The Washington Workforce Board published its Future of Work report in December 2019, just as COVID-19 was spreading into the United States. I served as Co-Manager of the Future of Work Project. Little did we know that the Pandemic would throw the future of work right into our present-day laps. In this short article, I want to flag some key issues to track as the nature of work shifts around us.
One important issue is “how to manage our fear”. When the term “future of work” is used, most think of automation, robots and subsequent job loss or other “negative” outcomes of advancing technology. This perspective primarily results from the negativity that popular (and often uninformed) media promote today to garner readers and views. We must go beyond the headlines to understand what is really happening so that we can make informed choices about our work, jobs, careers and callings. For example, one positive implication of automation is to remove the boring and mundane aspects from our jobs in order to focus on the more “human-enhancing” aspects of work.
This is not to say that fear is unwarranted. A major eye opener in the future of work discussion was a 2013 report that broke down a wide range of jobs into their component tasks. It predicted that something like 47% of jobs examined could be “automated”. Affected jobs included everything from assembly workers to health care workers to software programmers to teachers. This study really woke people up to the fact that much of what constituted their work could be done by computer programs or robots, even among white collar “knowledge” workers. It was not a prediction but a demonstration of how advanced technology, robotics and big data are already being threaded together in ways that can potentially threaten many jobs.
How Fast will Change Come?
A second and related issue is knowing how quickly the nature of work is changing. One of the difficulties of knowing when we have arrived at the future of work is that events occur “randomly” and invisibly on a day-to-day basis, but which nevertheless lead over time to significant change. When a business in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Minnesota, Colorado and Texas installs robots to augment an assembly line, for example, workers are not always laid off in masses and all at once. Generally, smaller numbers of workers are impacted at any one time. But as this same activity occurs in many businesses across a number of states over a several year period, a trend of layoffs becomes apparent.
One thing we can tell today: the venture capital, private equity and investing news makes clear that hundreds of billions of dollars have been and are being invested in advanced technology by major players around the world. They expect a return on their investment. To date, AI and other ML based technologies have not yielded a return close to expectations. The wisdom of such investment is another uncertainty that only time will reveal. It does seem safe to predict, however, that combined with other advanced technologies, AI-infused businesses will be everywhere within ten years.
Will Adequate New Jobs Appear?
A third issue is what is happening on the supply side of the equation in the form of the creation of new jobs. Put another way: will there be sufficient new jobs and sufficient time for displaced workers to retrain in them without falling into a permanent state of unemployment? This, too, is likely to take a good deal longer to reveal itself.
An example of such jobs we hear related to the future of work are jobs in the “gig economy”. This term has arisen in response to the explosion of various work mediation platforms, from Uber and DoorDash to Convoy and Taskrabbit. These platforms have allowed people of all ages and walks of life to supplement their income or in many cases, use these platforms for full time work.
On the flip side, these types of employment arrangements are non-traditional in that they do not include health benefits, a 401k plan or other items many full-time workers are used to. At the same time, like AI, machine learning and robots, the gig economy is not going away and will in fact, like AI, keep growing for many “good” reasons. The key for gig workers and gig employers is finding creative and effective ways to offer benefits that are affordable and still provide for employment flexibility.
Do We Get a Say in the Matter?
Clearly, advanced technology is a major driver of the future of work. However, there is no longer a consensus about the need or desire to adopt ever-advancing technology. The implications of how easily we have given away our personal and private information in a trade for free shipping, the ability to post video and other so-called conveniences are becoming more obvious. We now live in a virtual “surveillance state” where we are constantly tracked online, by traffic cameras, on streets, in stores, in public spaces, etc.
As awareness grows of how rapidly technology is changing our lives in ways we come to dislike, consumers and the politicians they elect may begin to demand a future dictated by forces other than market capitalism. This already seems to be happening around calls for limits on facial surveillance, algorithmic-based social decisionmaking, and the marketing-dominating structures of Big Tech. If a major imbalance between jobs lost and jobs gained due to technology becomes obvious and apparent, such demands are likely to extend to unlimited work replacement.
A current example of a change in work practice dictated by a non-market force (COVID 19) that was less anticipated before the Pandemic is remote work. This is a popular trend for a significant class of workers and one that is allowing a whole rethinking of the primacy of work in our lives. While remote work currently seems mainly to be the province of well-paid knowledge workers, there is clearly a movement afoot that is putting life and family before work and paycheck chasing. Even if presently limited to those who have the personal means to make choices, it could serve as an example for a redeployment of societal resources down the line if broader benefits to society from such flexibility in work location become apparent
But whether such benefits will emerge is an open question. Major companies have produced research on the impact of remote work and remote working and it is clearly a mixed bag. The “water cooler” factor and impromptu brainstorming have been lost while many workers also report higher levels of productivity, fewer distractions and good collaboration.
Even as the Pandemic has been hugely painful for many, it also has fostered consideration of a wider range of choices in life. For those of us of faith, the pandemic and its impact has been both challenging and a huge opportunity. It has been a time for reflection and for reliance upon our Creator, sacred texts, prayer, family and other “relics” of bygone days that many had lost in our post-modern, digitally driven world.
For the future of work to be something other than what we have experienced in our working lives to date, we must be more intentional about our life’s purpose and help others to do the same. This is a time when more of us need help in our lives and many of us are able to contribute in unique ways. Using AI and advanced technology to help us solve big problems and further develop our humanity is the task in front of us.
In short, there is reason to believe that the future of work is ours to form if we are willing to think differently, get out of our comfort zones, come together, and be very intentional about how we use the powerful tech tools in our grasp.