Five recommendations for business leaders preparing for the labour market of the future.


A study by Agoria on the impact of digitisation on the labour market in Belgium has highlighted two major challenges. Firstly, it is predicted that 0.9% more jobs will be created in 2030, while only 0.3% more people will join the labour market from education, hopefully with the right skills, following the adaptation of the education system. Secondly, 4.5 million people will be working in Belgium (2.8 million in Flanders), but 65% of these jobs will look different in 2030. If we get it right, we will still have 300,000 unemployed people and 580,000 unfilled jobs, but €95 billion worth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could be added. Below are several recommendations for business leaders to help achieve these goals.


Recommendation 1: Don’t be afraid to think long-term.

Financial analysts should not only value companies on the basis of quarterly figures, but also in terms of what their longer-term strategy is. This includes human capital, innovation and sustainability projects. Nowadays, companies can get a handle on these aspects using artificial intelligence, for example. That would already be a major step forward for the industry.

Because a business leader works according to their objectives. Today’s financial rationale cripples the ideas that look beyond the next few quarters and dividends. On top of this, social elections also crop up along the way. This has made it very difficult to develop a long-term vision. While a long-term vision is precisely what is needed to address the coming changes.

Large organisations with financial analysts are still hiring young people with old spreadsheets. That’s how they are taught to work. Unfortunately, there are still too few sustainable entrepreneurs in this industry.

These days, there is, de facto, a mismatch between what is asked of business leaders (in the short term) and what business leaders should actually do (in the longer term). People turn to politicians and education for the answers. But the industry also needs to take action itself. There is no obligation for Belgian companies to publish quarterly figures. Do they really have to, just because analysts request it? Imagine if a business leader had 12 months to get things done instead of just 3 months. What would then all be possible within an organisation? Business leaders need to be courageous to break through old ways of working.


Recommendation 2: Make customers a part of management.

My father was a GP. He diagnosed patients and they then thanked “Mr Doctor”. These days, patients first search on Google before contacting their GP. The GP then needs to convince them that their diagnosis is incorrect. In the past, things were also very straightforward in companies: a few men in tailor-made suits on the top floor said what had to be done, according to a clear hierarchy.

Today, customers want to help decide which course to take. With new technology, customers can be actively involved, in the form of co-creation, open data initiatives, profit sharing, etc.

The same principle applies to employers and employees. Hence my recent call to put more young people on management boards. This also means that you need to change your environment. Otherwise, any ideas proposed by these young people will be immediately rejected. You first need to make the culture of your company mature enough for it to work.


Recommendation 3: Work with all four generations together.

I have 5 children myself. The younger generation has completely different expectations from life: they do not want to work at the same place until they are 67. They want to work for a while, enjoy themselves for a while, get back into work, and then take a break again for a while. How can you fit that into an employment contract?

It is not a question of choosing between older people with experience or young people with new skills. We need them all. As Fons Leroy says: “we should keep people active with enthusiasm for as long as possible”. But ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t work anymore. I still have contracts which were negotiated by the older generation back in the day, but I can’t use these to recruit young people. As such, I need to be able to apply different rules in the same organisation, via a collective labour agreement. It’s not for the faint-hearted…

It is a huge problem: I can’t treat these 4 generations in the same way. One generation attaches importance to a company car, while another has no interest in company cars. In the technology sector, company cars are part of the contract. You have to take them out of the contract for some people, but then the rest of the package is not as good. The same applies to part-time and full-time work, and so on.

Who are the 4 generations, and what are their expectations in terms of a professional career? I will explain, using Jos, Martine, Hadifa and Thibaut…

Jos, the baby boomer, is between 54 and 74 years old. He works for power, prestige and money. For 19 year-olds, these goals are way down in 30th position, or even lower. Jos wants to work longer. Human resources will come and explain everything, and what HR says is true. Jos has no issues with the old rules of labour law.

Martine is from Generation X, aged between 39 and 53. She is ambitious, wants a good work-life balance, is socially engaged and sporty. This generation often lives on the verge of a burn-out. They want to combine too many things. In this generation, there are also a lot of job hoppers, unlike Jos whose career has been spent with one employer.

Hadifa is from Generation Y, aged between 24 and 38. Hadifa studies in fits and starts, travels around the world – because she believes she has studied hard, then goes back to study something completely different, then signs a contract in a company that is something completely different again. After barely 6 or 9 months, she starts work in another company, because she thinks it’s time for a new experience.

Thibaut is from Generation Z, aged between 3 and 23. He is the only one of the 4 generations who is a genuine digital native. We have not really understood anything about this generation yet, because they think in a completely different way. They don’t understand why you need to pay for data on a mobile network. That’s like water from a tap for them. They’ll buy 3 pairs of shoes from Zalando and send 2 back. They enjoy themselves and want unbelievable contractual conditions. Like working for two competitors at the same time, because that is enriching.

As a business leader, I need to get all five generations singing from the same hymn sheet. That’s no mean feat…


Recommendation 4: Reorient people through life-long learning.

Take the Faculty of Law as an example. The content is still the same, but thanks to the digital dynamic turning everything upside down, these people are actually not very well prepared. It is not just law, but also psychology, sociology, digital skills, etc., but they are not taught these things yet. Then they arrive at the front line in a world that looks completely different. Unfortunately, the same applies in almost all other educational fields.

So this presupposes that we have to re-educate all those people with suitable skills. If we don’t, there will be a huge wave of redundancies, as the banks recently found out under the banner of digital transformation. In fact, that’s what happens if management doesn’t invest in their staff, or they just want to achieve short-term quarterly results.. the staff get the boot. This is where life-long learning comes in.


Recommendation 5: Update the old rules of the game

Self-employed people and part-time employees do not count towards the FTEs of a company. So part-time and full-time doesn’t matter: it’s one FTE. In spreadsheets, they’ll take out a few people and the calculation will be correct, but they won’t look at what’s behind the FTE. I have parts of my organisation that are more than 90% offshore!

This is an example of what worked for years because flexibility was possible. But that is no longer the case. And so it’s no longer sustainable. We’re not preparing people enough for the future, and yet we’re going to need all talents. We’re not ready for it. We are still in the old system.

It’s the same with the discussion about the concept of overtime. In the CLA, I have to show overtime to inspectors every single time. And yet some people like doing overtime. And now? Then I tell the staff representative that he or she can go and tell my staff that they can’t work overtime any more. It’s not the most sensible idea, if you ask me…

My biggest worry is not the nearly 600,000 jobs that will be unfilled, but the 4.5 million people that are currently working. Because if we don’t keep them in their jobs, the money will dry up. But it won’t work with the old rules of the game.

A good example of the new business culture is Estonia. They drafted a 10-year plan for government, education, industry and digitisation. Look where Estonia is now. If you have a vision and are not afraid to think long term – but over there they don’t have a bureaucracy with different ministers who are responsible for the same thing. If someone says ‘no’, things don’t grind to a halt as they do here…

I worked on the €150 billion strategic investment package for the Prime Minister. What’s included in the package is hardly rocket science. It has five components: education, energy, security, mobility and digital transition. The big question is what the plan is for all these components. If the next government makes a different plan, then we are back to square one.

So the other feather in my cap is digitisation. Since 2012, I have been mandated by the European Institutions in the federal government for digitisation. At least now these issues are on the agenda. Even for lawyers and notaries. 45 per cent of graduating lawyers no longer have the right profile. If you look at it in absolute terms, the job of a lawyer in an AI environment, where every citizen thinks he knows it all himself, what is the point of that job?

Take the car industry for example. You can no longer make a living from building cars. You don’t earn any money from it. Cars are becoming driving data centres. Take the insurance industry too. Why do I have to fill out the blue form with a pen that doesn’t write, and send it with fax that doesn’t work? The two cars involved in an accident already know whose fault it was, with every detail, they can make an assessment themselves and send the car to the garage. You don’t need an insurance broker for that any more. If there even will be any private car ownership that is…


Things are dawning on people, but the clock is ticking.

At least most of the discussion topics are on the table. A few years ago, everyone buried their head in the sand and pretended it didn’t exist. Nothing has fundamentally changed yet, but the situation is dawning on people. But of course, that’s also because the tide is getting higher and higher. could have been But we missed the e-commerce train. Belgium could have been the land of AI. But we missed that train too. We could have been the leading country for 3D. But we missed that train too. Quite a few trains have already left, and we’ve watched them go. Some start-ups are doing OK in Health and Bio, but we also need to have the big players here. If we lose two of the three major petrochemical companies, we have a big problem. You have to have sufficient economic incentives to keep the InBevs and BASFs here, and on the other hand, you need to have sufficient innovative ideas.

Fortunately, all is not yet lost, but it is time for action. All hands on deck. The time is now. The inscription on my gravestone is going to be: “Maybe I didn’t always succeed, but at least I tried”. If we as an older generation are committed to making things better, there is a chance that things will be a little easier for our children. If we mess things up, then I don’t know how they will muddle through. The figures are gargantuan: keeping 4.5 million people in their jobs. If we pull it off, the prize is €95 billion in GDP.

There are already many feasible things we can do now within the confines of our system in Belgium. Now is the time.


Saskia Van Uffelen was (the only woman) nominated by Trends and Kanaal Z as Manager of the Year 2018.


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