The Future of Work: A Must Read!

This article comes from Futurist Magazine, which is the center piece publication of the World Future Society (WFS), an organization to which I have belonged for many years. Please read the whole article, or least the summary below.

Some of what is discussed here is already in motion. Some is yet to come. Ashtabula County needs to absorb these ideas. The county’s future strategy for workforce development, talent attraction and retention, and educational advancement must contain these ideas. Watch for a follow-up article series here on the forum discussing “how” we can capitalize on these trends.

By the way, there is significant resistance to many of the ideas in this article because these ideas are upsetting apple carts in various industries, including education. Have courage! Have heart! Start by asking yourself how these trends will impact your job, career, business, school, nonprofit, or government agency.

Ask yourself this question: What is the set of “apps” that could replace your job as it is currently configured in the next five (5) years?

Article Summary: Trends Altering the Workplace Landscape

Among the many broad trends affecting the future workplace and workers are:

  • More workplace flexibility will be demanded by new highly skilled workers, but most workers will also accept the need to work longer total hours.
  • The “workplace” for any given job is likely to continue to spread over multiple time zones or continents, with workers connecting through a growing range of media channels.
  • There will be a greater premium placed on knowledge workers who ask constructive questions concerning an employer’s mission, as well as their customers, market values, desired results, and evolving marketing and business plans.
  • Workers and managers will focus more on simplifying workloads versus just getting it all done, which reduces the risk of missing critical innovation opportunities.
  • Managers will promote health and wellness programs that focus on helping workers quit smoking, lose weight, or deal with depression, because healthy employees are more productive and miss fewer days because of poor health.
  • Employers will embrace less-expensive employee recruiting through social networks (this reached 94% of employers this last year, reports And hirers are relying more on critical thinking skills tests like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, rather than on just college grades and degrees to assess candidates.
  • More than 75% of U.S. employees are almost continuously looking for work while employed, and they hold nearly a dozen different jobs on average before age 35.
  • Employers are using personal reputation (strong track records) to make hiring decisions and 75% of jobseekers are using company “brand” in the same way, even accepting a lower salary to work with a desired firm.
  • Approximately one-third of Americans in the workforce (17 million workers) are freelance contractors and consultants. This means more people working from home without employer-sponsored health-care benefits.
  • And 30% of U.S. workers are on flextime when working from home (or other locations) two to three days a week. As well, some studies have found increased productivity of as much as 15%–20% for these flextime workers.

Reprint of Full Article: Trends at Work: An Overview of Tomorrow’s Employment Ecosystem, By Timothy Mack

Where will work be in the future? And where will workers be? The economic, social, and technological landscape is shifting rapidly. Here are some of the major trends altering the future workplace.

When we think about the future of work, the first thing we usually want to know is what kinds of jobs will be available, how many, how much they’ll pay, and what we have to do to prepare for them. We then consult resources like the official reports regularly generated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) concerning job categories that are undergoing change, in terms of both the numbers of workers within each category and what they’ll do.

For example, the current BLS projections for the years 2012 to 2022 show likely growth for the categories of network systems and data communications analysts, personal and home-care aides (also health-care industry human resources, marketing, etc.), computer software engineers (high end), and veterinary technicians (assistants).

More job openings are also expected for nurses, health-care technicians and administrators, massage and yoga practitioners, car service and shoe repair personnel, as well as retail salespeople, administrative aides, customer relations, janitorial services, and teaching assistants.

The BLS expects that the fastest-growing job categories of all will include organizational psychologists, interpreters, occupational therapists, and genetic counselors. Finally, not surprisingly, the highest-paying jobs in the next decade include very-high-skilled medical specialists: oral surgeons, obstetricians, orthodontists, and pediatricians.

These projections are not at all surprising; in fact, they are rather similar to those of past BLS reports. However, the depiction of job growth as a “no surprises” straight line does not necessarily forecast what may actually happen in the years ahead. While the fields of health and education have long-been economic bulwarks in both lean and prosperous times, new technologies are rapidly being introduced in many sectors, especially those sectors where industries are facing special challenges or undergoing dramatic change.

How New Jobs Are Created

Let us first consider some of the dynamics guiding the creation of new jobs. One guiding process is simplification. Functions often get combined because this proves more effective or efficient, such as when new needs arise, when new technologies enable combining these functions, or when new problems develop that demand creative solutions. This dynamic is a reflection of the creative side of the economy, and this creative side is what will drive much of job growth in the twenty-first century.

One approach to clarifying this rather complex process is to examine the new trends affecting the workplace in the United States. New social dynamics can drive new product development, thus building new markets and creating new jobs. For example:

  • Increasing corporate and government surveillance is likely to stimulate more privacy products.
  • Widening income gaps may lead to a growing security industry, as the “haves” protect their holdings.
  • The sheer abundance of identical products is raising the perceived value of handcrafted items.
  • New technological capabilities are making augmented reality a viable alternative for many (boosting wearable computing tools and personalized learning markets).
  • Information overload is driving many to consider adopting new lifestyles that offer more chances for solitude and simplicity.
  • Sleep psychology is enabling an industry of sleep-enhancing products.
  • Communications technology acceleration is stimulating the growth of digital agents, or buyer bots, on the Internet.

Yet, even driverless cars, teacherless schools, and pilotless planes will still need maintenance (so, ground crew, mechanics, cleaners, and similar services will not disappear).

Re-visioning New Job Development

In addition to solving new problems—including those created by new technologies—other dynamics also affect the future workforce, careers, and job creation. For example, as previously discussed in THE FUTURIST, jobretrofitting will involve adding new parts to older tasks or moving them to new settings, such as into outer space—e.g., lunar waste management. Existing job descriptions are shifting and blending to match new conditions— e.g., an environmental health nurse would address personal health plus the environment; an “agri-restaurateur” would blend farming plus hospitality, cooking, and food service. (See “70 Jobs for 2030,” January-February 2011.)

According to McKinsey & Company, 85% of new jobs involving knowledge work also require new problem solving and strategic skills. Accordingly, another approach to foreseeing the shape of tomorrow’s workforce is to evaluate what abilities will be needed to meet the challenges of the future. These may well include creativity, analytical problem solving, teamwork and collegiality, enhanced mental flexibility, and increased decision speed, combined with the ability to test and validate both complex assumptions and interactive dynamics.

New tools will also be needed to cope with problems created by social and professional fragmentation and dysfunction, such as navigation through increasing complexity, improved pattern recognition, crisis resolution, communications skills, self-directed learning, and cyberliteracy.

According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, no more than 10% of the individuals in a typical organization or commercial enterprise today possess the ability to look beyond existing rules and goals to create new directions. Therefore, twenty-first-century managers seeking high-performing employees will value:

  • Intelligence more than mere experience.
  • Commitment and loyalty to organization and task ownership.
  • Work ethic, including a desire to lead.
  • Personal integrity—particularly when facing difficult ethical dilemmas.
  • Teamwork and likability—smart, hard-working people who like to work with other smart, hard-working people.

Technological Unemployment

While it has long been economic gospel that innovation would always find new ways to employ workers faster than they were rendered obsolete by automation, it is not clear that this will continue very far into the twenty-first century. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers pegs the unemployment rate a decade from now at one in seven, as technology finally begins to be recognized as a permanent substitute for human labor, even in white-collar professions like accountancy, legal work, and technical writing. White-collar automation could ultimately take over some 47% of all white-collar job categories, Summers has warned.

Since the Industrial Revolution first began, new jobs were always being created even as old jobs were being done away with or drastically changed. However, while both the highly skilled (such as lawyers and doctors) and the largely unskilled (such as farmhands, dockworkers, and manual laborers) tended to benefit from these newly created jobs, those workers with middle-range skill sets did not. Like the hand weavers once thrown out of work by steam-powered looms, mid-level managers and accountants are facing the same sort of risks today.

Work automation today isn’t just about efficiently repeating standardized tasks. And patterns of implementation of automation vary by industry, country, and economic sector. For example, in Japan, robotics are likely to be at the center of new manufacturing, but in India, human labor continues to hold its own, as it is still relatively inexpensive.

This shuffling among new technologies and potential business responses is what sets the pace for social change. As The Economist has pointed out, 10 years ago no one believed that self-driven cars would ever be viable, let alone at the verge of commercialization.

Computers will soon be able to perform detailed image processing on X rays, text-mine legal materials, and turn out fault-free analyses of tax forms by breaking these dauntingly complex cognitive tasks into smaller and smaller task units.

While automation has often been said to help workers rather than replace them, surely one of the first markets for self-driving cars will be the taxi-cab industry. In fact, taxis have already been on the receiving end of a disruptive technology: Uber’s ride-sharing app, which allows users to summon others when they need a ride, thus disrupting the already-in-place taxi-management system. Strikes, aggressive regulation, and even legislation have all been responses to competition perceived as unfair throughout Europe and the United States.

“Unfair competition” is also on the way from machine analysis, which is becoming sophisticated enough in such areas as text-mining legal documents that it could soon surpass the abilities of paralegals or other skilled humans. This proficiency is a matter not just of speed, accuracy, and cost, but also of the ability to critically assess logical relationships and suggest successful legal strategies—and then present those assessments in innovative graphic formats that laypersons can easily grasp.

Some work functions, such as fast-food service, are not likely to be cost-effective to automate. Moreover, the ad hoc and interactive nature of a burrito production line like at Chipotle Mexican Grill (where specific customer preferences require a customized response and worker agility) could flabbergast an automated system or else forcibly streamline the process to the point of alienating consumers.

Another thing to consider is that the push for increasing the minimum wage could reduce the availability of job opportunities for low-skilled or language-challenged workers nationwide, as such regulation may push smaller businesses out of that market.

Technologies in the Tool Kits

Mobile media at work is becoming the primary versus secondary worker network, so employers will need to support complete interconnectivity. “Gen Mobile” is a behavioral demographic with a preference for nontraditional work hours, flexible work locations, and Internet connectivity. These items may at times be traded off against premium salary levels in job negotiations.

BYOD (bring your own device) policies are expanding distributed-core communications architectures, with sync and share files as the base. Of course, the challenge here is to successfully walk the productivity line between not enough connectivity and much too much.

While the selection and hiring of personnel still remains an art rather than a science, there has been some progress in quantifying (and thus potentially automating) the process for domains such as open-source programming. The growing use of “engines of meaning” in human resources and other areas will be driven by big data analysis and ongoing improvements in AI capabilities—and add to downsizing in another white-collar area.

Transformation of Travel and Meetings Industry

One of the most wide-reaching influences on the future of work worldwide is the business travel and meeting industry. Not only a powerhouse behind business hiring and project negotiations, the industry also offers a framework for training and business-practice benchmarking globally.

In 2013, global business travel surpassed 432 million trips, with business being conducted in hotel rooms, lounges, lobbies, meeting rooms, conference breakout sessions, and other impromptu/informal settings. This includes interactive research meetings, where audiences are polled electronically on issues, values, and preferences. In addition, sessions are increasingly being simulcast globally and locally, so interactivity and attendance at sessions can run in parallel.

A growing challenge for business conferences is convincing employers of the return on investment from live meeting attendance and how it is possible to partner with both on-site and remote attendees at the same conference to achieve business goals. And as the ease and reliability of international connectivity increases, the need to provide value for live attendees coming from further away at greater expense also increases.

Meeting managers can do this by better understanding business training and ways to maximize the effectiveness of the learning experience offered by conferences and meetings. Strategies include:

  • Understanding neuroscience and how we learn—expanding the range of delivery systems at conference—repetition and skill-building (Maker Faire model) activities.
  • Discerning how to effectively move from knowledge to learning, and thus avoid overloading an audience with information beyond the point where they can process and assimilate it. Attendees at meetings are often stressed by this massive overload of new information and tend to “zone out,” because their brains can’t digest it all. One idea is to avoid 7 a.m. sessions, but have more evening sessions and networking events at other times of day, when greater effectiveness is possible.
  • Enhancing the engagement of all the senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch) and maximizing the use of more flexible, open-space organizing approaches.
  • Encouraging person-to-person collaboration and supporting creative gamification activities (interactive content that encourages engagement) and “hackathons,” such as problem-solving exercises and the building of new solutions for existing problems.

Of course, the biggest transformative technology in the business meeting world is a potentially very disruptive one, that of 3-D holographic imaging. In the United States, Cisco Systems has had a TelePresence product in the marketplace since 2013. Straightforward videoconferencing includes a clear sense of watching long-distance participants on a screen, but Cisco TelePresence provides both the sense of “in-the-same-room” participation and the opportunity for long-distance third parties to observe this holographic interaction as if it were a conventional meeting. Now Microsoft, which has been working on a competitive technology for decades, is utilizing a Skype base for its Viewpoint product, now nearing beta development.

It is not clear how soon either technology will broadly affect the world of work, however. There will be some body-language data recorded that could be mined for meaning, but more-complex electronic opportunities for mutual persuasion and influence that rival face-to-face encounters are not likely to be competitive for some time.

Shifting Markets and Jobs within Those Markets

The transformation of markets has been a major impact of new communications technology, and one significant impact has been the growth of prosumers—individuals and groups who are both producers and consumers. For example, the DIY “maker” movement is being accelerated by rapidly expanding 3-D/4-D printing (the latter incorporates interactive features in the final product that continue to increase their utility after printing).

When imagining a future marketplace and future customers, don’t forget that customers may not be locally or even nationally based. The globe is now everyone’s backyard, which drives a whole new set of logistics (outreach and delivery) and imposes new values, shaped by the number of different cultures one must now work with.

The diversity of both domestic and overseas markets is increasing and becoming easier to track, which means there will be a need to develop multiple marketing channels to more effectively address different languages, customs, education, income, etc. (and all the job positions thus created).

Change is ravaging the retail industry: change in how people shop (mobile point of sale), and change in how people congregate (disappearance of the mall and the mall rat). The Internet offers user-friendly systems that allow customers to search and select products, handle sale and distribution (for pick up or delivery to store or home) from their armchairs or offices.

This has led to the global decline of the shopping mall—transforming the shopping experience and the lives of those who worked there. Shopping center vacancies have almost doubled since 2006—some with vacancies above 40% and many retail centers approaching failure. The causes of this retail failure include the global recession, the new ways consumers use technology to shop, and facility overexpansion alongside the U.S. housing boom. The fact that failing shopping centers have the lower rents often leads marginal businesses to “fail together,” while the strongest tenants consolidate in better locations.

To combat these challenges, employment strategists (including employers, workers, and policy makers) will need imagination, new communities and networks, and new communications strategies. This will require thinking creatively, and people are still ahead of artificial intelligence in that department.

Workplace Demographics

One workforce group where changes are proving to be dramatic and lasting is among those over age 55. In 2012, only Japan reported 30% or more of its citizens older than 55 years of age, but by 2030, there will be 64 such countries in that category (the United States alone will have 34%, and Europe will be the oldest region with 36%).

Health remains the top reason for early retirement, but 39% leave for more leisure. Most are also looking for new solutions to protect against rising health-care costs, including the cost of long-term care.

In contrast to previous Sunbelt migrations in the United States, retirement-in-place is growing much more common, even in Snowbelt areas. The end of the boomer “boom” in 2030 already suggests that a slowdown of economic growth may be coming.

Meanwhile, another workforce cohort of concern are the many millennials who have not gone on to college. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that employed millennial-age (now 25–32 years old) high-school graduates were earning an average of $18,000 less annually than college graduates in the same age group. As well, they were four times more likely to be unemployed (12%) and three times more likely to live below the poverty line (22%).

In contrast, average retirement-age workers now work 4.2 years past their projected retirement date, and almost 70% consider seeking employment of some kind after officially retiring. This can include flex-retirementand volunteering in order to use one’s life skills to assist nonprofits.

Certainly a big change is coming in Social Security. The twentieth-century Social Security model was built on an assumption of 150 workers for each retiree. By 2030, we should expect that ratio in the United States to be down to two workers for each retiree. That definitely means significant policy change, as millennials will represent 30% of the electorate by 2030—and 12% unemployment for those with only a high-school diploma portends civic discontent. Given the fact that there will be 80 million millennials in the United States by 2020, they will be a political force to be reckoned with.

The postretirement job market will require successful candidates to focus on their personal core competencies, especially among those re-careering beyond age 55. Besides the growth of peer-to-peer services from the elderly to the elderly, there is also the significant growth potential in collateral markets, including construction of new service facilities (e.g., community, assisted-living, and nursing homes). In addition, smart-home tech (health monitoring, security, connectivity) also brings with it positions in managing, installing, and repairing the hardware and software to run a smart home, as these collateral industries grow.

Beyond the Workplace Horizon

We have considered a number of less-conventional futures for the world of work, but only skimmed the truly adventuresome, such as the eventual impact of 3-D printing (additive manufacturing). Will it become a veritable horn of plenty, which could supply all human wants and thus nullify the need to “work to live”? While the physical and economic specifics shaping this “Black Swan” outcome are yet unclear, cultural and values dynamics have the potential to change the way we see work in the near future.

Many boomer retirees appear to be moving away from the idea of “working for money alone” (or at all). An increasing number of retirees aim to provide value to society as volunteers without being rewarded in a traditional manner. In contrast, many high-school-graduate millennials agree that work and the identity it provides may not be at the center of personal or social life, often seeing work as “just a job to get by” (42% on the Pew survey).

As the manner in which individuals and their demographic cohorts view the world of work changes, and as social values evolve, these shifts in attitude and action shape the future of work just as much as technology and economic forces. The future has always been the outcome of a broad range of interactive factors, and shifts in attitude drive human behavior as much or more than automation or recessions.

About the Author

Timothy C. Mack is the former president of the World Future Society (2004–2014) and executive editor of World Future Review. His previous article for THE FUTURIST, “Privacy and the Surveillance Explosion,” was published in January-February 2014.

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