The Future of Work
As seen through 4 prisms
December 18, 2018, Bruno Jacobsen
Jobs. Ever since the very beginning, we've had them. First, our job was to collect food, fend off danger, and pass on our genes. The agricultural revolution brought some stability to this, and we began to specialize in various domains. This led to an increase in trade, and bigger and bigger societies. The advent of the industrial revolution brought to us a new type of society - the modern society, with the factory worker perhaps its most iconic symbol. Then the factory worker gained the company of the office worker. And now change is upon us again.
The Future of Work
In this article, we go through the future of work, through 4 prisms: industry and manufacturing; automation, AI, and robotics; business and value chains; and work and income.
When talking about the future of work, our heads usually turn to the more obvious - how AI, automation, and technology in general, will change the nature of office work.
However, there's more to it than this. We choose to start with industry and manufacturing, a segment going through profound changes, and not always related to technology.
Industry and Manufacturing
Although the hype around 3D printing has quieted down lately, it is still a major current trend. Companies all over use it to prototype, manufacture one-off products, and test various things. As the technology improves, we will be able to do it faster and at bigger scales. This means that, increasingly, more of production and manufacturing can be done locally. Whether it's for small-scale products or large ones, such as entire homes. Local production also means local jobs, and so 3D printing may not only make supply chains "greener," but also bring some jobs back.
Another growing trend is the DIY (do-it-yourself) culture. In other words, working for yourself. From designing (and maybe 3D printing) small objects or remodelling homes to blogging and self-education (with the help of online tools), the DIY culture shows no signs of stopping.
And it goes in hand with different trends - buying locally, sourcing locally, and growing community engagement. The impact of these trends on industry and manufacturing is clear. To attract and retain new customers, companies have to adapt to this new way of a thinking about consumerism. It is no longer enough to provide customers with what they need or want - it's become important to have it done in a way they want (including where).
We can't talk about industry and manufacturing without talking about energy. But energy is a big topic. Global energy consumption has more than doubled in the last 50 years, and this trend will continue. But in the future, fossil fuel energy will almost certainly be surpassed by "green energy." This represents a significant shift in the energy sector, including the distribution, type, and place of work.
With solar energy, electric batteries, wind power, and other sources of energy taking over, more jobs will flock into these areas which require different expertise and skills.
Automation, AI, and Robotics
Automation, AI, robotics, and other such buzzwords can refer to a lot of things. When talking about how they will affect the future of work, it's difficult to keep it concise. The impact will be felt almost literally everywhere.
While not all jobs will be replaced, several will be significantly changed. For instance, take lawyers. While their jobs tend to seem exciting on TV, with the whole ordeal of trials, investigation, and negotiation, much of it is actually routine. From searching for legal documents that are relevant to trials to creating contracts or handling divorce proceedings. These are tasks that are not very difficult for AI to perform, and we will begin to an increasing number of them being automated.
We can also see artificial intelligence beginning to affect journalism. A lot of articles, maybe more than you realize, are already completely written and distributed by artificial intelligence. Many of these include sports reports, earning reports, financial market reports, etc. We're still at the early stages of this: AI is pretty good at creating flawless articles when its contents are highly numerical, or when it's simply reporting some event that has occurred (such as an earthquake) - less good at other types of journalism, such as commentary or investigative journalism. But it's getting there.
Another example pertains to the future of education. There are about 3.2 million public school teachers in the US, and 0.4 million private school teachers. These jobs seem, a priori, pretty secure. After all, education has not changed much in many decades. But with the internet and its mass-scale platforms, that allow content to be distributed to hundreds of millions of people at little cost, we could be in for a revolution.
Traditionally a teacher could teach 1 or 2 topics per lecture (which takes about 1-3 hours) to a group of 50 people. Today, that same teacher can put her content online in the form of a video lecture or lecture notes and have it reach millions of people simultaneously, automating the entire process. Unfortunately, the cut-throat competition experienced online means that only a small fraction of those teachers would actually have large audiences.
There's also an incentive for more and more people to attend these "online universities" instead of attending school. While they still lack the reputation of traditional universities, and likely will for some time still, they have a series of benefits. Students can learn at their own pace, with more immersive material, and they won't graduate with a mountain of debt.
So there's a big question mark on the future of education and teaching, which no doubt will have a profound effect on one of the most subscribed professions in the world.
But to all of the above, we can add others. According to Digital Trends, other professions at risk of being replaced by AI include chefs, financial analysts, customer service assistants, medics, musicians and other articles, and, of course, construction workers. It seems, however, that this list is far from complete.
On the one hand, they will surely open up new industries or fields that we can't quite imagine yet. This will require new skills, expertise and, above all, people.
They will also change the way work is done. We've mentioned in the past how VR is changing several industries, and how it will allow for remote work to become truly remote.
AR will have some of the same benefits. True to its name, it will augment our current reality and our work in various new ways. Nevermind augmented construction helmets, car windshields, and videogames. Think remote surgeons, operating on their patients from a continent across. The future of work will be deeply affected by these trends in AR and VR. How exactly we are still to see.
Then we can talk about big data, which feeds into artificial intelligence. While more and more data is created with each passing minute, much of it is difficult to make sense from.
It has been predicted that we will soon see a shortage of data scientists around the world. The need for more workers with knowledge in data and data analytics is increasing, and will likely make up a good portion of future jobs.
Of course, there's also our good robot friends. Though they are much feared, for they make take our jobs (or... bring about a Terminator-like future), they can also have a more pleasant side. Whether in humanoid forms or not, we may have to accept the possibility we will be working side-by-side in the future. There are still plenty of tasks an AI cannot do well (there are far more things it is bad at than it is good at). So, for now, we are still needed. But we shouldn't be surprised to begin seeing them join us at work (though unfortunately maybe not in a humanoid form). Working together, a robot-human combination is far more effective than either one working alone.
Business and Value Chains
As the technology and social forces change, value chains themselves are also changing. Indeed, the nature of work is changing with them.
With the rise of the platform economy, what it means to have a "job" has had to be redefined. Today, platforms like TaskRabbit of Lyft allow people to make some quick money on the side or, if they choose to, make it their full-time jobs.
Platforms also open up huge opportunities for new products, services, and ultimately jobs. Before car-sharing or crowdsourcing platforms became popular, few would have come up with those ideas. Similarly, the potential for a number of new platforms is out there, and time will tell which will bring about the biggest changes. Nevertheless, these platforms are changing the nature of work. They bring more possibilities and opportunity for all of us, but they also require an entrepreneurial spirit to make use of - something not everyone has developed.
Offshoring, too, has been a hotly debated topic. But we could be seeing some reversal of this, much thanks to technology. Traditionally, offshoring has been linked to low-skill jobs and competitive labour forces. It made sense of offshore if anyone can do this job and people on the other side of the world are willing to do it for 1/10th of what it would cost "here."
But as low-skill jobs become automated, the need for offshoring decreases. If anything, there is a need for "reshoring," as automated manufacturing and production require highly-skilled people to program, operate, and maintain machinery.
And one of the most interesting trends related to business, and especially business management, is the increasing number of the Y-Generation population coming into leadership roles.
The Y-Generation (typically those born in the 80s and 90s) tend to be characterized as being more progressive, preferring flexible working hours, informality, and flat organizations. Whether this is good or bad, we can't say. But we can say it's different. Soon enough, the Y-Generation will be leading the world's organizations. A tech-savvy generation that grew up in a globalized and connected world, they will have a significant influence on companies' strategies, values, and culture.
Work and Income
Finally, we must talk about work and income. We've written extensively on this, in several other blog posts. But if some of the trends above end up resulting, not in more and different jobs, but in much fewer jobs for us, we will need something else. Some have suggested a universal basic income (we talk about it here). Others have suggested a negative income tax (where if you earn below a certain amount, you get supplementing income from the government instead of paying taxes to them). Either way, a future where everyone can work and contribute meaningfully for society is far from guaranteed. It could mean just work. It could mean contributing meaningfully. Or both. But organizations across the board have to consider the implications of these scenarios and plan accordingly.
Today most people believe that to get a job they must have a degree. Or two. But will this still be the case in the future? Today, many organizations such as Google or Facebook would prefer hiring someone with proven programming skills, who perhaps already built some programs or has shown extraordinary skill, than someone who graduated with a computer science degree. It's not that degrees themselves aren't worth much anymore, or won't in the future. But a rapidly-changing world puts more emphasis on skills, previous experience, and on a capacity to deal with people, network, and resolve conflict than it does on a piece of paper. Especially as education starts moving online, and people can learn more, faster, and better. The inherent and perceived value of school or university degrees therefore is shifting.
Finally, on the topic of work still, it would be difficult not to discuss dedication to the company. We've mentioned how the Y-Generation is soon moving into leadership positions. But they have already moved into a lot of lower-level positions. And will continue to do so.
In some countries, especially in white-collar jobs, job-hopping is a growing trend. Companies have difficulties not only attracting great talent, but keeping it. Younger generations spend less time in the same company than their parents did. This presents new challenges for companies, from training to motivating.
But motivation (and dedication at work) isn't a problem of younger generations. In fact, not long ago a low of 15% of German workers reported being dedicated to their work. This may be due to several factors, such as work conditions, misguided reward and incentive systems, poor leadership. Whatever the case, job satisfaction, both to attract and to keep good employees, will continue to be an important topic of discussion. So there is some hope for the future of work (satisfaction).
The Future of Work
In this article, we have gone through the future of work as seen through 4 different prisms. While we can't know for sure what will happen, it's important to keep an eye on trends and developments that will shape its future.
Here at Futures Platform we are committed to helping organizations navigate an uncertain future. All of the trends above, and hundreds more, can be found on our platform. We prepared a "Futures of Work" radar available for free, where we help make sense of the trends and phenomena in this area. Check it out here.