The Future of Work: It’s Already Here… And Not As Scary As You Think

I recently had the opportunity to speak at the Singularity University Summit in San Francisco on The Future of Work. After months of research on the topic, reading dozens of books and articles on AI, robotics, and economics, I came to a simple conclusion: the future of work is already here. And we all have to deal with it.

The Future of Work: Why Now?

The phrase “Future of Work,” has become a buzz word. (I found 48 million Google hits on the phrase.) There are are suddenly hundreds of conferences, books, and articles on the topic, covering everything from artificial intelligence to robotics to income inequality and contingent labor.

The reason for the interest is simple: we are in an economic cycle where jobs, as we know them, are rapidly changing.  In fact, I’d venture to say we are reaching a time when jobs, as we know them, are going away. Here are just a few of the changes:

  • Today, driven by tremendous transparency in the job market, we change jobs often. The average baby boomer will be looking for a job 11.7. times in his or her career (BLS study) and Millennials change jobs every two years or less.
  • Many of us now work on a contingent basis. Nearly 40% of US workers are now contingent and platforms like Uber, TaskRabbit, and many others have made contingent work easier than ever.
  • Technology is automating work an unprecedented rate, as artificial intelligence, sensors, and robotics become mainstream. China is acquiring 160,000 robots just this year. Every week I read an article about potential job loss from driverless cars and trucks, for example.
  • The structure of organizations is under attack, changing the nature of work in companies. 92% of CHROs and CEOs tell us they believe their structure must change, and most are looking at ways to flatten the hierarchy, make jobs more dynamic, and further leverage contingent and contract labor.
  • Income inequality, a major topic in our political debate, has become an underlying problem. How do policy makers encourage businesses to provide well paying jobs and benefits in the light of automation, contingent work, and restructuring of companies?

The essence of the shift is a simple but big idea: the idea of a “job,” with all its protected artifacts like a job title, level, and job description, is starting to go away. What is its replacement? People being hired to “do work,” get a project done, lead a team, and be ready to move on as the business needs change.

Let me break the Future of Work into three simple parts:

  1. First the personal impact: why we work, how work fits into our life, how our careers progress, how we stay current in our skills and capabilities, and how work gives us meaning and purpose.
  2. Second, the organizational impact: what are jobs, what roles do people vs. machines play, how are organizations set up, how do we leverage contingent workers, and how do companies redefine jobs as software and robotics become more powerful.
  3. Third, the societal impact:  how do we educate and prepare people for work, how do we transition people when jobs change, how do we support policies for minimum wage, immigration, and work standards, and how do we fix economic problems like income inequality and unemployment.

Today all these issues are under debate.  Let’s discuss them one at a time.

The Personal Side of The Future of Work

On the personal side, work has become dynamic, disruptive, and overwhelming. Thanks to the relentless onslaught of messages and technologies we have at work (and at home), 2/3 of organizations tell us their employees are overwhelmed. Today people look at their phones 8 billion times a day, we have a shorter attention span than a goldfish (Microsoft research), and we don’t take enough vacation.  (The average vacation in the US has dropped from 20.3 days to 16.2 days since 1998).

And to make it worse, between Twitter, Skype, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Slack, Facebook, Gmail, and Outlook there seem to be a never-ending number of ways people can reach us. The barriers between “work” and “life” have gone away, and we have all become addicted to all the noise (Google finds 85,000 articles citing “phone addiction.”)

overwhelmed

Fig 1:  The Overwhelmed Employee

Responding to this challenge, a massive industry of books, videos, classes, and websites has appeared – all focused on helping us manage our lives. We now have tools to help us relax and focus, programs to help us sleep, monitors to keep track of exercise, and a myriad of articles about exercise, nutrition, and super foods. The disciplines of psychology, neuroscience,  human performance, and yoga have come together and we are all become “quantified.”

While all this is hard on us personally, the bigger problem is that our productivity is not going up. As the chart below shows, today’s particular wave of technology (since the birth of the iPhone) has provided the lowest productivity improvement of any technology era. (This includes the invention of indoor plumbing, electricity, the automobile, and the mainframe computer). So work has not gotten “easier.”

Economists are quite worried about this (Read “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” by Robert Gordon for more), because productivity decline reduces income growth, economic growth, and long term improvements in standard of living.

productivity

Fig 2:  US productivity growth since 2006 (BLS)

Why this productivity gap? Many economists believe the way we measure productivity is out of date, but I think its pretty clear. We really aren’t more productive, we just feel like we are. We live in a world where constant messaging distracts us, we are always looking for ways to share what we’ve done, and we all suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) when a new message arrives. The companies selling these tools make money on “user engagement,” so they’ve built game mechanics which are quite advanced. Consider the power of the red dot which tells you how many messages you have: can you really stop yourself from clicking on it?

The Change in Our Careers

Not only is work more dynamic and often overwhelming, the way we manage careers has changed. As I write about in “Hacking the Career: What Should Organizations Do?“, we have to accept the fact that our careers no longer go “up” and we can’t depend on one company to take care of us for life.

A simple way to understand the shift is to think about the image created by Dick Bowles, author of the book “The Three Boxes of Life”. Today, unlike the past, we don’t “study,” then “work,” and then “retire.” We learn, work, and enjoy leisure throughout our lives, and hopefully this process goes on until our later years.

boxes

Fig 3 :  The Three Boxes of Life

The Organizational Side of the Future of Work

On the organizational side, two things are happening.  First, jobs are quickly changing, as “augmented intelligence” takes over more and more mundane tasks.

We are all familiar with the Siri or Cortana which understands our voice. Well the same type of software is now able to interpret photos, sensor information, and data from computers.

Insurance companies now have software that can view a picture of your dented car, identify the make and model of car, and compute the amount of the claim. Software can read X-rays almost twice as well as seasoned radiologists, and voice recognition can type 300% faster than you can.

Technologies like natural language processing, reasoning, and self-learning are becoming mature. Products like Amazon Echo, Siri from Apple, Cortana from Microsoft, Watson from IBM, and Viv from Viv Labs can understand your commands, perform tasks, and learn.

Think about what happens in a call center. When you call to change a reservation or change an order the agent has to look you up, find your account, and locate your transaction. Much of this can now be done through voice recognition and AI. And if the agent has to type into a terminal, the typing can be automated by software called RPA (Robotic Process Automation), which monitors keystrokes and develops robotic software automatically.

ai

Fig 3: Natural Language Systems Built on AI

One of the reasons this market is accelerating is the explosive role of sensors, which have gotten cheaper than ever (sensors that see better than our eyes now cost less than $2,000). The smart phone we carry often has 6 embedded sensors (temperature, GPS, accelerometer, humidity, ambient sound, magnetometer, and more). These sensors enable mobile devices to do things we never thought computers could do, and Pokemon Go is just the beginning. Soon we will devices that listen to our voice, understand when we are under stress, monitor our heart beat, and give us personal recommendations for better meetings, work conditions, and customer interactions. The opportunity for work augmentation, work improvement, and productivity improvements is massive.

One of the examples I talked about in the speech is the emergence of “farm tech,” drones, artificial intelligence and sensors applied to farming.  Machines from companies like John Deere use cameras and sensors to precisely plow fields, plant seedlings in the right place, and place just enough water to keep each plant moist. They can “see” weeds to pick them, add just enough fertilizer for each plant, and look at plant color to decide when it should be harvested. This technology is available today, and its improving farm productivity already.

deere

Fig 4:  Robots Use Sensors (John Deere Photo)

The Redesign of Organizations Themselves

The second organizational issue is the redesign of organizations themselves. Industrial organizations of today were designed in a world where we were the “means of production,” and our “jobs” were essentially designed by HR and business executives. We read the “job description,” “applied for a job,” and were “assessed for fit.” The manager or HR department looked at our skills and abilities and tried to decide if we could fit into the organization and do that job well.

The reason organizations exist was to harness this highly efficient, industrial model – where we, as workers, could be highly productive doing repetitive tasks, and the company gain from economies of scale.

Today this economic model is under attack. Our research shows that 92% of companies believe their organizational design is not working, yet only 14% know how to fix it. The answer, as we’ve discovered, is to empower people in small teams, link these teams together, and build an organizational culture that keeps people aligned and lets people innovate, deliver, and serve customers on the front line. While we are in the early stages of this massive revolution, one of the biggest impacts it has is on the nature of work itself. GE, Cisco, Deloitte, and of course disruptive companies like AirBnB, Uber, and many others are moving in this direction.

Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini believe that the “hollowing out of middle management” can save $3 trillion per year in the US alone. While I can’t vouch for that number, it’s clear that organizational structure is changing, and technology is reducing the need for traditional manager roles.

What this means to us as individuals is that our “position” and “job title” just isn’t as important any more. What matters is “what you know how to do” and your personal and professional reputation. This means we all must learn how to continuously reskill ourselves, market and position our skills and experience, and get comfortable taking new jobs and new roles which do not always go “up.”

Are Jobs Going Away?

The most common headline about the future of work is that jobs are going away. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Oxford University wrote a well publicized report that 47% of jobs will “disappear” in the next 20 years.  Well I certainly hope so!  I would love the job of toll taker, street sweeper, garbage man, and even bus driver to go away. This is not a bad thing:  research shows that for every job that “goes away” another one or two is created (“The Rise and Fall of Nations,” cited previously).  And I’m not talking about the small number of jobs needed to program computers (even software engineers will be automated soon), every example we’ve seen shows that when “automation” comes, new jobs are created.

As David Autor, a well known MIT professor states: “The employment-to-population ratio rose during the 20th century.  Our own research shows that for the last 140 years, technology has been a “great job-creating machine.”

Ron Hancock, General Manager of Deloitte UK states, “ We should automate work and humanize jobs. Let’s give the mundane to the machines and the purpose back to people.”  (Deloitte research “Essential Skills for Working in the Machine Age“)

Let me cite two examples. In the 1980’s there was a wave of automation in the banking industry, starting with the ATM machine. At that time articles predicted the end of the bank branch, the end of the branch teller, and the automation and elimination of jobs in financial services. In fact the opposite has occurred. Today, with more than 1 million ATM’s around the world, there are almost four times as many bank branches and more than 10% more tellers than in the 1980s. Automation enabled the market for financial transactions to greatly expand. Tellers today do higher level things (sell you stuff and help you with complex transactions). Most of us go to the ATM and then walk into the bank.

Here’s a second example. In 1981 when the first spreadsheet was invented (originally Multiplan, which then led to Lotus 1-2-3 and eventually Excel), there was a worry on Wall Street that financial analysts of the world, most of whom were creating paper-based spreadsheets for financial analysis, would go out of business. Did they? Of course not, quite the opposite:  today there are more financial analysts than ever (we all seem to do it) and the best ones are experts at using tools like Excel, creating a new industry of ever-more powerful analysts.

As one of my partners at Deloitte puts it, are you afraid that your vacuum cleaner is going to take your job? I actually hope my vacuum cleaner gets a lot smarter (and also a lot quieter).

So the answer to this question is NO. Jobs are NOT going away, they’re just changing.

One final point on this topic. Many human skills are essential. Deloitte UK research, which looked at hundreds of job profiles and mapped them against the Oxford study, identified 25 critical “human skills” that are expected to become ever-more important as technology evolves. These are skills which are “essentially human,” and they provide a guideline for the redesign of jobs and careers in the future.

skills for future

Fig 5:  Essential Human Skills

As you can see from the list, skills like empathy, listening, communication, and prioritization are essentially human. So the future of work is not about jobs going away, its a story about each and of us redesigning what we do to better leverage tools.

What Happens to People and Careers?

But how do we and organizations adapt?  Organizations, individuals, and society must change.

On a personal level, we each have to learn new tools. In the 1981 when PC’s came along the “steno pool” typists were at risk. These people learned to use computers and became secretaries, administrative assistants, and often writers.

I have been in the job market since 1978, a time when there was no voicemail, no computers, and no email. Since then I’ve learned how to use all the modern tools of the information age, and I’m just about as facile as my children with applications like Snapchat and Instagram. Those of us who are afraid or intimidated by technology will fall behind, so we all have to force ourselves to learn. And if you’re an HR professional or business leader, you have to learn about technology too – because it radically impacts the way you organize work.

At an organizational level, the key to success is what we now call design thinking. Organizations need to understand what technology can do and then use it to enhance the customer and employee experience. Let me give you a few examples:

  • Starbucks or Peets could chose to install robot coffee machines in its stores. They don’t, of course, because the customer experience is focused on a personal conversation with a barista, the sound and smell of coffee being made, and a cup with your name hand-written on it. These companies have continuously made barista jobs better, steadily increasing wages and benefits, improving the customer experience.
  • Wegman’s, one of the best places to work in the country, coaches employees on putting down their phones so they can talk directly with customers. They have “no-phone” meetings and have built a culture around using technology for back-office tasks but not interrupting the customer experience.

Every company has the opportunity to rethink its own customer and employee experience, and apply technology to make it better. In some cases this means changing jobs, but in most cases it means making jobs “better,” reducing cost and mundane tasks, and adding more value to customer interactions.

One of the biggest challenges in organizations is creating a more dynamic career model. (Read “Hacking the Career” for more details.) Companies are now heavily focused on internal talent mobility, self-directed learning, and new software tools to help people find the next job. Organizations like Cisco, Yum Brands, Wegman’s, and WL Gore, for example, have redefined their management principles to focus on actively enabling people to move from job to job, role to role, faster than ever.

It turns out, by the way, that your ability to provide a modern and dynamic career environment is one of the top drivers of employment brand. Our research members recently awarded Marriott a Bersin by Deloitte WhatWorks award for their leading program to attract young people into dynamic, facilitated management careers.

Education and Public Policy Has to Keep Up

One of the most vocal topics that came up in our session (we had over 600 people there) was a huge debate about the role of education. Many believe educational institutions have not kept up with the steady demand for skills. I believe education still plays a vital role in the development of basic skills (thinking, writing, analyzing, math, science) and in their place an industry of new education companies (Pluralsight, General Assembly, EdX, and hundreds of others) to help us rapidly learn new technical skills for work.

Public policy plays a large role. Clearly there is an ongoing debate about income inequality and the impact of contingent work platforms. While contingent work is now easier to find, most of these jobs do not pay benefits, they have no vacation policy, there is no overtime, and there are almost no work-related expense reimbursements. Many policy makers are arguing for self-funded “security accounts” and a new third class of worker to provide fair wages and benefits for the growing contingent workforce.

third class of worker

Fig:  The Third Class of Worker

Others now argue for “shared security accounts” so people can invest in their own personal careers as they move from job to job, role to role, company to company. There is even a debate among economists about the need for a “guaranteed basic income” as an incentive to revitalize innovation and career reinvention. These ideas are all worth considering, given the need to accelerate personal reinvention and continuous reskilling.

Personal Careers

I recenlty had the opportunity to spend some time with Gary Bolles, who’s father wrote “What Color is Your Parachute,” one of the most well-read books on finding a job. Gary and I agreed that the most important skill to build in today’s “future of work” is what you may call “personal reinvention” – the ability to let go of who you are today and recreate yourself as jobs around you change.

This is an urgent topic. The Bureau of Labor Statistics believes Americans will have 12-14 careers in their lifetime, so we have to get comfortable letting go of the idea that “you are what you do.”  If you define self-worth and your personal identity by a title on your business card, you’re likely to be disappointed.

I’ve had a 38+ year career now and have worked in technical support, sales, account management, marketing, product management, project management, business development, engineering, and executive leadership. I’ve worked in five different industries and been everything from a “trainee” to a CEO and Founder along the way. I no longer define myself by my title, I simply introduce myself by telling people “what I do.”

I am at an age where some of my friends are nearing retirement. One of them, an individual who traveled the world as a business executive, said to me: “remember when you were young there was that older guy who sat in a cubicle and just helped other people do their jobs? That’s me now.” He still loves work, he contributes in an important way, and he helps other young high performers succeed.

There is much more to this story, but let me summarize with a simple thought. The “Future of Work” is here right now. Your job is being changed before your eyes, and if you don’t sit up straight and just look around, you may miss the changes taking place.

Take some time to learn a new tool or two, go to an industry conference in your field, and spend time networking with others in your domain. We all have to deal with the future of work, and it’s not going to be as scary as you think.

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  • Victoria Heathcote

    Josh – should ‘General Academy’ read ‘General Assembly’?

    • joshbersin

      Thank you Victoria!

  • Randy Samsel

    Thanks, Josh, for great content and insights. More evidence that disruption is the new normal, and HR professionals are rising in strategic importance.

  • amandeep kaur

    What a Beauty! After reading this piece I foresee, predict that companies will very soon move towards:

    1. unequal pay but equal benefits

    2. Dynamic jobs and portfolio careers

    3. No titles, no hierarchy – Flat but small highly productive teams comprising both humans and robots

    4. Not eternal workforce but Internal workers, contingent not contractual workers coexisting with machines

    5. The onus of learning, upskilling, reskilling, career reinvention will be equally on the employee