It is impossible to predict the future, but it seems reasonable to assume that disruption will continue apace. This puts humans under huge psychological strain: we must accept that failure is always a possibility, decisions are often flawed, errors inevitable and the only certainty is uncertainty.
Such daunting prospects can trigger anxiety and feelings of inadequacy — as well as fear, disappointment and loss. An ability to make the best possible decisions in this climate, develop resilience to face new realities, recover from setbacks and tolerate these uncomfortable emotions, will be essential for professionals if they are to be successful in 2050 and beyond.
Some worry that practices intended to protect youthful sensitivities, such as “helicopter”, or overprotective, parenting, “no platforming”, and “safe spaces”, do not equip individuals with the emotional muscle necessary to survive the strong feelings inherent in a harsh future.
A client of mine in his thirties who founded a successful start-up has such concerns after observing junior staff, who, he argues, lack initiative and rely on authority figures to tackle work problems. “People are waiting for things to happen to them rather than saying, ‘This is my career, I’m going to chart my own course’,” he says.
“You’re never going to get a level of innovation when it comes to problem solving because your mindset isn’t pushing you forward. I worry what will happen to those people in 30 years’ time when they’re meant to be running companies.”
Companies would be wise, however, to support employees in a world of rapid change. An overemphasis on personal resilience can deflect from a company’s responsibility to create cultures that allow staff to try and fail. They can also bolster decision-making by encouraging more diversity of ideas.
This was foreshadowed in 1980 by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede in his book, Culture’s Consequences. Although Mr Hofstede was rating nations’ tolerance for uncertainty, his ideas are relevant to businesses.
He distinguishes between “uncertainty avoidance” cultures and “uncertainty acceptance” ones. The former are characterised by highly anxious and emotive individuals who react as if under constant threat, are intolerant of differences and rely heavily on regulations. In contrast, “uncertainty acceptance” cultures are open to diversity, allow flexibility and are quicker to accept innovations and new technologies.
Uncertainty can be embraced as an opportunity, says Professor David Tuckett, a psychoanalyst and director of the Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty at University College London.
He believes individuals can best prepare for the future by recognising that what they are doing is developing “imaginaries” — stories that people create of which they cannot be certain.
Prof Tuckett says: “Most decisions of any importance are made in a climate of radical uncertainty. That is to say, they are decisions made about something that has got to play out in a certain amount of time, and at the time you take the decision you have no way of knowing how it will play out.”
When you make any of these decisions, he says, there will be ambivalence and you will have to bear in mind that the decision might go wrong. But if you do not take a decision, you might miss an opportunity, he adds.
He warns that reliance on artificial intelligence in decision-making is likely to be unreliable. Computers lack basic human qualities such as common sense, intuition, imagination, co-operation and trust, which have historically accounted for some of our greatest accomplishments, he argues. Humans apply rules flexibly and can improvise robustly, whereas computers are essentially rules-based and fragile.
How to improve resilience
Uncertainty breeds anxiety. In order to lessen anxiety many people attempt to simplify situations, but this only leads to a distortion of reality and bad decisions. Learning to tolerate complexity, therefore, is crucial in facing an uncertain future.
To prepare for this unpredictability, individuals must face both positive and negative possibilities and remember that feelings can be misleading. Although the prospect of success breeds excitement, failure often results in despair. Allowing either extreme to take over can be risky.
For example, while cultivating optimism promotes creativity, too much might obscure potential obstacles. Pessimism alone, however, risks killing ideas before they reach fruition. Maintaining ambitions while having an awareness of pitfalls is the most advantageous position to adopt.
Individuals need to be honest about their part in setbacks. Pushing all the blame on to outside forces avoids recognising blind spots. Conversely, seeing all the fault in ourselves can leave us devastated. Avoid black and white explanations and recognise there are multiple factors that contribute to outcomes.
It is often our own internal voices rather than external realities that undermine our ambitions. Work on curbing overly self-critical thoughts, be more compassionate to yourself and remember your accomplishments.
The uncertain and challenging times ahead require imagination, resilience and trust in oneself. Reinforce these with the stability of strong personal relationships outside of work, because it is unlikely that employers will offer you such security in the future.