Younger, smarter and more diverse: get ready for the workers of the future

New channels of education and dialogue have had a profound effect on the latest generation of employees

By the year 2020, one-third of all graduates worldwide will be from China and India, according to Emma Birchall, head researcher at the UK-based Future of Work consortium.

She says that thanks to an increase in e-learning, students from around the world are now able to complete online courses at some of the world’s most prestigious universities.

Birchall says both employers and students in Ireland should take these developments into consideration, as students from developing countries will soon be just as qualified, if not more qualified, than Irish graduates.

The availability of these online courses, she says, means that geographic boundaries will no longer be a barrier when it comes to learning and employers will start having a wider variety of graduates to choose from.


An example of these online learning programmes is EdX, which was introduced by top universities Harvard and MIT in May 2012. EdX offers free online courses from each university and almost two million students have already signed up to the programme, with India, Brazil, Pakistan and Russia among the top 10 countries from which people are participating.

“Continuous improvements in technology and increasing levels of globalisation mean that students from underdeveloped countries are becoming a stronger force in global companies,” says Birchall.

She gives the example of Khadija Niazi, a 12-year-old girl from Pakistan. Niazi was just 10 years old when she first took an online university course in artificial intelligence on Udacity, a web-based educational platform.

The following year, Niazi became the youngest person ever to complete Udacity's online physics course, passing with highest distinction. Last year, she was asked to speak at the Davos economic forum, alongside Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Harvard president Larry Summers.

Birchall believes that young students like Niazi are what employees of the future will look like. She explains that there are three main factors that will impact the workforce the most in the coming years; technology, globalisation and demography.

She says that boundaries between employees and employers have been broken down thanks to technology. “Tools like Twitter encourage citizen activism and help create permeability between employees and CEOs, something that did not exist 10 years ago,” she says.

She cites a case involving Brendan Eich, founder of internet browser Mozilla Firefox. It was leaked on Twitter that Eich had donated $1,000 to California’s anti-gay marriage proposal and within hours Mozilla employees, users and clients were making lots of noise on Twitter.

One employee, Chloe Vareldi, tweeted, "Have waited too long to say this. I'm an employee of @mozilla and I'm asking @brendaneich to step down as CEO." The campaign quickly went viral and less than a week later Eich had resigned as chief executive.

“In addition to technology, frugal innovation – the process of reducing the complexity and cost of a good and its production – and micro entrepreneurs are going to have a big impact on globalisation in the future,” says Birchall.

She talks about the frugal innovation of mobile phones in Kenya, which has allowed even the most rural families to stay connected and has also made way for the development of M-Pesa, one of the most used mobile-money systems in the world.


As well as technology and globalisation, Birchall says demography will also impact the future of the work force. “We are pushing the outer limits of the ages of our workforce, in both directions,” says Birchall.

“According to recently published United Nations data, 50 per cent of babies born in the UK in 2007 will live to be 103, while in Japan they will live to be 107. The question now being asked is how do we get all of these people, from so many different generations, to work together? “

Many other problems will arise out of these increased rates of life expectancy, Birchall says.

“We will need to work out how the global workforce can maintain stamina through longer careers, or how people can ensure financial stability for longer periods of retirement,” she says.

It would appear that Generation Z, the employees of the future, are going to be far more diverse than they are right now; speaking more languages, hailing from far more countries, graduating at a younger age and staying in the work place for a longer number of years than ever before.