The Future of Work
“Look at the sky. We are not alone. The whole universe is friendly to us and conspires only to give the best to those who dream and work.” – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam
We are often told as we grow from children to young adults that the sky is the limit of our ambitions – and that we should dream big dreams, and work hard to achieve them.
But at the same time, the world is changing – and it’s changing how, where and why people work. The future of work in our changing world isn’t something to be worried about – it’s something to prepare for. That’s what you’re going to learn in this post: what experts say the future of work will look like, and how young people like us can shape our futures wisely around future technologies, industries and job opportunities.
Below, we’ll show you:
1. Why work is important – and why humans work
2. Why the future of work isn’t scary – but exciting
3. How and why jobs are in the process of changing
4. How the future of work will create jobs
5. Which skills you’ll need to succeed in these new jobs
You can skip to the section that most interests you, or read the whole piece – it’s packed with research and insights from some global experts in how work will change – and what forces are creating different jobs for the future.
1. Why Humans Work
For a deeper understanding, it’s always good to break a concept down to its component parts – and so to explain the future of work, we should first look at the past of work. It’s actually quite easy to understand, when simplified; so, if you’ve got a little time, let’s take a quick tour through the history of work.
Work, or human labour, has always been essential to provide people with necessities – like food, water, shelter and clothing. That basic fact will never change – well, not until our brains are uploaded into The Matrix, anyhow.
Sadly, crops don’t harvest themselves, roads to transport crops into towns don’t magically appear, and nor does whatever people have used to trade in exchange for food. Food, infrastructure and valuable goods or trading assets are the products of work.
This is where things get really interesting – but you’ll have to turn to another post about the shape of the global economy to appreciate how we got from simple rural trading to the seemingly chaotic urban civilisations we see today. What’s important for this article is that history shows that humans both need and want to work.
We need to work to survive, and our work contributes to a larger system that provides more than just basic sustenance: it provides luxury goods too, like a fancy wristwatch, an ornate wardrobe, or even a styled haircut. Some people work to make these luxury goods, and other people work to earn the money to buy them. Do you see how work is so interlinked, and how we rely on other workers to support our own work?
Meanwhile, psychology also points out that we need to work. We know what you’re thinking: “I’m happy not working, thanks.” But, if you were to go through a year or two years without contributing anything to your family, your friends, or the community, country or world around you, it’s unlikely you’d be very happy or fulfilled. Trust us.
“Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” – Voltaire
So, work might look very different in the future, but it’ll remain with us. It’s highly unlikely that humans will stop working any time soon – and almost certainly not in our lifetimes.
2. Change Has Happened Before
The need to work may not be changing, but we are seeing a profound change in technology – the tools and techniques humans use to increase the efficiency of their work. It’s this change we should aim to understand. There’s a pattern that emerges when we look at the history of technological change: first a technological innovation, followed by an efficiency saving in working processes, resulting in the creation of new ways for humans to spend their time – both in work and in leisure.
In Ancient Egypt, the lightbulb moment was in agriculture. Breakthroughs such as irrigation allowed farmers to grow many more crops. The population could spend less time working in the fields, and more time carving big obelisks or sailing on the River Nile.
In Great Britain, something similar happened during the Industrial Revolution, especially after the invention of the steam engine in the 1700s. The lightbulb was steam power, which enabled machines in factories to do the work of human labourers far more quickly and efficiently. Human weavers of textiles were replaced by machine looms that could mass produce goods.
The result changed the employment landscape forever, and gave rise to a wealthy class of individuals, who indulged a lot in leisure, which Karl Marx would later call the bourgeoisie, and Thorstein Veblen simply called ‘The Leisure Class’.
We don’t have access to what the Egyptians thought about irrigation, but we do know how the world responded to the Industrial Revolution. While it’s true that a small percentage of society got very rich, many people were alarmed, scared, anxious and angry about the changes they saw around them.
This distaste for the changing nature of work has been called ‘automation anxiety’, ‘technopanic’, or ‘technophobia’. It’s accompanied every single technological innovation that’s come our way in the last 300 years at least. It can be quite funny to look at people’s responses to the radio in the 1920s and, later, to the TV in the 1950s.
The evils of TV – Amongst the hundreds of criticisms of TV, Frank Lloyd Wright brilliantly called it “chewing gum for the eyes.” The evils of radio – The inventor of the radio himself, Guglielmo Marconi, was terribly worried about mass broadcasts. He wondered, in 1940: “Have I done the world good, or have I added a menace?” The evils of the telephone – This one’s a good one. In 1877, The New York Times was so fearful of the telephone that one of its writers claimed: “We will soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other,” after using the invention.
The evils of schools – In 1883, a French medical journal argued that schools “exhaust children’s brains and nervous systems with complex multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.”
The evils of books – The Philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm wasn’t a fan of the advent of mass-produced books, claiming in 1680: “The horrible mass of books that keeps growing might lead to a fall back into barbarism.”
The evils of writing – The Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates believed writing would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” Plato agreed, arguing: “writing is a step backward for truth.”
You can see Technophobia in art, too. Mary Shelley’s famous gothic novel Frankenstein scares us with the potential of new technologies to bring back the dead; the monster in the book is stitched together and made living by the technology of electricity – which at the time was something new and mysterious. In movies, you can see fear of robots in Terminator and I, Robot – and even fear of alien technology, in War of the Worlds and Alien.
The writer Douglas Adams put it the most simply. He said that any technology that existed before we were born seems normal, technology developed before we reach middle age is exciting, and technology developed as we grow older becomes scary and suspicious.
As you’ll see, then, it’s probably not wise to be very worried about technology – you’d only be following a pattern of human reactions to inventions that goes back centuries. It’s far wiser to think about the future of technology, and how you can shape your skills to build a career that works with new technologies.
By the way, people who distrust technology are sometimes called ‘Luddites’ – named after a group of people in England who set out to destroy machines and factories during the Industrial Revolution.
3. Digital Revolution
So, now we know not to be terrified by killer robots, artificial intelligence or machine learning, it’s time to examine the changes taking place in today’s world of work. Today, critics agree we’re in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution – and industrial revolutions are characterised by huge, worldwide rearrangements of how humans work.
There’s a really simple rule we can apply to today’s era. Just as steam-powered machines took over the jobs of humans in the Industrial Revolution, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution we’re living in today, jobs that can be automated through digital technology will soon not be performed by humans.
But what is automation? What makes it different and new? It’s a good question, with an easy answer. First, we’ll give the answer – and then we’ll show you how it works with a couple of examples.
Automation allows computers to do jobs once undertaken by humans. Many of these jobs are monotonous or repetitive, but require some ‘thought’ – which is why they couldn’t be performed by machines in previous industrial revolutions.
The ‘thought’ that computers are replicating is driven by breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which are written into very complex algorithms – which only experts in computers can understand.
It’s these algorithms – contained in software and computer programs – that can process data (which just means ‘information’) faster, better and more accurately than humans. Most importantly, they save companies money. That’s why companies are choosing to automate – and studies show that at least 30% of all work currently done by humans can be automated in this way. Here are two examples of that process in action.
A woman works in a carpet factory. It is her job to collect orders from customers, and to write them into the company’s computer system. This information is then sent to the factory workers so they know which carpet to make. It is a repetitive job, and she types hundreds of these orders a week.
Digital technology can automate this process. Customers can enter their orders directly into online forms, which pass directly to the factory workers, through the internet. The ‘middle man’ in this scenario is no longer required.
A man works in a large food shop. His job is to order the correct amount of stock to make sure the shop always has food for customers. He checks each product every day, makes notes, and orders extra food when supplies run low. His job is long, slow and repetitive – and it doesn’t change much as time goes on.
Digital technology can do this man’s job for him. A computer database can keep track of stock delivered to the store. If the store uses a digital cashier system, every time a product is sold, it can be noted on the database. The database can then alert the store when the number of products sold means the stock is running low.
In both of these examples, there are positives and negatives. On the positive side, humans are no longer required to work repetitive and boring jobs which they may not enjoy. On the negative side, what happens to the employees when the store replaces them? Will they be offered a new job, or will they lose their income? That’s what our final two sections addresses.
4. Future Jobs
The carpet factory worker and the food shop employee could find themselves out of a job if their companies automate some of their business processes. That’s scary to some people: they need the money to spend on food and rent for their families.
These people’s feelings shouldn’t be discounted. Imagine being middle-aged and being forced out of your job by a technology you barely understand. Imagine having to face retraining in something new when you have children to care for. And think: where is the wealth saved by automation going?
Some of it is certainly going into the pockets of the super-rich, widening inequality around the world. Three of the richest people in the world have profited from digital technologies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Meanwhile, four of the richest five companies deal with digital technology.
Richest People in the World
1. Jeff Bezos (Amazon)
2. Bill Gates (Microsoft)
3. Warren Buffet (Investor)
4. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook)
5. Armancio Ortega (Zara)
Most Valuable Companies in the World (By Market Cap) 2019
4. Alphabet (Google)
5. Berkshire Hathaway
If you looked at these lists only twenty years ago, you’d find investors, bankers and fund managers as the richest people in the world, and oil companies and banks as the most valuable companies. Technology has completed changed that picture.
But it would be a mistake to see this change as wholly evil. It is inevitable, and cannot be stopped. Psychologists argue that we don’t fear technology itself, we fear the sense of losing control that technology sometimes makes us feel – as with the carpet worker and the food store employee. So – let’s find a way to take back control.
First, it’s important to understand that robots, algorithms and artificial intelligence are not ‘stealing’ our jobs – they’re taking over some of the most boring and unfulfilling jobs, and making space for new, more complex, stimulating and enjoyable ones.
Second, it’s important to be aware that jobs aren’t ‘disappearing’, leaving less work for a growing global population. As certain jobs are replaced with more efficient digital automation, more are created by the very same technologies. The company automating the food store employee’s job require staff, customer service administrators, managers, salespeople, IT specialists, and even cleaners to keep their own office tidy. That company is actually creating jobs, not destroying them.
Third, it’s important, therefore, to learn the key skills that some of the world’s leading businesspeople recommend you to bring into your life to find a job in the new world of work. The future of work is bright with new opportunities in well-paid positions that are not boring or tedious.
We’re young and ambitious and ready to engage with education when we know it’ll help our careers in the future,
so what skills should we focus on?
A little economic logic can help us understand how businesses are changing, too. When a company saves cash, they have three choices.
(1) They take the extra profits, and give them to staff by increasing wages (increasing consumer spending power and improving the economy)
(2) They use the extra profits to reduce the prices of their goods to give them an advantage over competitors (saving consumers money, which means they have more to spend elsewhere, boosting the economy too)
(3) They invest the extra profits in new products, in research and development, or in new parts of the business (growing the business, creating jobs, and investing in the economy)
You see – automation isn’t so bad. To learn lots more about how the economy works, you can take a look at our article on that here.
• Future Skills
So now it’s time for us to look at the most important skills that you can really focus on – in school, at college, at home, and in your free time.
Check out our Handy Internet section to learn some of the best places to learn new skills online.
The biggest tips from careers advisors, business analysts and pretty much everyone connected to the world of work is that your education shouldn’t end: you need to be a lifelong learner. This means remaining curious, interested, and motivated to learn more about the world around you.
Most experts also agree that people will work more than once career in their lives – so part of your lifelong learning will be retraining and up-skilling for a new role in a completely different, exciting new industry that, perhaps, doesn’t even exist right now.
Experts recommend young people engage in the Socratic Method of learning and thinking: Learning not WHAT to think, but HOW to think…
Here are the skills that experts recommend young people like us develop for our future careers:
• Information processing skills – to understand data and patterns
• Creative skills – to think uniquely and artistically
• Analytical skills – to be able to make smart decisions based on data and evidence
• Human skills – communication skills and empathy with others
• Expert knowledge in a niche subject area of your choosing
• Understanding systems – our world is run on systems; understanding them will help your career
• Computer skills – whether coding, fixing, protecting, maintaining, or simply working on a PC
• Care-giving – the population’s getting older, and need carers to keep them safe and happy
• New media literacy – being able to create and share complex media, like animations, sound recordings and digital text
• Adaptability – being able to adapt and change your habits quickly and efficiently
• Curiosity – following your passions and interests into new and exciting emerging jobs
Meanwhile, what are the types of jobs that’ll be emerging in the future, that you should bend your learning towards? Some are obvious – like computer programming and software design. Some are less obvious at first glance – like robotics mechanics, graphic designers, and data analysts.
Here’s a quick list of the most ‘trending’ roles that you may wish to fill in your career:
• Renewable Energy Technicians – those who are trained to maintain and set-up solar and wind energy hardware.
• Statisticians and Data Experts – anyone good with mathematics, numbers, algebra and thinking scientifically
• Software Developers – making the software of the future – with skills in problem-solving coding, and seeing life with a big-picture perspective
• Health and Care Professionals – these roles aren’t ‘new’ or ‘digital’ – but they will be increasingly important, because people are living longer and longer lives
• Digital Content Specialists – online information is increasing by the truck-load – so there’ll be plenty of jobs for writers, designers, illustrators and videographers
• Cybersecurity Experts – to keep websites and businesses safe online, there’ll be increasing need for people – again, with maths skills – to protect from cyber-threats.
• Mechanical and Electrical Engineers – we’re going to see many more robots and electrical machines in the future – and people making and designing them
Finally, a very extensive report by The Future of Employment suggests the following jobs are most at risk of automation:
• Telemarketer – 99% chance of automation
• Loan Officer – 98% chance of automation
• Cashier – 97% chance of automation
• Legal Assistant – 94% chance of automation
• Taxi Driver – 89% chance of automation
• Fast Food Cook – 81% chance of automation
The same report names these jobs as the least likely to be automated within our lifetimes:
• Mental health social worker – 0.3% chance of automation
• Occupational therapists – 0.35% chance of automation
• Dieticians and nutritionists – 0.39% chance of automation
• Doctors and surgeons – 0.42% chance of automation
• Members of religious institutions – 0.81% chance of automation
So, it’s clear that there’s a lot to learn, and a lot to prepare for, in the future of work. If you’ve read through this entire guide, you’ll have learned exactly why the world of work matters, why you need to find a career that will work for you, and how you can slowly gain the skills you need to become a future-facing, exciting candidate for the future jobs emerging today.
Informed Links & Sources
World Economic Forum https://www.weforum.org/projects/future-of-work
International Labour Organization https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/future-of-work/lang–en/index.htm
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) http://www.oecd.org/employment/future-of-work/
The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/26/jobs-future-automation-robots-skills-creative-health