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Time to be flexible and curious - high time to start reskilling

Swiss Re Institute and Asia Society Switzerland ran a series of webinars looking into the effects of longer lives in Asia and around the world. The first episode looked into how to fund the ever larger elderly populations - the second, the one I'll focus on here - looked at reskilling.

The topic overall is vast and complex. A glimpse at Google showed that life expectancy in Switzerland in 1960 was 71.31 years - by 2017 that number had risen to 83.6 years. Life expectancy is, for all the known reasons, on the rise around the world. This, coupled with demographic shifts, leads to far larger clusters of older-age people. These shifts are set to put a severe strain on the social contract, on social security nets, on pension schemes, on the ways we live and co-exist and co-work across generations.

I qualify as a baby boomer (the crowd born between 1946 and 1964) and I'm thus of the oldest generation of the four generations employed at Swiss Re. I can say that, what is currently happening, if done well, is an entirely positive development. This is a massive challenge - and at the same time a massive opportunity. The demographic trends are what they are - knowing them allows us to find positive ways forward. One thing that's already changing is the very notion of a career path.

From career path to flex path

Many boomers took up a profession early in life and built on that, learning more, becoming better, rising through the ranks - always on the foundation of that original profession. Personally, I've not had that at all - I've just flexibly picked up new things along the way and "reinvented" myself several times. While that was more the exception to the rule in the past, it is set to become the norm just about now. Anyone learning anything must do so in the knowledge that said profession might be extinct within ten years. The idea, going forward, is life-long learning into flexibly shifting professions. Overall, I think FLEXIBILITY in itself will become something that will be taught at schools of the future.

In episode 2 of "The Ageing Effect", we heard from Naveen Menon (President (ASEAN) at Cisco Systems) and Thomas Birwe (Head HR Switzerland at Swiss Re) - the former shared fascinating insights into the developments in ASEAN countries, the latter gave the example of how Swiss Re aims to tackle the challenge.

The 4th Industrial Revolution is both creator and destroyer

Menon began with a useful analogy: He showed pictures of an old car and a new car and said that, both vehicles essentially are made to do the same thing - they drive. But new cars are vastly different, complex, packed with technology and constantly flowing information. He said that, while on the outside work may still look like the work it used to be, the very nature of it is changing. The key message was this: The technologies from the 4th Industrial Revolution (see below) are changing the labor market.

It's glaringly obvious that these new technologies will challenge many professions over the coming years - and it won't come as gradually as we'd like, because all the above technologies are coming our way at the same time.

Menon highlighted research done together with Oxford Economics. They studied the trends, looked at not just job losses, but job displacements (jobs disappearing in one place, making way for new ones). They looked at 21 industries and over 400 occupations. In ASEAN countries, Indonesia and Vietnam seem, at first glance, most strongly affected (i.e. massive reskilling of workforce required) ... but also take a closer look at Singapore - a whopping 20.6% of the country's workforce will need to reskill.

The reskilling challenge

Menon illustrated more of their findings - the overall result is as stark as it is clear - reskilling needs to start happening now. As certain professions will become history, others will come to life - the changes will happen everywhere - across industries and hierarchies - but the research shows that the challenge will be especially intense in agriculture, where more of the old jobs are lost and fewer new ones created.

Menon pointed out that the job landscape in 2028 will already look very different. With regard to agriculture in ASEAN countries he said that it will be a major source of redundancies with 9.9 million jobs displaced, but only 4.2 million jobs created. There will also be expansion in some industries, of course, such as manufacturing, wholesale and retail, construction and transport ... but overall, the story remains the same: The old job will likely be gone and new skills will be required. A large number of ASEAN workers will require reskilling - and below you'll see what Naveen Menon highlighted - those are massive numbers - and what needs tackling (learning/relearning) is just about everything if you take a closer look at the below slide.

We can't change the trend, but we can change the response

This is how Swiss Re's Thomas Birwe began his part of the talk. In his introduction he also mentioned that what the research in Switzerland shows, isn't all that different from the research his co-speaker had highlighted for ASEAN countries. Thomas lauded the fact that there's an increasing lifespan, that more and more people live longer and healthier. The simple truth of the matter, however, is that the demographic shifts will lead to challenges. From his vantage point as Head of HR for Swiss Re in Switzerland, his focus is, of course, the company. He addressed a few different angles:

With the demographic changes he sees a clear requirement to engage two groups far more strongly - namely older people and women. Their more active participation in the workforce come with many positives. He also talked about a clear need to tackle perceptions, as there are negative stereotypes. With regard to older workers, he said, "We need to recognize them much more." On this, by the way, I'll just link to a recent webinar that had a strong focus on these biases.

Thomas mentioned a McKinsey Switzerland study from 2018 that came to the conclusion that one million jobs will disappear in Switzerland by 2030. Said Thomas: "Twenty to twenty-five percent of all jobs will be automated during that time period." As the previous speaker had shown, the main challenge is reskilling. On this, Thomas showed an example of how Swiss Re is beginning to tackle this - an internal virtual platform gives employees around the world the opportunity to learn, in their own time and at their own pace, into a great many different directions and acquire new skills through in-depth courses or also with shorter knowledge nuggets.

Old is as old does

Then there was the question of retirement age. For men in Switzerland that age is 65 - but it can rightly be argued that, today, someone at that age is likely still in both mentally and physically sound condition to work. Truth is, many people do want to continue working - be it for financial reasons, to contribute longer, or to add meaning overall. Swiss Re addresses this by rolling out something called Flex+, a series of options that allow both employees and their line managers to find the best ways to engage (and keep engaged) the older workforce.

My 58th birthday is just around the corner and I've just learned into a new world last year and another one this year. I think there's a great deal that we, as individuals, can do to stay in decent shape, both mentally and physically. But it's an effort, that's for sure. Something that has always helped me in this, I've mentioned it before, is flexibility. The idea of looking at something new and not shying away, but stepping into it with curiosity. I honestly feel that this mindset will become a key ingredient employees around the world need to embrace ... and maybe it will be the very first item on the reskilling learning path.

Thomas said that over the coming 10 years, a whopping 1/3 of all our Swiss Re employees here in Switzerland (a third is roughly 1000 employees) is set to retire. If there's a way to reskill these employees and not just retain but engage them, then it'll be a fantastic - for individuals, for companies, for society at large ... one thing's for sure - the demographic shifts will continue and your job, and my job, is likely gone before long. Time to be flexible, curious - and - once more - learn.




Daniel Eckhart

Senior Writer & Outreach Expert

Swiss Re Institute

I joined Swiss Re over twenty years ago - it is a very special company that has long become family to me. With its people and its powerful purpose of making the world more resilient, I couldn't be more proud to be a part of it. All the more so in my new role as Advocate for the Swiss Re Institute, a place where we bring together the experts from around the world for the future-driven thinking we need to make our world better, safer and more sustainable for coming generations.

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