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I just learned a new acronym: VUCA, which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. I guess I’m behind the times since the term has been around since 1998, when it was introduced in the U.S. military to describe the situation in Afghanistan, replacing some less printable alternatives.
Unfortunately, today VUCA describes far more than unconventional military situations in remote countries. Even in stable, civilized (should we say boring?) countries like Canada, more and more aspects of our lives can be described as VUCA. Two such components are work and marriage.
Your work life used to be fairly simple and predictable, involving some or all of the following steps: getting an education, finding a job, losing a job and finding another one, starting a business or two, building a pension or some savings, and retiring.
People starting careers now face VUCA.
Volatility replaces stability. Hard-earned skills are unlikely to last a decade, let alone a career, before they become obsolete. Permanent, long-lasting jobs are few.
Even big organizations like governments and phone companies downsize regularly.
The eat-what-you-kill model of work will keep you hopping.
With fewer jobs offering career-long employment and with fewer traditional jobs altogether, uncertainty looms for those self-employed or on contracts.
The big uncertainty is where the next paycheque is coming from – which customer or employer, doing what task in what week or month?
Nothing is simple any more. Technology adds a layer of complexity to every undertaking. Even relatively simple jobs like retail sales now involve using automated information systems that vary from business to business and keep changing over time.
Today’s global economy adds the complexities of working in different languages, time zones, cultures and currencies.
Ambiguity plagues career planning. Should you stay with a company that promises you a pension, but which may go bankrupt and leave you with nothing?
Should you start a business with all the usual challenges, and the added political dimension of possible changes to regulations, taxes or trade agreements that could wipe you out?
There are no clear cut answers here.
Family life has been the port in a storm and the safe haven in an uncertain world. Marriage in particular offered comfort, security, stability and permanence.
Not anymore. If you think that your home life will provide a refuge from the increasingly VUCA world of work, think again. Marriage is falling into the VUCA model.
Relationships are now more volatile. Often a formal marriage doesn’t exist. Even where it does, marriages often end in divorce and some individuals get married several times. Settling down with your high school sweetheart until the great-grandkids arrive is the stuff of old-fashioned movies.
If marriages weren’t uncertain, prenuptial agreements wouldn’t exist. For those who do choose to get married, accountants and lawyers are often called in along with the wedding planner. If the couple is young and star-struck, it’s their parents who encourage planning for an uncertain future.
Complexity and ambiguity go hand in hand with respect to marriage. Marriage used to involve one man and one woman. Now, any two people – men, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community – can be married. And there’s even pressure from some groups to recognize marriages of more than two people.
As marriage becomes more VUCA, so too does parenthood. From the beginning of time, every person had one mother and one father – even if you didn’t always know who the father was. Sure, there were adoptions and step-parents, but the biology was fixed.
Now reproductive technology enables unrelated people to become a sperm donor, an egg donor or a womb provider and these people can be quite separate from whoever ends up raising the child. VUCA indeed.
Harvard Business School has come up with a way to cope with all the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that infects every aspect of our lives.
They say we need more vision to see the changes around us and to anticipate what’s coming, more understanding about its implications and effects, a great deal of courage to act in the face so many unknowns and endless adaptability to adjust to the ever-shifting world around us.
Yes, the solution shares the acronym VUCA. May you have enough of this second kind of VUCA to deal with the first.
Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.
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