The 10 Skills You’ll Need By 2020 (And Beyond)

Posted July 12, 2016, by Vivien Luu

Self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, quantum computing — these are no longer the fantasies of sci-fi authors or Hollywood directors. This is the reality of our future, and the future is almost here!

The World Economic Forum says we’re on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (or Industry 4.0), and you don’t need to have seen Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Steven Spielberg’s A.I Artificial Intelligence to know that this next one is going to change everything.

Industry 4.0 will be marked by lightning-speed advancements and mind-boggling change as it brings together advances in digital, physical and biological technologies. Industries earmarked to revolutionise the future and generate billions if not trillions for the global economy include genomics, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. 

So as we look towards the future, it raises the question — what skills will we need to thrive in this brave new world?

By surveying the chief HR officers at some of the world’s leading companies, the World Economic Forum has released The Future of Jobs report revealing the top 10 skills you’ll need by 2020.


So strap yourself into the Delorean and rev up that flux capacitor. Let’s see what arsenal of skills the future demands of us!


10. Cognitive flexibility


Cognitive flexibility is all about being a mental gymnast. If you think of your brain as a gymnast’s floor, and imagine all the different apparatuses (e.g. the rings, parallel bars, and balance beam) as the different ways of thinking (e.g. the creative brain, mathematical brain, critical thinking brain etc.) — cognitive flexibility is how quickly (and easily) you can swing, leap and twirl back and forth between different systems of thought.

The more limber you are, the easier it becomes to see new patterns, and to make unique associations between ideas. It sheds new light on the concept of having a ‘nimble’ mind!

So how do we flex our cognitive muscles? By learning new things and in particular, learning new ways of thinking. If you’re ‘not a creative type’, make it a point to learn an instrument, take up hip-hop dancing or try your hand at an art class. If you’ve got the soul of a creative, but your eyes glaze over when you hear words like ‘financial markets’ or ‘the economy’, make it your mission to read The Economist or The American Economic Review.

Expand your interests, read outside your comfort zone, and embrace people who challenge your worldviews. Your career (and your brain) will thank you for it.


9. Negotiation


With robots infiltrating the workforce and job automation flagged to become increasingly commonplace, social skills will be more important than ever in the future.

Why? Because we’re far better at social interaction and negotiations than robots are (for the time being, anyway).

Even people in purely technical occupations will soon be expected to show greater interpersonal skills, and being able to negotiate with your colleagues, managers, clients and teams will be high up on the list of desirable skills.

To find out how to become a better negotiator, here are five things great negotiators always do.


8. Service orientation


Defined as the ability to ‘actively loo[k] for ways to help people,’ having strong service orientation skills is all about shining a spotlight on consumers, and anticipating what their needs will be in the future.

As the WEF report points out, businesses in the energy, financial services and IT industries are ‘increasingly finding themselves confronted with new consumer concerns about issues such as carbon footprints, food safety, labour standards and privacy.’

From a skills perspective this means that businesses ‘will need to learn to more quickly anticipate these new consumer values, to translate them into product offerings and to become ever more knowledgeable about the processes involved in meeting these demands.’

Getting a grip on service orientation involves stepping into the minds of users and thinking about what they value, fear, and dislike; and developing new products or adapting services to future proof your company or brand.


7. Judgement and decision-making


The ability to make sound judgement calls and the knack for strong decision-making skills is forecast to move up the list to nab the seventh spot by 2020.

This isn’t surprising considering the sheer volume of data that organisations can now amass, and the growing need for employees who can sift through the numbers, find actionable insights, and use big data to inform business strategy and decisions.

How can you improve your decision-making skills immediately? Start getting a whole lot more comfortable with data. First, figure out what questions or problems you want to answer, then set aside time to explore new data tools and technologies that can help you collect this information. Once you have these two things, you’ll want to make Excel your best friend, learn how to manipulate the data and mine it for all it’s worth!


6. Emotional intelligence


The overwhelming response from HR officers and company strategists was that when it comes to desirable skillsets, ‘overall, social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others — will be in higher demand across industries’ of the future.

Co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry explains that emotional intelligence ‘is the other kind of smart.’ It’s that intangible ‘something’ that helps us tune into the kaleidoscope of human emotions, and measures how adept we are at adjusting our behaviour depending on the mood of a colleague, partner, family member, or even our own internal feelings.

Emotional intelligence literally informs every interaction we have. As Bradberry explains in an article for Forbes, ‘It affects how we manage behaviour, navigate social complexities, and make personal decisions that achieve positive results.’

It’s a social skill that’s particularly important to managers and leaders, and you’ll be glad to hear that you can give your EQ (emotional quotient) a boost!


5. Coordinating with others


Social skills dominate the list again at number 5, and point to the emerging trend of companies putting more emphasis on strong interpersonal skills, and employees who play well with others.

Collaboration is crucial in any work environment and this is something that thankfully humans are still better at than robots!

‘Human interaction in the workplace involves team production, with workers playing off of each other’s strengths and adapting flexibly to changing circumstances,’ the WEF report explains. ‘Such non-routine interaction is at the heart of the human advantage over machines.’

Coordinating with others involves strong communication skills, an awareness of other people’s strengths and weaknesses, and being able to work with a range of different personalities.


4. People management


Irrespective of how many jobs get automated and how advanced artificial intelligence becomes, employees will always be a company’s most prized resource.

Human beings are more creative, better at reading each other, and able to piggyback off each other’s ideas and energy. But being human also means that we get sick, we get demotivated, and we get distracted.

So it’s vital that in the future, managers and team leaders know how to motivate their teams, maximise their productivity and respond to their needs.

Being a great manager has a lot to do with emotional intelligence, knowing how to delegate, and developing your own management style.


3. Creativity


As the World Economic Forum senior writer, Alex Gray explains, ‘With the avalanche of new products, new technologies and new ways of working, employees are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes.’

‘Robots may help us get to where we want to be faster, but they can’t be as creative as humans (yet).’

Creativity is predicted to become a key skill in the future, so before you dismiss yourself as a ‘non-creative’ person, remember that creativity is not the exclusive domain of artsy types like musicians and writers.

If you’re able to connect the dots with seemingly disparate information, and throw all the ideas together to present something ‘new’, then you are a creative person.

The problem with the creative process is its inherent ‘non-process’ nature. There is simply no one way to creatively problem-solve something. In saying that, there are ways to unleash the creative within you by exercising curiosity and self-expression on a regular basis.

Some other things you can do include giving yourself time to let your thoughts wander (this is why some of our best ideas come to us in the shower!), making it a habit to sit down and create a body of work when you’re sleepy (because when your brain’s unfocused, it’s less inhibited), and using limitations as a starting point for creativity!


2. Critical thinking


Being a critical thinker will still be a valued skillset in the next four years, according to the survey. But what does critical thinking actually involve?

The answer is: logic and reasoning. Critical thinking involves being able to use logic and reasoning to interrogate an issue or problem, consider various solutions to the problem, and weigh up the pros and cons of each approach.

While IBM’s supercomputer Watson and its legal-savvy companion ROSS are giving humans a run for their money in the critical thinking department, organisations in 2020 will see critical thinkers as highly employable, and a welcome addition to any team.

Try these strategies to become a more critical thinker.


1. Complex problem-solving


Topping the list as the most desired skill to have by 2020 is complex problem-solving ability — defined by the report as the capacity ‘to solve novel, ill-defined problems in complex, real-world settings.’

What does that even mean?

In a nutshell, it’s about having the mental elasticity to solve problems we’ve never seen before, and being able to solve them in a landscape that’s changing at breakneck speed and getting more complex by the minute!

In a world filled with what economists describe as ‘wicked’ problems — problems that are not ‘evil’, but considered wicked because they are near-impossible to solve due to incomplete, contradictory or ever-evolving requirements (think climate change, poverty or terrorism) — complex problem-solvers will be in hot demand.

As the report details, ‘More than one third (36%) of all jobs across all industries are expected by our respondents to require complex problem-solving as one of their core skills.’

Now, don’t worry! This doesn’t mean that you’ll be expected to solve the world’s problems. Having strong complex problem-solving skills is about being able to see the big picture, zero in on minute details, and move things around to make a difference.

Thankfully this is not a skill that anyone is born with. It’s something that gets honed over time, and is built on a strong foundation of critical and lateral thinking. 

So how do you acquire this holy grail of all skills? According to some studies, problem-solving skills can be improved by playing a lot of video games!

As our world and the workforce continue to rapidly evolve, it’s clear that we all need to develop alongside it if we’re going to keep apace with the changes. As Doc Emmett Brown put it in Back to the Future, ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!’

But you might need a roadmap! So arm yourself with these 10 skills to future-proof your career.

Find out what the future of the workforce looks like!

Vivien Luu
Vivien Luu

Viv is a writer who enjoys researching and writing about creativity, how the human mind works, and neuro processes. She values creativity above all else and admires people who pursue their career dreams, no matter the sacrifice. In her spare time, she binges on HBO shows and epic fantasy novels.

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