The world of work has changed irrevocably in the span of our lifetimes, leaving many of us feeling underprepared. Even so, we may be on the threshold of more drastic change.

If you’re in your twenties, your working life probably looks very different to the way your parents’ did at your age. However, their daily grind probably bore a striking resemblance to their parents:  today’s young adults are entering the job market and building careers at an unusually mutable point in history.

To get a better handle on the situation, it’s helpful to break down exactly how things have changed, and what we can expect to follow.

The New Normal

For millennials (often defined as people born between 1980 and 1995) the world of work they expected to enter when they were children has very little in common with how businesses actually function today and how work is projected to develop in the near future.

When the oldest millennials were born, the internet was still in a primordial state, used almost exclusively by universities and tech companies. Until the mid-nineties and the emergence of the first dot-com entrepreneurs, computer programming was thought of as a niche skill that would be irrelevant to most of the population, and correspondingly under-emphasized in school curricula.

The youngest members of that cohort have also seen enormous change in their lifetimes: by 1995, the internet was still only being used by 14% of the US population. In addition, most American workers were full-time employees, with only 7% engaging in freelance work.

Since the job market has changed so profoundly in unpredicted ways in the past two decades, many millennials entering the job market still feel underprepared despite years of expensive and arduous education.

What Work Means To Us

These huge changes in the structure and function of our working lives, against the backdrop of an equally uncertain economic climate, have fundamentally altered how we relate to work.

In a world where a “job for life” is no longer seen as realistic or even desirable, millennials have been characterized as having little loyalty to their employer, constantly keeping a weather eye for a better circumstance: 44% say they would like to leave their current job in the next two years.

In order to attract and retain the high quality workers who will keep a business competitive, employers are increasingly finding that they need to give proper consideration to corporate culture and the non-financial elements of their compensation packages. Previously attrition caused by a high pressure environment was seen as natural selection at work, but now it’s more likely to be seen as wasted potential which could have been avoided with more care and attention to employee welfare. An employer isn’t just expected to provide a paycheck, but to protect their workers’ well-being as well.

In particular, mental health, with respect to its relationship to work, has become a priority. In 1987, mental illness disability affected one in 184 Americans, but by  2007 this figure had shot up to 1 in 76.

While there’s still a considerable stigma attached to mental illness, it’s becoming more and more acceptable to talk about, and help is more accessible than it’s ever been. People are waking up to the impact that poor working conditions can have on wellbeing, and while it’s far from a solved problem, there’s plenty of reason to be hopeful in this area.

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A more human view of employment has coincided with a decline in formality. Before, there was a sharp distinction between how people dressed and comported themselves at work and what they did in their leisure time.The casual dress codes which allow tech industry talent to feel like they’re at home (conveniently making them less inclined to leave the office) are filtering into the greater business world, with fewer offices requiring employees to be suited and booted during working hours.

Theoretically, we should be more relaxed, but a more nebulous idea of what’s ok and what’s not presents more of a cognitive load than it may have done to our predecessors.

The More Things Change

Looking at the statistics, it’s clear that the societal impact of the internet and the rise of freelancing has resulted in work looking very differently to how it did in the past, but even bigger changes could be on the horizon.

As artificial intelligence improves and the Internet of Things grows in size and sophistication, human workers are being edged out by machines — as many as 47% of US jobs are estimated to be at risk. And blue collar jobs are being hit first: in particular, long distance truckers are watching the development of the self-driving car with trepidation, as well as manufacturing and retail workers.

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How will we adapt to a world with far fewer jobs than people? It’s not possible to make a completely reliable prediction, but the fact that less-skilled jobs are being rendered obsolete first means that it’s reasonable to expect a widening gap between rich and poor.

Education will become even more crucial to finding work, though the American education system is still embarrassingly missing expectations. It’s also possible that changes in the economy will affect which industries and skills we consider prestigious, benefiting creative workers as well as vocations where human contact is key, such as teaching and healthcare, a prediction seconded by inventor and serial entrepreneur James Tagg.

Work continues to be a fact of life, but for young people in the early stages of their career, work is unlike what any previous generation has experienced. While this uncertainty may provoke anxiety, many workers are taking advantage of the nebulous environment to find their own path and decide for themselves what their career should look like.

To millennial entrepreneurs, the risk associated with changing times signifies new and exciting opportunities. And in 2016, this high risk, high reward mentality is simply a part of the way we do work.

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