As William Gibson famously said, “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. This phrase can be interpreted in many ways, but I like to take it as a reminder that the future doesn’t arrive all at once, there are pockets of it already here and there, and if we look close enough we will get a glimpse of what is to come. We can see today signals coming from tomorrow, that show us the direction in which the world is going and tell us how the Future of Work will look like.
When these signals are strong or numerous enough, they form drivers or trends of what is happening.
These drivers don’t make the future inevitable. They don’t mean the future must and will happen only this way, but they do give us a good indication of how it might happen.
If we don’t like the direction a driver is taking us into, we are still on time to try to change it, but for that we need to know and understand what those drivers are. We need to know our potential future if we are to shape it.
There are many resources out there with different lists of the trends shaping our world. In Sodexo for example, we conducted some research and we published our list of 11 megatrends a couple of years ago. Other companies, think tanks and, of course, management gurus have published their own lists.
I am no guru, but I happen to be interested on these things and I do have my own personal list. I wanted to keep it short for this article, so I have limited it here to my top five. These are the drivers that I think will have the biggest impact on the Future of Work in the next ten years and beyond.
Of course. Technology is the most talked about disrupting force when we talk about the Future of Work. There are many different strands of discussion and different potential impacts of technology on the way we will work, which merit another article or a series of them, so I will keep it brief here.
The first and probably most important impact technology will have is the automation of tasks due to advances on AI and robotics and the potential job losses this may cause. There have been concerns about machines replacing workers at least from the Luddite revolts of two hundred years ago and even earlier than that. So far these concerns have always ended up being unfounded, as some jobs disappeared but many others were created. Still, many experts believe this time it may be different.
Until recently machines have replaced human workers mainly on tasks requiring brute force or the capacity to conduct repetitive tasks that didn’t require any particular cognitive skills. As some jobs were replaced by machines, productivity increased and new services were created spawning new jobs in the process. Today due to advances in the computer processing power, deep learning and the algorithms created, different types of AI outperform human beings not only in manual capabilities, but also in cognitive and even affective ones. That’s why this time it might be different.
It is possible that new currently unknown jobs will be created, but it is also possible than more and more tasks currently performed by humans will be carried out by machines in the near future because they will be better and cheaper at them, and not enough new jobs are created to replace those lost, so we need to get prepared for that possibility. Will there be any human taxi drivers, paralegals, radiologists or call center staff left in 2030?
AI/robots are and will be the main game-changers, but there is a long list of other technologies that will disrupt the way we work: blockchain and distributed ledgers, Virtual, Mixed and Augmented Reality (VR/MR/AR), Quantum computers, genetics and biotechnology, nanotechnology, IoT, drones, 3D printers… We are starting what many are calling the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Technology will have a big impact on how we buy, how we spend our leisure time, how we communicate with each other and even on how we meet our love partners. It will bring a lot of benefits, but also some risks, so we need to be careful about how we tread with it.
The world population is increasing, and by 2030 we will reach 8.5 billion people, but that growth is not evenly distributed. Today the world population of 7 billion is roughly distributed like this: 4 billion in Asia, 1 billion in Africa, 1 billion in the Americas and 1 billion in Europe (including Russia and all the non-EU countries). By the end of the century, there will be around 11 billion people on Earth, with 5 billion in Asia, 4 billion in Africa, 1 billion in the Americas and 1 billion in Europe*.
As incomes increase in emerging markets (and they will), the centre of gravity of the world market will swift away from the Atlantic, to the Pacific first (this is already happening) and to the Indian Ocean next. This will bring geopolitical changes, but also big changes in business and management models.
This already started, but its biggest impact is still some decades away. What is really happening already today is that for the first time in history we have five very distinct generations in the workplace: the Traditionalists or Veterans (those born before 1946, so there will be fewer and fewer left), the Boomers (born 1946 to 1964), Generation X (1964-1979), Generation Y or Millennials (1980-1997) and Generation Z (after 1997).
There are discrepancies on the exact dates, so some of us live in the fringes between generations: depends who you ask I am part of Generation X or a Millennial. I am not sure which one I belong to, but each generation does seem to have some distinctive features distinguishing the people from that generation to the others, so companies and leaders should take these differences into consideration when designing their policies, managing them, communicating with them, etc.
Some people will argue that we are all humans and as such we are all unique and uniquely distinct, and that there is no need to put us in boxes. Being mindful of the risks of stereotyping, generalizing and labeling people, I do think that there are some general broad differences between generations, and it is important to take them into consideration. By 2030 the oldest of the Millennials, which will be by far the most represented generation in the workplace, will be 50. How will that impact our ways of working?
This brings us to the last of the big demographic shifts: aging. More and more people pass now the age of 100 years and the fastest growing demographic group in this decade will be the elderly, with the population above 65 years old reaching 1 billion by 2030. This will have profound impacts on the way we work, on how many years we work and the way in which we retire (or not, see below).
This is arguably the biggest problem humanity will be facing in the years to come. The Covid-19 has brought some needed respite to the planet, but it is still warming and more needs to be done to slow down this process. The climate will continue to change quickly and there will be more cases of extreme weather everywhere. All the masses of people living in coastal cities will suffer.
Companies will have to make their contribution to reduce their carbon-print and they will have to change some of their ways of working and processes. There will be a push to reduce business travels (we are seeing now that it is possible to work virtually, more on this below), use smart buildings that are carbon neutral and reduce waste. There will be a push towards consuming more plant-based protein, which will have a considerable impact on some industries.
Linking climate change with generations, it seems younger generations are more concerned about environmental issues, so a company’s environmentalist credentials will be ever more important to build an appealing employer brand that helps attract and retain top talent.
Until very recently there were three well defined stages in life: one in which you learned and got ready to work, one in which you worked, and one in which you stopped working and retired into a life of well-deserved leisure and rest. Well, no longer. As a consequence of automation, the aging of population and other multiple factors, we will be now required to learn throughout our entire lives and it is not clear when and how we will be able to retire.
Automation, the increasing pace of change in society and the VUCA world in which we live will require us to transform and reinvent ourselves, probably many times over. As Stuart Armstrong said, “the jobs of the future don’t exist today and the jobs of today will not exist in the future”**, so we will have to constantly learn and reskill ourselves to adapt to an ever-changing world. This may sound stressful to some, but it is also exciting. It will depend on the mindset: those with a growth mindset will thrive in this world, those with the fixed one will struggle.
There will be a big focus on learning and in new ways of acquiring and developing skills and knowledge.
There will be interesting proposals coming from technology, such as the use of VR/MR/AR or gaming for learning, and good quality coaching and mentoring will become more mainstream.
The increase of life expectancy, the fact that we will be reaching our sixties in better health and the strain on the coffers of the state as an ever smaller part of society can work on an aging society, means that we will probably retire later than our parents and that in many cases we will be retiring on and off: retiring for a few years, then coming back as a part-time consultant, retiring again, returning to work on a project, etc. And for that we will have to keep learning even into our retirements.
Flexible working arrangements
If I had written this article a few months ago, I would not have chosen this as one of my top drivers, but it has really come to prominence amidst the pandemic. This sad event has created the perfect setting for the biggest experiment on home-working ever seen, and the results are revealing: employee productivity has increased and people seem to like it and enjoy the flexibility and improved work-life balance. It is also a much cheaper option, so there is no going back: the office is dead.
This will have profound implications on the way we work moving forward, but also on the way we live: what will happen with all those millions of square meters made available in the city centres when all companies reduce considerably their footprints? Because this will definitely happen, all or most companies will reduce considerably the space they dedicate to corporate offices.
They will still exist, but they will be reduced considerably, with some small space for hot-desking and some more for team meetings and social interaction. The rest will be gone. Companies will have to design carefully their workplace strategy to improve the Employee Experience and increase employee engagement in the age of remote working. In Sodexo, we are already working, with the help of our subsidiary Wx, on how we can support our clients in this transition.
We will have to learn (another thing for us lifelong learners to learn) how to be more effective working in remote teams and how to engage our team members when they are not in the same room with us. We will also need to be careful with defining well the boundaries between personal and professional lives. Some companies will not be able to resist the urge to monitor and control their employees with rather intrusive surveillance technology, thus showing their complete lack of trust on them and alienating and disengaging them even further.
There are many other drivers shaping our future, like for example the retrenchment of globalization, the increasingly open but less private world we live in or the digital platform-enabled gig economy, but these were my top five. Which are the most important drivers for you? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.
The future is not like the weather. It doesn’t happen to us, like that. We make it happen through our actions.
Of course, there are events, like the Covid-19 pandemic or an asteroid suddenly hitting us, over which we don’t have much control, and it also happens that we often put in place systems and processes that escape our control once set in motion, but overall the future doesn’t happen from one day to another and we have the ability and capacity to shape it and mould it, but for that we need to understand it first. Knowing the drivers of the future is the first step on this journey.
* Rosling, H. et al. (2019) Factfulness, London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
** Quoted in Chace, C. (2016) The Economic Singularity, London: Three Cs Publishing