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The Future of Work Just Got More Uncertain: The Role of Student Affairs Educators

Career and Workforce Development Student Career Development Faculty Graduate Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level Undergraduate
August 17, 2021 Michael J. Stebleton University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

JCC Connexions, Vol. 7, No. 3, August, 2021 

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

On Setting Context

Instability. Uncertainty. Agility. When one scours the literature and current trade publications on the future of work, these words tend to jump out at the reader. For those of us who work in various areas of higher education and student affairs, it is likely no surprise that the world of work—and in particular—how we will work in the future has changed dramatically in recent years.

These shifts in how and where work will be done have been exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19. As an example, for those who possess the privilege to work remotely, many report that that have more flexibility than ever before. In a recent Pew Report study, 54% of respondents indicated that they would want to work from home after the coronavirus outbreak ends (Parker et al., 2020). Prior to the pandemic, the contract between employee and employer had already shifted significantly. This was not an entirely new phenomenon and many undergraduates were already preparing for ongoing work changes.

How can students grow from these dramatic shifts in work? How might their experiences in college influence their moral and ethical development as they make the transition into this ever-changing workplace? Student affairs educators are in the business of developing students holistically—including preparation for life beyond the campus. This column explores how student affairs practitioners can continue to support students for this uncertain future, using narratives as a tool to weather and actively prepare for the many transitions ahead.

The End of Work 2.0

Scholars and management consultants have been writing about the change in careers for several decades now. As a student in my counseling psychology MA graduate program, I first learned of these groundbreaking shifts by reading a book called JobShift by William Bridges (1994). Other authors generated voluminous texts with titles like, The End of Work, by Jeremy Rifkin (1995). Douglas Hall and his colleagues (1996) published The Career is Dead, which emphasized a relational approach to careers. In that article, the authors challenged the traditional organizational career in favor of a “protean” career model, which emphasized flexibility, change, and a repacking of abilities, interests, and knowledge to fit an ever-shifting workplace. Jump ahead a couple of decades. In 2017, journalist Kevin Drum garnered attention in a headline-grabbing piece in the Mother Jones that proclaimed that individuals should prepare for the end of work—and that you will lose your job to a robot, sooner than you think! Collectively, these texts aimed to prepare us for change in how work will be conducted in the future, and to sufficiently scare us into action.

A Focus on Learning and Re-Learning: Changes Ahead

Predictions about work should both scare and excite students (as well as educators). For younger students, predictions suggest that the average college graduate will have over 17 different jobs across 5-6 different industries over their lifetimes. A World Economic Forum report indicated that nearly two-thirds of primary school children will hold jobs that do not exist yet. McKinsey Global Institute released a report that suggested that 400-800 million jobs could be displaced by 2030. Also, the Freelancers Union predicted that 50% of US workers will be freelancing by 2027. These forecasts represent radical changes in the future of work. McGowan and Shipley (2020) outlined how the old paradigm of work and life-career planning is giving way to a new paradigm. In the past, the process was linear and included distinct phases: education, career, and retirement. The emphasis was on acquiring expertise in a given area through the methodical climbing of a career ladder analogy.

Today’s model is non-linear and marked by learning, leveraging, and longevity with ongoing agility required. The re-envisioned framework highlights ongoing engagement, learning, and continuous re-learning punctuated by strong critical thinking skills. The career landscape of the future involves continuous upskilling and re-skilling, and each employee will need to consider what that looks like for them, according to Damu McCoy, Vice President of Talent Acquisition at Target (D. McCoy, personal communication, June 17, 2021).

Often, graduating students believe that they possess strong critical thinking skills; yet, repeated surveys indicate that hiring managers and leaders say they are looking for college graduates with these skills but often experience challenges finding them (see UCLA America college freshmen annual survey). Encountering new learning experiences through both classroom and experiential opportunities (e.g., internships, study abroad, and research) will push students to develop in a variety of ways, including but not limited to moral, character, civic, and ethical development. Employers consistently urge faculty and student affairs educators to teach students the skills that will prepare for this new work-life of the future.

The 100-Year Life: Are We Ready?

Similarly, Michelle Weise (2020) proclaimed in her book, Long Life Learning that we should all be preparing for the 100-year life. Our future students may be working 70-80 years over the course of their lifetimes. What will this look like? As educators, how might we prepare students for jobs or skill sets that do not even exist? On a personal note, I teach a course on the Future of Work to our undergraduates in Business Marketing Education and Human Resource Development (Stebleton & Kaler, 2020).

When I share some of these statistics with students, especially the figures that highlight constant job shifting, approximately 50% welcome this new life-career approach; they are excited for the challenges. The other 50% are more concerned, and admittedly anxious about the instability that this reality may present for many individuals. Despite these predications, there are strategies that student affairs professionals (not just career development educators) can do to support students in their own professional and personal development (e.g., spiritual, moral, character) around these inevitable changes that lie ahead.

A New Employer-Employee Compact: Loyalty Re-Imagined

Recently, I was re-introduced to the work of Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn, and his colleagues. Specifically, I recommend an article that they co-authored in 2013 for the Harvard Business Review. The title of the piece, “Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact,” focused on recruiting, talent management, and retention. Although the military metaphor may not resonate with some readers, the primary concept merits attention. Hoffman et al. (2013) advocated for a new contract that did not rely on a lifetime loyalty agreement. Rather, the emphasis focused on employability. They wrote:

The tour-of-duty approach works: The company gets an engaged employee who’s striving to produce tangible achievements for the firm and who can be an important advocate and resource at the end of his {sic} tour or tours. The employee may not get lifetime employment, but he {sic} takes a significant step toward lifetime employability. A tour of duty also establishes a realistic zone of trust (p. 51).

 Hoffman et al. (2013) noted that a typical tour of duty often lasts from two to four years. This provides the employee the opportunity to explore a certain area of the organization; the expectations are clearly established and based on mutual commitments with outlined goals. At the end of the tour, the employee can take on a new experience within the organization, or leave the organization for new opportunities. The transferable skills developed across a range of job functions becomes a portable commodity that the employee now possesses (McGowan & Shipley, 2020).

From this perspective, the traditional loyalty contract shifts for both student and employer (i.e., the employer no longer takes care of the employee; and the worker likely does not stay long in one position or organization). There is a tacit understanding that the work arrangement is inherently temporal. Through a host of applied learning experiences, the student develops holistically as an emerging professional, gaining self-reflection, new knowledge, and skills related to interpersonal teamwork, ethical decision-making, character development, and working in cross cultural, diverse work contexts.

Developing Rock Stars

There is another unique component of this tour of day concept. Hoffman et al. continued: “when possible, a tour of duty should offer an employee the possibility of a breakout entrepreneurial opportunity. This might involve building and launching a new product, reengineering an existing business practice, or introducing an organizational innovation” (p. 53). The authors highlighted the example that Silicon Valley start-ups like to brag about hiring rock stars but research suggests that not all teams or organizations can thrive with an All-Star roster (Grant, 2018). I see this tour of duty model as an effective strategy to develop college student rock stars over time via multiple learning experiences. The emphasis focuses on training, development, and networking–acknowledging that the employee may leave any given organization after the stint is completed.

Student affairs educators and faculty can encourage students to take risks with their learning, try new experiences, and develop entrepreneurial skills that they can use in the future. Early student development pioneer Roy Heath (1964) described students who take these calculated risks as reasonable adventurers, and we should model and instill this spirit in our students (Stebleton, 2016). Additionally, student affairs practitioners can challenge students to reflect on how they might participate in civic engagement, integrating service-related opportunities beyond their direct work contexts. Moving forward, students will continue to juggle a constellation of life roles, both paid and non-paid, and it is important to engage students in these conversations about meaning, purpose, and values. When one considers the 100-year life model and the statistics regarding constant shifts in work, it is clear that all employees will become mobile free agents traversing different work scenarios. Daniel Pink (2001) introduced this free agent concept and mentality over 20 years ago, but it is now a reality and necessity for many individuals.

Preparing Students for Self-Reflection and Action: A Narrative Approach

Educators, including faculty members, hold a responsibility to prepare students for the uncertain workplace ahead. Faculty can intentionally integrate career-related module into existing curriculum so that students can see the application of theoretical content. Many career educators and other student affairs educators gravitate to narrative approaches to life-career development (Savickas, 2020). Narrative or storied perspectives see life-career as a series of chapters or episodes that students make meaning of over a period of time and reflection.

Additionally, narrative approaches can challenge students to self-reflect on how they developed as college students, including what they learned from moral or ethical scenarios encountered through internships and work-related experiences. I see a connection between the tours of duty concept and narrative perspectives: When following a tour of duty approach, employees/students are gathering short-term episodes or experiences during their undergraduate years. As they transition into full-time work opportunities, the task will be to tell prospective employees what they learned from prior experience (i.e., the skills and knowledge that they can take with them).

At the undergraduate level, these experiences might include internships, volunteer experiences, student abroad, and other learning opportunities. Students will need ongoing practice as they learn to craft and articulate these stories as a way to engage in self-promotion in a sincere and intentional way that does not come across as self-aggrandizing or overly boastful (John, 2021).

Honoring Stories

In the May 2021 issue of the Journal of College and Character, I wrote about the value of narrative competencies and narrative imagination, with a focus on how student affairs educators can develop and hone these skills to support students (Stebleton, 2021). I argue that student affairs graduate programs can do a better job of preparing students to apply these skills, mainly by listening and honoring the stories that students share with us, inside and outside the classroom. Using these same abilities, educators can assist students to develop their own micro-narratives about the experiences they gather as undergraduates. These micro-narratives can be shared—and re-shared— in prospective job interviews, internships, and non-work-related contexts (e.g., civic involvement).

My colleague Lisa DuRose, who serves as a faculty member of English at Inver Hills Community College in the Saint Paul, MN area, and I believe that most students know how to describe their college experiences (i.e., what they did and accomplished). However, they need practice actually articulating what they learned from these experiences—and how their acquired skills, knowledge, and values might actually benefit a potential employer (DuRose & Stebleton, 2016). In sum, students need to become better storytellers as they prepare for the work of an uncertain future (West, 2018). Acquiring these skills comes through practice, time, and support from student affairs educators who believe and invest in the success of their students.

Discussion Prompts

(1) What do you see as the biggest challenges and rewards when you think about the future of work?

(2) What are students’ main concerns or worries about these changes? How might student affairs educators alleviate these concerns?

(3) Describe your thoughts on the “tour of duty” model. What are potential advantages and limitations of the model?

(4) How do you think students might respond to the narrative approach? If you are a student, how might it resonate with you?

(5) What did you learn from the column that you could integrate into your work or practice? Share one example.


Bridges, W. (1994). Job shift: How to prosper in a workplace without jobs. Addison-Wesley.

Drum, K. (2017, November). You will lose your job to a robot—and sooner than you think. Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/10/you-will-lose-your-job-to-a-robot-and-sooner-than-you-think/

DuRose, L., & Stebleton, M. J. (2016). Lost in translation: Preparing students to articulate the meaning of a college degree. Journal of College and Character, 17(4), 271-277. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2194587X.2016.1230759

Grant, A. (Host). (2018, March). The problem with all-stars [Audio podcast episode]. In Work Life with Adam Grant. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/worklife_with_adam_grant_the_problem_with_all_stars?language=en

Hall, D. T., & Associates (Eds.). (1996). The career is dead - long live the career: A relation approach to careers. Jossey-Bass.

Heath, R. (1964). The reasonable adventurer. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Hoffman, R., Casnocha, B., & Yeh, C. (2013). Tours of duty. Harvard Business Review, 91(6), 48-58.

John, L.K. (2021). Savvy self-promotion. Harvard Business Review, 99(3), 145-148.

McGowan, H. E., & Shipley, C. (2020). The adaptation advantage: Let go, learn fast, and thrive in the future of work: Wiley.

Parker, K., Horowitz, J. M., & Minkin, R. (2020, December 9). How the Coronavirus outbreak has –and hasn’t-changed the way Americans work. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/12/09/how-the-coronavirus-outbreak-has-and-hasnt-changed-the-way-americans-work/

Pink, D. (2001). Free agent nation: How America's new independent workers are transforming the way we live. Warner.

Rifkin, J. (1995). The end of work: The decline of the global labor force and the dawn of the post-market era. Putnam.

Savickas, M. L. (2020). Career construction and counseling model. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (3 ed., pp. 165-199).

Stebleton, M. J. (2016). Challenging students to become reasonable adventurers. About Campus, 21(4), 14-21. https://doi.org/10.1002/abc.21246

Stebleton, M. J. (2021). Stories to craft: Applying narrative competencies to student affairs. Journal of College and Character, 22(2), 171-178. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2021.1898985

Stebleton, M. J., & Kaler, L. S. (2020). Preparing college students for the end of work: The role of meaning. Journal of College and Character, 21(2), 132-139. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2020.1741396

Weise, M. R. (2021). Long life learning: Preparing for jobs that don't even exist yet. Wiley & Sons.

West, D. M. (2018). The future of work:  Robots, AI, and automation: Brookings Institution Press.