DJ Patil, 37, is an expert in chaos theory who in a very short time has worked for the Defense Department, eBay, LinkedIn, Silicon Valley venture firm Greylock Partners, and a few other high-impact organizations. He first made a name for himself, however, at the University of Maryland, where he was a researcher on weather patterns. "There are some times," he explains, "when you can predict weather well for the next 15 days. Other times, you can only really forecast a couple of days. Sometimes you can't predict the next two hours."
The business climate has entered a next-two-hours era, which I call the Age of Flux. This time, which will certainly last another decade if not more, will be continually characterized by the dizzying pace of change caused by the global adoption of social, mobile, and other new technologies. This is a moment when we most want a road map, and yet our visibility about the future is declining. From the meteoric rise of Facebook and Twitter to the demise of Blockbuster; from the downgrading of U.S. government debt to the resurgence of Brazil's economy; from customers' love of Netflix to their hatred of Netflix -- predicting what will happen next has gotten exponentially harder. Old-line businesses and executives may have been comforted when the tech bubble burst after the late '90s Internet boom; they should be terrified by the past few years, which have seen companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon come out of nowhere to dominate our economy. This second round of Internet-led change has staying power, and uncertainty has taken hold in boardrooms and cubicles, as executives and workers (whether employed or unemployed) struggle with core questions: Which competitive advantages have staying power? What skills matter most? How can you weigh risk and opportunity when the fundamentals of your business may change overnight? There is only one certainty: This Age of Flux will be defined more by fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm. If there's one consistent pattern, it's that there is no pattern.
That's scary stuff, no doubt. But the good news is that we can learn from folks like Patil, who have the skills, adaptability, and attitude to thrive in this chaos. This new class of workers, whom I'll call Generation Flux, have a mind-set that embraces instability, and that tolerates -- even enjoys -- recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions. They are people who have taken the positive traits of Silicon Valley -- its openness to new ideas from any field, its project-to-project careers, its meritocracy -- and applied them to their own fields, such as advertising, manufacturing, retailing, and many more. Generation Flux is less a demographic designation than a psychographic one: Anyone of any age and from any industry can join. Not everyone will join Generation Flux, and individuals will have to work at it to succeed. Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills. But the effort and the open-mindedness can lead to great opportunity.
In this Age of Flux, adaptability will also be the primary skill required of our institutions -- political, educational, corporate. For the most part, these organizations are not built for flux. The government, schools, and corporations that have defined how we've lived have structures and processes built for an industrial age, where efficiency was paramount, not adaptability. From classrooms arranged in rows of seats to tenured professors, from the assembly line to the way we promote executives, we have been trained to expect an orderly life. These systems will have to change, or they will feel even more out of date than they do now.
It's scary to think of taking risks, of branching out into an ambiguous future, especially at a moment when the economy is in no hurry to emerge from the doldrums. But this really is a moment of exploding opportunity for those prepared to embrace the change. More than 150 years ago, Charles Darwin foreshadowed this era in his description of natural selection: It is not the strongest of the species that survives; nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. As we traverse this treacherous, exciting bridge to tomorrow, there is no clearer message than that.
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