The future of work is at the heart of every major socio-economic-political debate raging around the world today. Building walls across borders; migrants landing on the beaches of southern Europe; surveillance policies in Xinjiang; hard or soft Brexit; taxi services in Paris; and the concentration of wealth among the 1% are all considerations that reveal the nature and distribution of work.
Power comes from work, and from the money it generates. From the absence of work stems powerlessness. This is particularly salient in 2019, as people understand that work is changing more quickly than ever before. The arguments are so fierce because the stakes are so high.
The biggest reason why work is changing so quickly? Technology. A new digital landscape has opened up, of brilliant people solving unimaginably hard problems using tools that are improving by the day. Many people are excited and energized by what’s emerging. But many aren’t. A lot of people are frightened that what little grip they had on the economic ladder is about to slip.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is already here
Everyone is under pressure to outrun the machine. Each us must figure out what to do when machines do everything. Some will stay and fight, others will run. Some will tell the machines what to do, others will be happy to take orders. Some will meekly submit, others will violently rebel.
The prevailing sentiment amid all this uncertainty? That human work is going away - that we’re all doomed. Study after study, and most famously Oxford University’s 2013 report, suggest that almost half of US employment is at risk of machine-based replacement. These papers convey a bleak view of a post-work world. To paraphrase an old chestnut, if you’re not terrified, you’re not adequately informed.
In 1974, the British politician Keith Joseph said: “for 30 years we have tried to buy social peace at the expense of economic efficiency; predictably, we have got the worst of all worlds, inefficiency, hence poor performance and hence social discontents”.
Fast forward to 2019, and after 45 years of broad emphasis in the Western world on economic efficiency, we have reached a point where social discontent is again one of the most pressing issues facing private and public sector leaders.
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There is little argument that technology has played a role in the widening gulf between the winners and the runners-up. This is apparent to all but the most ideological. Those who have kept abreast of the rise of automation, arbitrage and the Plimsoll line of economic efficiency, have done well over the last few decades. Those who have mastered the new means of production have done fabulously well. Conversely, those who have not kept pace have seen their share of the spoils evaporate. Therefore, placing these means of production in the hands of ever more people is the surest route to ensuring both the economic efficiency and social harmony that is important to elites and non-elites alike.
Of course, the (unintended) irony is that the new means of production are literally in everyone’s hands right now. With a smartphone, a teenager in Zambia can trade Yeezys, a semi-retired senior in Kalamazoo can consult with a client in Sacramento, and a stay-at-home mother in Zürich can sell the custom jewellery she makes while Junior is taking his afternoon nap. Spreading more of these types of opportunities - and the ability to create them, as much as use them - into more people’s hands will address the needs of wealth creation and wealth distribution.
The fact that these types of opportunities are proliferating is core to our view that there is a future for human work. In fact, our foundational belief is that human imagination and ingenuity will be the source of human work ad infinitum. Of course the work we do will be different in the future, but a world where all the work is done by machines is a recurring, wrong-headed fantasy that surfaces at moments of great technological change.
The jobs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution
How different will they be? In our reports “21 Jobs of the Future” and “21 More Jobs of the Future”, we have laid out some of the types of work we see emerging over the next 10 years. These new jobs range from the low-tech and semi-obvious, such as a Walker/Talker, to the very high-tech and hard-to-fathom, such as a Genetic Diversity Officer.
Some of the jobs of the future will be highly technical, but some won’t. Some are already observable in the marketplace (if you squint), while some are years away from coming to fruition. Some will propel a career for 60 years (the length of time most of us will soon be working) while others will be “gigs” that come and go.
In considering the work of the future, we have set out the Four E’s of Skills:
Some human skills have existed since our very beginning: burping a baby; opposing a thumb; leveraging sticks and stones and fire; cooperating within a group; adapting. No matter how brilliant our technologies become, these human skills, along with many others, will be of value through eternity.
Although the Bushmen of the Kalahari didn’t have much call to sell things, the skill of selling has always been important. Other such enduring abilities - being empathetic, trusting, helping, imagining, creating, striving - will always be needed. Enduring skills are central to jobs of the future.
New skills in the future relate to the complexity, density and speed of work. Are you skilled enough to work with a 315mb Excel spreadsheet? Can you handle the sensory overload of a drone virtual cockpit? Can you assess which Common Vulnerability Score System action you should take first - in the next 15 seconds - before the cyber perimeter is breached? Fast-twitch/no-blink/e-game-honed/multi-tasking candidates apply here.
Invariably, this year’s cutting-edge skill becomes next year’s commonplace pre-requisite. Twenty years ago, consulting firms hired large teams of slide deck designers. Nowadays, a graduate new hire that couldn’t put together a presentation on the first day of their job would be looked at in shock. A marketing manager candidate without a social media presence would not be called back. The list of eroding skills is getting longer by the day, and many of them relate to technology. There’s not much need for loading film or setting up UUCP networks nowadays. If too many of your skills are on the eroding list, it could be time for a reboot.
The future of work is being reworked
Today’s fear and uncertainty are the results of a world changing at an unprecedented speed, and of a large group of people (not necessarily always older people) who are ageing out of the workforce. If you’ve made a living, raised a family and built an identity from being an autoworker or an accountant or a humanities professor, then becoming an algorithm bias auditor (one of the new jobs in our reports) may seem plain wrong.
This is natural and understandable, but most importantly - particularly if you are a senior organizational leader - this is a mistake. The world has always changed and always will. The jobs we do have always changed and always will.
In Jacob Bronowski’s 1973 classic The Ascent of Man, he wrote: “We are all afraid - for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man, every civilization, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do. The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man”.
This is still the great challenge of our time: to engage with what we have set ourselves to do, and to engage with the future.