We all know the job for life is dead. Nobody - well nobody except the odd civil servant or EU official - expects to walk into a job at 22, rise through the ranks and wander, happily pensioned off, into the sunset at 65. The nature of the employment contract has changed fundamentally and, in today's knowledge economy, career paths that once curved gently upwards zig-zag all over the place. Individuals are often expected to learn different sets of skills every couple of years rather than slowly accruing a working lifetime's wisdom.
The rewards for those who can adapt to and survive this digital Darwinism are immense - they can name their price - whereas those who fail to pass muster will find themselves increasingly marginalised and irrelevant. One of the main effects of this is a shift in how we view age in companies: older used to mean seniority and experience; youth meant very little. But business views have caught up with the rest of society: the young are now seen as nimble enough to embrace change, while older members of staff are viewed as rigid and inflexible. In some businesses, according to the Employers Forum on Age, 'older workers' (not a compliment) are defined as women over 35 and men over 42, and mature graduates are being turned away at 29.
Although ageism is bad news, it doesn't seem to affect everybody. Some people - Lord Stevenson, for example - are always in demand. What you need to do is ensure that you have the knowledge and skills to guarantee that you are too - in other words, to ageproof your career.
The benefits are obvious. Not only will this bolster your chances of holding on to your present position, but when vacancies arise you will be judged to have the right skills, rather than the wrong age. Moreover, you will have qualities that are attractive to rival employers - handy during annual salary reviews and other confrontations. But this means being open to change. 'We've got to be prepared to accept change, to be flexible,' says Angela Baron, an adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development. 'We need to look constantly at our own development needs.'
This is a sentiment echoed by Peter Maxwell, sales and marketing director at The Leadership Trust. 'Younger people who seem comfortable with change become a threat, but to be able to embrace change is to conquer your fear of it,' he says.
Possibly the most fundamental part of this change is going to be the way you view your own career. Stints at a given company are now more likely to last three years than three decades. So, as America's favourite management guru Tom Peters said, instead of being loyal to your company, perhaps you should try loyalty to your Rolodex (or, nowadays, loyalty to your e-mail address list). You need to network furiously. In many businesses today, networks, not your company, are where opportunities and openings are most likely to come from. If you're working in the information economy then a personal organiser bulging with talented, well-connected people is the most effective way of getting yourself known and talked about by those who matter.
Another key driver of change is technology. 'Older managers must not become uncompetitive in the new networked society,' says Professor Ronald Kaye, dean and director of studies at the Open University Business School (OUBS). 'Old practices of lunches and conferences have been replaced by e-mail and web browsing.' If the comedy boss in the Dilbert cartoons who has his PA print out his e-mails strikes a chord, then you really need to bring yourself up-to-date. Your company may well be prepared to pay for your training: two-thirds of those studying at the OUBS are sponsored by their employer and many businesses will be only too happy to help their staff improve their (nowadays crucial) IT skills. Besides which, technology can be very handy: remember, there are hundreds of great recruitment sites on the web.
It's also worth noting that, although the balance of power might have shifted, the experience of older employees and the cutting-edge knowledge of new recruits usually complement each other.
So explains Mark Strachan, the chairman of gameplay.com, an internet games business: 'I think at the ripe old age of 41 I've got enough experience to know what not to do, but I'm still young enough to be really enthusiastic.
In e-commerce at the moment there are so many new ways of doing things that to some extent you can go by the seat of your pants. But I think it's better to temper this with experience rather than have a company made up solely of 18-year-olds.' As Strachan points out, experience is, after all, why listed companies are encouraged to have non-executive directors on their board.
The flow of information should go both ways, though. If you don't know something - say, you're not totally confident with the net - well, for goodness sake ask. 'Be prepared to be honest and use the knowledge of your people,' says Maxwell. 'A lot of managers don't like to appear ignorant because they see it as an admission of weakness. However, people find it a strength if their manager isn't afraid to ask.'
But it's not enough to be with it; you have to look the part, too. Image is absolutely crucial says Jo Bond, managing director of Right Management, a consultancy that advises on career transition: 'If you want to ageproof yourself, you have to think about how you're coming across to people.
You have to think about the way you dress, your hair, your whole persona.
You've got to look contemporary. If you are walking around in suits that have an '80s cut you are going to look like yesterday's man or woman.'
And it's not just clothes that speak about a person's mindset. 'Make sure you have a laptop on your desk. Get an electronic organiser,' Bond advises. 'If some new project is being launched, make sure you get yourself on the team.'
Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind, though, is that, whatever you're doing, there are others who are trying to do it better, faster and more efficiently. And no matter how much you know, there's someone out there who's just come up with something that's made you ever-so-slightly obsolete. So no matter what stage of your working life you're at, the time to start ageproofing is now. It's never too late - or too early - to begin.
FIVE JOBS THAT AREN'T AGEING WELL
1. Optician: Cheap laser surgery spells the end for specs and contact lenses.
2. Bank clerk: The net means that the high-street bank is about to join the village shop.
3. Estate agents: Viewing online could eliminate the lion's share of property visits.
4. Stock broker: In the wired world, with just a home PC you can trade for next to nothing.
5. Journalist: Download directly the information you want rather than have it rehashed by some hack.
AND FIVE CAREER PATHS WITH A FUTURE
1. Care assistant: We're living longer and getting older and the greying masses can't look after themselves.
2. Knowledge manager: The information economy isn't going to go away - someone's got make sense of it.
3. Organic farmer: Today's consumers want nothing to do with GMOs and put their trust in nobody but the Soil Association.
4. Call-centre operator: There will be no shortage of vacancies for staff for 21st-century sweatshops catering to home shoppers. QVC is just the tip of the iceberg.
5. Fitness trainer: Lycra-clad status symbol or aerobics teacher. The more obese we get, the more your future is safe.