How to future-proof your career path in 2020 (and beyond)

By John Schwarz

I still remember my first meeting with the vice-president of my department more than 40 years ago. I was a junior developer at IBM and when he asked what my professional goals were, I told him I wanted to be a CEO. He nearly fell off his chair. Then he got serious and helped me map out a plan to get there. For the next 30 years, I followed that plan. (Spoiler alert: It worked.) 

That kind of career trajectory might seem quaint today. From the rise of the gig economy to the impact of automation and AI, there’s plenty of uncertainty right now about how to plan for career progression and what skills will be in demand, or irrelevant, in a changing economy. The uncomfortable truth is we don’t know what the job market of the future will look like—only that it will look very different than it does today and it will change a lot more quickly than it used to. All this can create the impression that as workers we’re now at the mercy of forces well beyond our control. 

Future-proofing one’s career doesn’t just mean studying STEM, learning to code, or becoming a data scientist.

I don’t buy it—not entirely. Change is nothing new. Though tenures at companies may have been longer in the past, roles were always evolving, demanding new skills to keep up. Even as technology spurs the economy in radically new directions, there are steps individuals can take to shape their careers and stay relevant.

But there is a twist. Future-proofing one’s career doesn’t just mean studying STEM, learning to code, or becoming a data scientist (although, for people with the aptitude for STEM, that is a good place to start). In fact, surviving and thriving in the economy of the future may come down to many of the old-school tactics that helped guide my career a generation ago. 

It starts with a blueprint (and a personal board of advisors)

When I began my career, my senior managers helped me craft a master plan and my employer had a vested interest in helping me reach my career goals. By and large, most workers don’t have this luxury. Responsibility is almost solely on the individual to stay relevant in the face of a shifting economy. (Granted, companies like Amazon are investing millions in retraining their workers for the new AI economy, but as robotics and AI become widely adopted, companies’ bottom line may well trump loyalty.)

What hasn’t changed, however, is the advantage of having a career plan—a long-term vision with clear signposts along the way. Critically, a career plan isn’t something set in stone—a course plotted once and followed blindly. Think of it instead as a living document evolving in response to economic factors, emerging opportunities, and even personal interests and family realities. 

I revisited my own career plan every year, and still do. I continually ask myself what skills I need to develop to pursue future opportunities, and whether my career trajectory is aligned with my priorities, health, and personal interests. With the life cycle of job skills rapidly shrinking, regular check-ins are even more critical now. After all, today’s in-demand spreadsheet jockeys may well be tomorrow’s out-of-work bookkeepers. Equally important is a set of experienced eyes to steer you forward. Managers and senior leaders once filled this role, though this is increasingly rare.  

In today’s climate, what can be equally effective is nurturing a personal board of advisors composed of teachers, coworkers, professional mentors, and family members who can offer trusted input at key junctures. At the same time, tools like TED webcasts, social media sources, and online industry groups can help widen your network and provide insight into your career challenges and goals. Experience and pattern recognition matter, even in an era of exponential change. Surrounding yourself with people who have effectively managed change is the surest way to weather it yourself. 

It is extremely disheartening seeing entire regions of workers in dying industries be left without a compass for navigating the changing economy. One thing that is absolutely clear is that our parents’ jobs are very unlikely to be available for us, much less for our children

Know thyself (and think laterally)

For all the emphasis on STEM right now, not everyone is cut out for a technical career. No matter how much demand there is for software developers, someone who hates screen time and thrives on human interaction won’t be fulfilled writing code. 

That’s okay. The economy requires a diversity of skill sets, and will continue to do so. Not to mention, personal fulfillment matters more than paychecks, as study after study has demonstrated. Chasing the latest in-demand career can easily become a recipe for burnout and dead ends.  

In a shifting economy, one powerful hack is to think laterally, identifying overlooked sectors, and roles within them that align with interests. This may require looking beyond the obvious. For instance, biotech, medicine, and healthcare are fields projected to grow substantially in coming decades as we deal with DNA engineering, aging, and living longer. But that doesn’t mean I’m telling my grandkids they must become doctors. From medical scientists to in-home caregivers to music therapists, the field holds opportunities for a variety of abilities. 

A shifting economy doesn’t require people to bury their passions or unique interests. Quite the opposite. Leaning into those interests and keeping an open mind about where they might lead you is critical for self-innovation and career survival.

Face uncomfortable truths (and learn analytics as a life skill)

As much as it’s impossible to know exactly what shape a given career may take in the coming decades, we’re not left to make decisions in a vacuum. Some trends quite nearly hit us over the head, though for deeply human reasons we often choose to ignore or underestimate them. On my own career path, for example, I stayed at IBM too long. I had seen the writing on the wall—the lack of investment, the resistance to innovation, the complacency. Though I did eventually leave, fulfilling my goal of being CEO at another tech company, unwillingness to face hard truths and nostalgia clouded my judgment. 

My point is that broad, easily discerned economic trends, as well as prevailing political and regulatory winds are important indicators of where your industry is headed—if you’re willing to listen. If several auto manufacturing plants in your city have shut down or moved production, it’s reasonable to expect yours will be next. If you work in a highly regulated industry like tobacco, tightening health regulations likely spell dwindling career opportunities. 

Too often, people hold out in the face of mounting evidence that it’s time to move on. And moving on often will mean literally moving to a new place. For now, mobility is essential, though technology may solve this problem in the future. The real challenge is to face what the data is telling you head on, and act. 

Learning to leverage data and analytics to see clearly applies as much to businesses as to individuals. Thanks to the film Moneyball, many of us are familiar with how sabermetrics changed the game of baseball. Knowing which questions to ask, and crunching the right data, revealed which players were truly contributing and how to out-strategize the competition, all on a tight budget. Hunches and bad practices were swept away by hard truths. That same kind of data revolution is happening in the workplace, and in HR in particular, enabling companies to anticipate skills demand in the years ahead and identifying top performers. But companies need to be willing to ask the hard questions and accept the truths they reveal.  

AI and automation are inevitable (but redundancy isn’t)

On that note, we’ve all been warned that robots are coming to take our jobs—or at least a good chunk of them. This is not an empty threat. There will be obvious casualties: Self-driving cars will replace Uber drivers and cashiers have already been displaced by self-checkouts and online stores. But professional jobs are also at risk. Algorithms are on pace to replace accountants, and even lawyers and general medical practitioners may soon succumb to the march of the machines. 

But with these losses will come new opportunities, at least for those flexible enough to foresee and adapt. We’ve seen through successive human revolutions—agricultural, industrial, digital—how new technology inevitably brings in new classes of jobs. In the short term, robots will become our coworkers before they become our successors. Humans will be needed to operate and repair smart machines, maximize their utility, and manage their workflow. Those hoping to stay a step ahead should pay close attention to how advanced technologies are changing their fields, with a focus on learning how to work with machines rather than trying to outwork them. 

All of this isn’t meant to project a false sense of security or offer anodyne fixes. In the long term, even these jobs may be rendered redundant. And we all have limits of adaptability: Not everyone has the luxury of upending their lives to switch industries, retrain, or move to a new location. But while the economic future may be uncharted, the more things change, they more they also stay the same. The careers of tomorrow may look vastly different than they do today, but those who can stay flexible and informed and have initiative have a better chance of coming out on top. That’s as true today as it was when I started my career. 


John Schwarz is the founder and CEO of Visier, a cloud-based analytics platform, and served as president of Symantec. 

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