accelerated growth and adoption of technology, change has taken an exponential pace, each step increasing the magnitude of the prior one—1, 2, 4, 8, 16, and so on. At an exponential pace, the first few steps feel comfortably manageable, but the further along the scale, the divergence explodes. You may be adjusting now but buckle up; the slowest rate of change you will feel for the rest of your life is right now!

Not all that long ago in human history, we only really knew what we could see and experience in a day’s walk. New ideas about everything from fashion to religion to politics once took years, if not decades, to migrate from one region to another. Now, ideas move at the speed of light in our hyperconnected and interdependent world. What happens on the other side of the world impacts our economy, our stories, and even our jobs.

Let’s dive a little deeper into some of these differences.


Within our lifetimes, the United States and many other developed countries will see their white majority evaporate. In fact, recent census data project that by 2045, white/Caucasian may no longer be the majority race in the United States.3 It wasn’t that long ago that a large family was beneficial, especially for families who made their living in farming and other labor-intensive small enterprises. The advent of birth control and planning, coupled with agricultural automation, urban migration, and the skyrocketing expense of raising children brought a marked decline in the average household size. Today, a decline in fertility rates, coupled with immigration from non-European countries, is radically changing the racial composition in the United States and other developed countries. And there’s no reason to believe that these shifts won’t become even more dramatic as people migrate by choice to escape unstable governments, seek better economic opportunity, or flee areas whose changing climate has made them less suitable for human sustenance.

Those whose identity is strongly tethered to a homogeneous racial or ethnic community are seeing that identity becoming unmoored.


The United States was founded on the idea of religious freedom, yet we have long been a country dominated by Judeo-Christian norms. So-called “blue laws” dictated business practices on Sundays. Religion was injected into our national language (“One Nation Under God” and “In God We Trust”) and our community practices (prayer before civic meetings and at the start of the school day, for example).

That foundation is shifting. The United States is rapidly becoming marked by both a plurality of religions and an absence of religious affiliation at all.

In the United States between 2009 and 2019, according to Pew Research, the share of adults who identify as Christian declined from 77% to 65%, while the share who claimed no religion at all rose from 17% to 26%.4 In 2019, Harvard graduated the first class with more declared atheists than declared Christians, the most since its founding in 1636.5 According to research by Pew, Christianity will cease to be the world’s largest religion in the next 50 years or so. Islam is expected to grow twice as quickly as the world’s population from 2015 to 2060, and Muslims will outnumber Christians in the second half of this century.6

For many whose identity is centered on a particular faith, that pillar may be shaken as that faith is less and less a shared experience among all the peers they interact with.


Our once youthful society is aging. In only a few generations, we’ve seen life expectancy grow from about 40 years in 1850 to 69 years in 1950 and likely 100 years or for those born in 2050. And even as the United States experienced a recent dip in longevity, due in large measure to obesity, addiction, suicide, and homicide, the overall trend toward increased longevity is expected to continue. This extension of life, coupled with declining birth rates, reshuffles age demographics and dramatically disrupts our social and economic constructs. In the United States and elsewhere, for example, our social safety net was built for a lifespan of less than 70 years, assuming a worker would retire at 62 and die by the age of 68. Now, according to the United States Department of Labor, 4.4% of those over 85 years old were engaged in the workforce in 2018, up from 2.6% in 2006, while workers 30 years old and younger are staying out of the labor force at rates we have not seen since the 1960s, before women joined the labor force in masse. This shift in retirement age is evident no more clearly than in the American Association for Retired Persons, or AARP. One of the world’s largest nonprofit membership organizations with 38 million members, AARP kept its acronym and changed its name to the American Association for Real Possibilities to signal the shift from retirement to later-in-life encore careers. In 2019, AARP joined forces with the World Economic Forum and OECD in a global initiative called Living, Earning, and Learning Longer to encourage employers to rethink their relationships with older workers, a topic already on the agenda of the 2021 World Economic Forum in Davos. These leading organizations are signaling a profound shift in how we think about people in our society whom we have long considered “retirement age.”

In the United States, we build and market products and services for the coveted 18- to 44-year-old age group, even as demographers predict that by 2027, just a few years from now, more people will be over the age of 65 than under the age of 14. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of adults over 65 is on track to double between 2000 and 2030; those over 85 are the fastest-growing segment of the US population.

In Asia, and particularly Japan, where more than 12% of the population is over 75, these shifting demographics are having a profound impact. Will there be an adequate labor force to sustain the economy and enough caregivers to tend to the elderly?

In parts of the developing world, advances in and access to medical care have reduced the infant mortality rate but have not as dramatically increased overall life expectancy. The lack of readily accessible birth control, the desirability of large families for providing agricultural labor, and the relative lower cost of raising children is driving overall fertility rates considerably higher than in developed countries. So while the developed world is adapting to aging societies, youth booms in the developing world demand a different adaptation. In the Middle East and Northern Africa, 66% of the population is under 25. In Egypt, 50% of the workforce is under 30.

We can expect these trends to continue, and while developed and developing worlds may have to adapt differently, it is now imperative to rethink work, retirement, and how we structure all aspects of our societies from city planning to social safety nets, and even products and services designed to accommodate dynamic age redistribution. And we need to start rethinking now. The baby born today with a life expectancy of 100 years or more will grow into new and adapting social structures. More urgently in need of a reimagined future is the 55-year-old woman who launched her career some 30 years ago, planned to retire at age 65, and expected to live into her 70s. It’s quite reasonable to assume that she will outlive that expectation by a decade or more.

For her, and likely most anyone born in the United States after 1965, we need to pool our collective strength and imagination to jettison our increasingly old-fashioned idea of work and retirement and begin to plot a new future that weaves the strands of learning, work, and “retirement” through a long and productive life.


For much of the twentieth century, the word “family” evoked images of Mom, Dad, 2.5 kids, and maybe a dog. Today, that view is not so easily conjured. Declining fertility rates in the developed world7 have all but made extinct the middle child. In 2016, 40% of children in the United States were born outside the institution of marriage, up from 28% in 1990.8 The once “nuclear” family is giving way to extended families, as grandparents, aunts, and uncles engage in primary caregiving for children and aging adults. Children living with only one parent account for 27% of families. Some 6 million Americans are children of LGBTQ-identified parents, and the rise of marriage equality globally is spawning families of choice rather than biology.

These reconfigurations of family challenge the boundaries of traditional values when those values are exercised in unfamiliar ways.

Gender Identity

Gender identity was long fixed and binary. Check a box: Are you male or female? Not so anymore. Gender identity is changing perhaps faster than any other social construct. In a word, gender is now fluid. In various business, academic, government, and other forms, you may be asked to declare your personal pronoun preference. After your name in your email signature line, you may simply offer: She/Her/Hers or He/His or They/Theirs. By the end of 2019, 14 states in the United States offered “X” in addition to “M” and “F” as options in answer to gender questions, up from only three states the previous year. People of Latin American dissent once referred to themselves as Latino (male) or Latina (female), and now more frequently use Latinx to signify liberty from a gender marker. Take the London Underground public transit today, and you will be greeted with “Good Day, Everyone” where “Ladies and Gentlemen” were welcomed until mid-2017. “We have reviewed the language that we use in announcements and elsewhere and will make sure that it is fully inclusive, reflecting the great diversity of London,” said London mayor Sadiq Khan at the time.

In Fall 2019, both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionary added “they” as a third-person singular pronoun for nongender binary individuals. A few months later, Merriam-Webster selected “they” as the word of the year for 2019. The shift from fixed to fluid gender identity is being fueled by younger generations, Pew Research discovered. By the end of 2019, 35% of Generation Zers and 25% of Millennials reported knowing someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. Compare that to 16% of Generation X, 12% of Boomers, and 7% of the Silent Generation who report the same.9

Gender identity is core to both personal identity and our ability to relate to and connect with others. What was once largely “obvious” is now cautiously questioned, changing one more touchstone in the identity framework.

Truth and Trust

From the advent of radio and then television, a handful of networks and media delivered the daily news, mostly objectively, thanks in large part to the Fairness Doctrine that required broadcasters to give equal time to opposing views in order to secure their broadcast license. When CBS newsman Walter Cronkite signed off his broadcasts with the signature line “And that’s the way it is,” his viewers believed him. In fact, in a 1972 poll, Cronkite was named the most trusted man in America.

Fifteen years later, the much-debated Fairness Doctrine was no more, repealed by the FCC. New networks with obvious political opinions on both sides of the aisle made the scene, and before long, “fact” and “analysis” swam in the same pool. You could find a “truth” that best fit your personal ideology simply by changing channels. An unregulated Internet—no broadcast license required—proved fertile ground for ideologies out of the mainstream, giving voice to fringe ideas and further blurring the line between fact and fiction. With social media’s ability to amplify and target information, true or otherwise, it’s no wonder that trust in media has withered.

Over the past decade, according to a survey conducted by Gallup for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy initiative, 69% of Americans say they have lost trust in the media. Not surprisingly, respondents trusted media in varying degrees according to their personal political leanings, further entrenching themselves in political tribalism.

The proliferation of news sources and the inclination to cherry-pick facts and reject uncomfortable “truths” has eroded a once-common American experience: the day’s news delivered by a trusted news anchor. It’s just one more way our common identity has frayed.

At the same time we’re witnessing a decline in trust in both government and media, we’re seeing a rapid decline in church membership. Losing faith in our fundamental social structures signals a crisis in belonging, one that underpins a loneliness epidemic. In 2019, the health insurer Cigna surveyed 20,000 Americans and found that nearly 47% reported feeling alone or left out. This phenomenon is not unique to the United States. More than 40% of Britons reported that their primary sense of company is a pet, leading the UK to create a government-level position to combat loneliness. A government study in Japan found that more than a half a million people had gone at least six months at home without human contact.10

Consent and Power Shifts

Women entered the workforce en masse in the 1970s and now, almost 50 years later, we are seeing the dramatic (if slowly attained) shift in how women and men are treated at work. Women are earning increasing respect, power, and authority in the workplace, academia, and all walks of life.

Far from the power dynamic of the Mad Men era, women score higher than men on a vast majority of leadership competencies, according to research published by Harvard Business Review.11 (The same study noted that we have much more work to do to bridge the advanced degree and leadership gap for underrepresented minorities.)

Women now far outnumber men among recent college graduates in most industrialized countries.12 Indeed, women have outnumbered men in degree attainment in the United States for the past 20 years. In 2015/2016, women earned 61% of associate’s degrees, 57% of bachelor’s degrees, 59% of master’s degrees, and 53% of doctorates.13 In 2019, university-educated women, for the first time, outnumbered university-educated men in the workforce in the United States.14 Despite this pipeline of talent, and with a workforce that is 47% women as of 2019, only 5.4% of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies15 and 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs16 are women. If you consider venture-backed startups a pipeline to leadership of quickly scaling businesses, the numbers are not yet there for women, either. In 2017, just 2% of venture capital funding went to startups founded by women, and women made up just 9% of the decision-makers at US venture capital firms.17

Still, we are seeing change.

The 2018 midterm elections in the United States were marked by the greatest number of women and the most racially and culturally diverse candidates in history. Ninety women were elected to Congress, including, at age 29, the youngest woman ever elected, along with the first transgender representative, the first openly bisexual representative, the first Native American representatives, and the first Muslim representatives. The US representation in government is coming closer to mirroring the populace it represents.

In corporations, gender equality may come more slowly but will accelerate as structural and policy changes take effect and the pipeline of talent becomes balanced. California passed a law requiring publicly traded companies headquartered in the state to have at least one female board member by the end of 2019. Moreover, the “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” movements catalyzed an important dialogue about gender-based power dynamics. There still may be a far distance to travel, but we are taking solid steps toward equality.

Yet we must also acknowledge that the shift in the gender-based power dynamic in education, business, Congress, and beyond both threatens and empowers, and it has certainly left many men feeling adrift. Anne Case and Angus Deaton famously coined the term “deaths of despair” to capture the decline in life expectancy for largely non-college-educated, non-Hispanic white men who have been unable to participate in the modern economy, a demographic that has experienced a dramatic rise in deaths from opioids, alcohol abuse, suicide, homicide, and other mental health–related deaths.18 This sad trend is one of the most challenging aspects of adaptation to the new economy. If you are not well prepared to participate in a changing labor market, and if your social status is being reshaped by changing demographic and gender norms, how can you be comfortable in the vulnerability required to learn and adapt?

Death of Distance Reshapes Human Relationships

Human populations have always aggregated in physical communities, city-states, and countries. Now, though, these geolocated populations are being eclipsed by a new form of association—online platforms. As we discussed in Chapter 1, the top 10 population “centers” in the world include only two countries. The other eight are social media platforms. With little friction to slow digital flows, this change occurred in the past five years.

Since societies are formed by a common language, culture, currency, and assets, we have to consider how new societies will be enabled by digital technology. Language can now be translated in real time by artificial intelligence. Cultures are forming and clustering in social media rather than IRL (the text messaging acronym for “in real life”). Currencies, once backed only by governments, are forming around a collective agreement of value exchange, and assets once backed by the gold standard are now understood as digital goods captured in intellectual property, algorithms, and artificial intelligence.

By some estimates, people in the developed world are spending 51% of their time online. Check your mobile device to see how many of your waking hours you spend on screen time on any given day. If your time looks like most people’s, you are spending more than half your time in a “place” other than where we are physically located and engaging with people we may have never met in person. Yet, paradoxically, even as we are more connected, we are lonelier. In fact, according to the previously mentioned Cigna study, the most digitally connected generation, Generation Z, is also the loneliest. This epidemic of loneliness has serious consequences, impacting health and mortality to a degree equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.19

This formation of new, virtual societies reinforces the information and relationship filters that fortify our biases and beliefs. Our time online has changed how we socialize, shop, find jobs, and even find mates. Twenty-one percent of heterosexual couples and 70% of same-sex couples now say they met their partners online. These are some seriously solid filter bubbles.

So, Who Are You? Occupational Identity and Expertise

If so many facets of identity are being reshaped, the question “Who are you?” may be more rightly changed to “How do you define yourself?” Psychological security will be dependent on our abilities to define, own, and embrace the fundamental aspects and values of our complex selves, especially in a world where we are not likely surrounded by people who look, eat, pray, or speak like we do. When our gender, family, and racial and cultural clans give way to diverse and global communities, we need to find new tethers for our complex identities.

Likewise, that ice-breaker question “What do you do?” loses its relevance when our job is no longer our primary identity. “Where do you find purpose?” may be the better question in a world where your career identity is fluid at best and more likely becoming a portfolio of self-expression. How do you express your professional expertise in a way that is nimble and adaptive? The trick is to root your sense of self to your purpose, passion, and curiosity. Work we love, work with purpose, is essential for every worker, not just the luxury of a few. Curiosity, purpose, and passion fuel lifelong learning and give us our adaptation advantage.

But to be clear, purpose is not some inner secret that is magically revealed. Rather it is carefully curated over a lifetime.

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