As participants at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos contemplate the “new global context”, the emerging global shifts identified by the Global Strategic Foresight Community (GFSC) can be referenced to provide fresh perspectives on the future of jobs.

In current narratives on the coming era of employment, we often come across fears of a future in which permanent jobs will fade away and machines increasingly perform cognitive jobs in place of people, forcing automation and, as a result, unemployment across the employment spectrum – including high-skilled and white-collar labour. Such scenarios are highlighted by several GSFC members (Francisco Sagasti, Claudia Juech, Jill Wong, Nouriel Roubini).

However, there are other narratives relating to the future of jobs suggested by the members:

A coming age of entrepreneurship: Advances in technology will make self-generated livelihoods increasingly more viable

Francisco Sagasti argues that the future is likely to see “a growing proportion of individual or small-group entrepreneurs among the younger generations, as the ‘zero marginal cost’ and ‘sharing’ economy increases the possibilities for ‘self-generated’ livelihoods”. Julius Gatune demonstrates that we already see signs in Africa that “ICT platforms could … revolutionize the informal economy … both by enabling new business models and by putting traditionally informal activities on a more formal footing” and “opening up opportunities for entrepreneurs to scale up their businesses”.

Retire first, work later? In the future, our work-life duality patterns may change substantially

Kristel Van der Elst suggests that if humans not only live longer but also remain healthy, we might come to rethink the organization of our work lives, perhaps shifting our lifespan view from a “study-then-work-then-retire-then-expire” model to one more flexibly fragmented. We might come to take “free time” moments at other points in life rather than as a block towards the end.

The new jobs robots can’t take: We will soon see a plethora of jobs that currently do not exist

Peter Schwartz argues that today we are in a transitional stage between technological leaps. He says: “current research in areas such as ICT and big data, biological and molecular engineering”, as well as man coming to understand gravity, “will create vast new technologies and whole new industries”. Stefan Hajkowicz sees great potential in the creative-services economy to reduce youth unemployment and poverty, as “future developments in communications technology – from telepresence systems to virtual reality, voice recognition and artificial intelligence – are likely to further expand the creative economy by enabling the evolution of entirely new kinds of creative services”. Trudpert Schelb considers how the increasing demand for individualization ushered by the rise of 3D printing is set to revolutionize the production and distribution of physical goods, thereby facilitating a DIY economy.

Contemplating these alternative, yet plausible, futures is important because it helps us prepare for the changes ahead and allows us to shape the future. For example, if the perspectives outlined above do prove to contain some of the pertinent elements of the future of jobs, many societal systems, such as education, economic/social safety nets and pension systems, will require considerable rethinking. Additionally, efforts towards supporting everyone’s ability to live meaningful lives will necessitate significant increases in entrepreneurship and social innovation.

With such needs in mind, we should begin devising the systems that will support these global shifts and enable them to be a positive improvement for the state of the world.

Read more about the launch of the Global Strategic Foresight Community

Authors: Kristel Van der Elst, Senior Director, Head of Strategic Foresight, World Economic Forum, and Trudi Lang, Director, Strategic Foresight, World Economic Forum

Image: Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s cleaning robot RFS1 is pictured at an office building in Tokyo, August 17, 2007. REUTERS/Toru Hanai