Navigating across cultures and getting ready for the future of work
In this week’s newsletter, I’d like to share a few thoughts about why I believe navigating across multiple cultures can help you get ready for the future of work. For a long time I’ve wanted to put these two subjects together—juggling cultures (and languages) and the future of work. And now I’ve finally found a way to do so! 🤓
How do you prepare for the future of work? What skills/competencies should you encourage your children to acquire? Little is known about the types of jobs that will enable a good life. So how do we know what we should teach our children?
I won’t pretend I know the answers to those questions, but as a former teacher and a mother of two, I have strong opinions about education. I’m a firm believer in education for education’s sake, learning to learn, and cultivating a growth mindset.
I’m quite sure it doesn’t really matter what children learn: it could be music, mathematics, pottery or poetry. It could be chess and drawing. What matters is that they cultivate joy in their learning and understand they will be learning all their lives. What matters is how they learn and that the skills they acquire will have to be transferable. What matters is that they develop the capacity to focus and dive deep into a subject.
Culture eats technology for breakfast
No one can agree on how many jobs will be automated within the next 20 years. No one really knows what the economy and the world of work will look like. Too many people confuse what’s possible with what’s likely. Futurists love to speculate about future technologies and AI. Indeed that’s all they care about (is that why there are so few women among them?). But they often don’t see that culture is what matters most.
Sometimes futurists get the tech right, but they always fail to predict cultural changes. In the 1960s, when asked to imagine the future, one futurist imagined fax machines, but his “office of the future” had no women. It was easier for him to imagine fax machines than the economic and cultural shift that would bring so many more women into the workforce! And what was the change that had the biggest impact? Fax machines or women in the workforce? You tell me.
In general we give tech too much weight to technological change in discussions about the future. As theorist Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote in Antifragile (2012), “we notice what varies and changes more than what plays a larger role but doesn’t change. We rely more on water than on cell phones, but because water does not change and cell phones do, we are prone to thinking that cell phones play a larger role than they do.”
This reminds me of a quote I love by Jeff Bezos. He was asked about what was going to change in the next 10 years, and here’s what he answered:
“That is a very interesting question; it's a very common one. I almost never get the question: "What's not going to change in the next 10 years?" And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two -- because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. ... [I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that's going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection.”
So if we leave the tech to futurists, what do we know is actually likely to happen?
We know there will be cultural changes, and we may have to learn to thrive in different cultural environments.
We know we’ll be older, individually and collectively, and more people will be alone and in need of care and companionship. The number of people over 85 is projected to quadruple within two decades.
Even if climate change is not quite as bad as climatologists say it could be, many countries will be flooded or experience calamitous natural disasters and millions and millions of people will become migrants. UN forecasts estimate there could be between 25 million and 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050.
Economic and geographic polarisation is likely to become ever more extreme. People who do not migrate for environmental reasons may choose to migrate for economic reasons.
Due to economic, cultural and demographic changes, quite a few of the jobs and business models of the past may continue to disappear. So workers may have to change jobs several times in their careers. For most workers, the “Fordist” bundle of the 20th century will no longer be an option.
The three-phase life (training, work, retirement) will morph into a multi-stage life (multiple phases of learning in between bouts of work and rest).
So two things are really likely: there will be more transitions and there will be more migrations. One way or the other, some of the cultural changes we can’t yet predict are likely to be linked to demography or climate change. Culture trumps tech. QED.
The skills we’ll need in an age of transitions and migrations
If the life of our children (and ours) is likely to be composed of more transitions, then we’ll need to develop our transformational assets, i.e our ability to change and shift several times over the course of our lives. I discovered the concept of “transformational assets” in Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s remarkable book The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity. And I was so convinced by the concept that I’ve been using it in talks and articles ever since.
The skills you learnt at age 20 will not last into your 70s. You’ll have to learn new things at 40, 50 or even 60. You’ll have to be able to form new networks to support your transitions. Some of these networks will have to be outside of your current personal and professional circles. To transition to new careers, you’ll also have to maintain good brain plasticity, learn to look at your brain and your memory the way an athlete looks at their muscles: much of your potential is more determined by your training than your genes.
Also you’ll have to know yourself better, understand what you’re capable of, and mostly what you want and don’t want in life. Acquiring self-knowledge will be more critical than ever. A healthy dose of empathy may also come in handy. As Gratton and Scott write in their book, “Issues of identity, choice and risk become central to questions of navigating a long life.” “So you will need to think about your identity in a different way from those who came before.”
Last but not least, in a life of transitions and migrations, you’ll have to learn to navigate across cultures. Even if you’re not a migrant, you may have to live and work with migrants.
Migration as an education
The skills we need seem quite obvious. What’s less obvious is how we go about developing them. Well, I do have an idea about the how. At least, I’ve made life choices for the sole purpose of developing the aforementioned skills in myself and my children. Five years ago we moved to the UK (from France) to experience linguistic and cultural changes, and expose our children to them. Our children are now half English half French (not administratively, but culturally and linguistically). They understand what it means to communicate across two fairly different cultures. The UK may not be far geographically, but culturally, it might as well be on another hemisphere.
At the end of this year we plan to move to Germany to experience yet another cultural shock. We know we’ll need two years to adjust. And our children will need two years to speak the language perfectly. We’ll send them to a German school with little or no preparation. Our daughter already speaks some German, but our son doesn’t. But he knows what to expect: for two months he will barely understand a word and will be forced to listen without being able to speak. These first few months will be the ultimate experience of humility.
Migrating is not just about learning languages and expanding your geography of opportunity. It’s fundamentally about developing transformational assets, stretching brain plasticity, and growing empathy. When you’re immersed in a different culture, you don’t just learn to speak differently, you learn to think differently. It’s also about understanding relativity and understanding your own culture better.
I’ve just read Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, in which she writes, “When you are in and of a culture—as fish are in and of water—it is often difficult or even impossible to see that culture. Often people who have spent their lives living in one culture see only regional and individual differences and therefore conclude, ‘My national culture does not have a clear character.’”
This book is an eye-opener. Reading Meyer’s book, you understand that your default mechanism is always to “view others through your own cultural lens and to judge or misjudge them accordingly”. To help others get a better understanding of what it means to navigate across cultures, she draws a “culture map” with eight different scales. One is about communication: some cultures are high-context (you have to read between the lines), while others are low-context. Another is about the art of persuasion with countries ranging from “applications first” to “principles first”. Yet another scale distinguishes between egalitarian and hierarchical cultures. Etc.
Let me know if the subject is of interest to you. I would LOVE to dedicate a newsletter to the “culture map” and my personal experience of navigating across cultures.
In the meantime I think I’ve already written more than I should have about why I think navigating across cultures may be the best way to prepare for the future. It’s also a great way to live in the present. Have a great week!
New Welcome to the Jungle ebook about cross-generational mentoring: in French, “Pourquoi et comment se convertir au mentorat intergénérationnel ?”, and in English, “The Many Benefits of Cross-Generational Mentoring”.
New article in the We’re all biased! series about cognitive biases and their impact on HR: (in French) “Quand les indicateurs vous obsèdent : découvrez « l’effet McNamara »”; (in English) “The deceitful impact of the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ on your HR decisions”.
I have a series of talks and panel discussions coming up this week in Paris: at Ouishare on Friday morning and at Sciences Po in the afternoon.
Content related to this week’s newsletter:
🗞️ “The Age of Amateurs”, Medium.
🗞️ “The Da Vinci Curse and the Transformations of Work”, Medium.
🗞️ “Why Futurism Has a Cultural Blindspot”, Tom Vanderbilt, Nautilus, October 2018.
🗞️ “Why aren’t there more women futurists?”, Rose Eveleth, The Atlantic, July 2015.
🗞️ “Environmental Migrants: Up To 1 Billion By 2050”, Francesco Bassetti, Foresight, 2019.
🗞️ “Will Fragmentation Doom Europe to Another Lost Decade?”, Nicolas Colin, European Straits, January 2020.
🗞️ “The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity”, Welcome to the Jungle “must-read”, 2018.
📚 The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures by Erin Meyer, 2015.
🗞️ “Japanese women face a future of poverty”, Marika Katanuma, Bloomberg, January 2020: “A perfect storm of benefit cuts and outdated social structures is driving the nation’s women, especially the elderly, toward financial ruin.” (A similar fate could face German women in the future: see my previous newsletter about “The plight of Germany’s female workers”).
🗞️ “The Equality Conundrum’, Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker, January 2020: brilliant piece of political philosophy! “We all agree that inequality is bad. But what kind of equality is good?”
🎙️ “Woman’s Hour”: this excellent (daily!) BBC podcast “offers a female perspective on the world”, on work, parenting, love and everything else. Thank you, Juliette, for bringing it to my attention. I’m sure I’ll listen to it regularly from now on!
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