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How to Cope with the Age of Transition

Interview with Jan Rotmans
05 February 2016
Prof. Jan Rotmans
Prof. Jan Rotmans

After calling Prof. Rotmans assistant three times, she was finally able to put the busy man through. Society is changing, and it is big business. Professor Jan Rotmans from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam is an expert in 'Transition'. NEXT was curious if he could already give some prospects on the changing labor market, and look into the crystal ball for us and the students of Groningen.

You are a professor of ‘Transition Studies’ at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. Everyone senses that our society is changing, in 2014 you spoke about a ‘turn- over year’, and that we’re moving towards a ‘society 3.0’. What are the fundamental changes we are facing and what do you expect to be the effect of this on the labor market for higher educated people?

There are a number of ways our society is changing fundamentally; I will name the most important ones. What we see is that there is a change in the way society in governed, instead of a centralized organization, we’re moving towards a decentralized organization. We can see this in the reorganization of healthcare and in the way start-ups are organized for example. The top down power structure society’s been based on in the past, is changing to a bottom up power structure. The policymakers of the future will be enterprising citizens. This means today’s intelligentsia need to prepare themselves for a changing job market, by taking possession of the ‘21st century skills’ necessary to survive.

What sectors of the labor market you think will bloom, and what sectors will die out?

Every sector will be influenced. Right now you see this happening in healthcare especially. The big organizations won’t last, so you see them struggling to reinvent themselves, new initiatives are popping up everywhere. Energy facilitators and the educational sector are also in motion. More and more people are organizing themselves in loose structures. Partly because people don’t feel at home at the big and impersonal corporations anymore, but also because for many people it’s their only option since companies have economized their human capital by dismissing people.

How do you think today's employers should meet these new requirements?

As I said, many big corporations are struggling. They need to change the way they work, and they need to do it fast. It requires an enormous amount of adaptability, especially since fresh start-ups are already way ahead of them. To deal with this crisis, I recommend big corporations to develop primary and secondary strategy of business, one for the short term income and another one for the new strategies, partnerships, experiments and projects that you will need on the long term. You need to be flexible, inert companies won’t survive. It is not about becoming smarter and more efficient at what you do, it is about radical innovation. Daring to do things completely different.

You are also talking about revolutionary developments, for example electric utilities who will stop selling energy, but who will rent out the product like lights. Or the rise of 3D printers and open source technologies. Can you estimate the influence of these developments on future jobs?

Many jobs will be lost, but of course other jobs will be gained too. When we look back at the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, many people where afraid of losing their jobs due to the increasing use of machinery. Of course new jobs, for the people making and maintaining those machines, where needed as well. In our day and age, we see the same concerns, but I’m confident there will be enough new job opportunities to fill the gap.

A primary strategy to receive a solid income, and a shadow line in which you are flexible and aim to network and experiment with new partners. Is the same strategy applicable to employees you think?

Today’s students don’t envision their future careers as working at a certain company 60 hours a week. They want to work at a company that can mean something for their personal development, and through which they can contribute usefully to society. They also want to enjoy life, and not waste it like a workaholic. This means companies need to account for these new demands as well. Part-time jobs and freelancing will become the trend, and employees need to feel they are doing useful jobs for society.

In your presentation about Trends in 2014 you talk about the younger generation not having that much need of certainty in their lives. You say they are more pragmatic and ‘bottom up’. However, at NEXT Career Services we see a lot of students would prefer job certainty after studying instead of a flexible labor market. They consider the future terrifying with nothing to hold on to. Don’t you think the anxiety for change of the labor market its uncertainties, is stronger than the change itself?

These are two sides of the same coin. A lot of young people know their future is uncertain. The Dutch social security system is falling out of practice, you simply can’t rely on the idea that you’ll be able to go on retirement when your old. The unions are expressing their concerns as well. Of course there will be new institutes to take replace the current ones, but only time can tell how it will all work out. Young people shouldn’t fear this; it is the new reality. You can only accept it.

The changes seem to encompass a society where achievement is the most important. You constantly have to keep improving yourself. How will this be for people who can not keep up with the rollercoaster? Are we talking about survival of the fittest?

In a transition period, there is always the danger that people will be left out. Those with the mental and physical capacity will profit from this transition, but we do need to figure out a way to prevent people who are not as blessed to become a victim. We need new forms of solidarity. Companies and employees are constantly demanding the best from each other, we need to strike a new balance so that everyone can have a place in this upcoming society.

According to you, how should universities cope with the transition between education and the labor market?

Universities are old-fashioned strongholds of course. Right now the average student is between 18 and 25 years of age, universities need to evolve to the life-long study facilities demanded in the future. One’s education will consist of rotational years of working and learning, instead of the current system of a couple of years of education first and then a life long working. Furthermore, an interdisciplinary approach will be more and more in demand. Complex societal issues require a solid knowledge of diverse disciplines. We already see this happening in study programs for excellent students, the so called ‘honors programs’. A group of academics in Amsterdam has started an initiative I’m also involved in, similar to honors programs but open to all students; it’s called the Bildung Academie. A place where you get an interdisciplinary education, but also learn how develop yourself and manifest your knowledge. Universities should strive for this kind of education to be accessible to all students in order to face this society in transition.

Since the majority of the Dutch population will be retiring soon, we are facing a situation that a minority (the current students) have to provide life-support for the majority of the people. How can we fill this upcoming gap in this changing labor market?

In 20 years, 1/3 of the people are to provide for 2/3 of the population. This puts quite the pressure on that minority. The stakes are high, so there will be a lot of tensions. Last month the retirement funds were calling out in the media, that they didn’t know how to cope with this new situation. The terms on which they might no longer be able to pay out the retirements is approaching rapidly. Still, many people think in terms of the old paradigm, it will probably take a generation to get used to this new society we’re facing. Extreme times call for extreme measures. Basic income, or a participation income might not be such a bad idea. Experiments all over the world are happening right now, and Finland is planning on doing an experiment on national level. The last thing we need to do is turn our heads from experimenting.

Finally, do you have any tips for students to prepare themselves for the changing labor market?

First and foremost, do not be afraid. Fear is your worst advisor. A new golden age is up ahead, a new economy with lots of opportunities. Besides that, don’t focus on your CV as much, just be yourself. Authenticity, passion, originality, being able to work in a team, communication, that’s what you really need to invest time in. It’s more important who you are, than what you’ve done. Everyone has got the same CV nowadays. I look right through it. We’re living in a time where individuals can make a difference. Think about Boyan Slat, a Dutch student who thought ‘hey, let’s develop a device to handle the plastic soup in the ocean’, look at how far he’s come. Possibilities are endless, embrace them.

- NEXT Career Services, 26-01-2016.

Last modified:17 February 2017 11.08 a.m.

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