I was interviewed recently by Phil La Duke of Authority Magazine, on the top 5 trends to watch out for in the future of work. I thought I’d republish the interview here as it’s an interesting topic to me. All questions (in bold) are Phil’s; all responses are mine. My colleague Birgir Már Daníelsson reviewed a draft of the interview and provided insightful input, for which I am thankful.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?
I was born in Iceland, raised along with my younger sister by our mother, who earned her Ph.D. in psychology while working and taking care of us as a single mom. My childhood and early life were a time of huge social and economic progress for my country. I also lived in Scotland for three years as a child, an experience that I’ve carried with me. That made me more open to living abroad, which I did for many years of my adult life, although I am now back in my home country.
What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?
With more and more automation, of both rote work in the physical world such as driving trucks and delivery vans as well as rote digital tasks like bookkeeping, translation, and many more fields, human creativity and insight along with the ability to interface with technology will become a more important skill.
A larger and larger portion of the workforce will be knowledge workers. In the words of William Gibson, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. If you want to see a big chunk of the future of work, look at developments in knowledge worker-heavy places like Silicon Valley over the last decade or two, and the acceleration of those trends due to COVID-19.
More remote work or flexible location work; more competition for the best workers; on average shorter stints by workers at each job; a greater need for worker autonomy; a harder job for managers; work that looks like play; sometimes outrageous perks, and so on. At the same time, you’ll see an increase in support roles such as cooking, cleaning, massage, personal assistants and more, to keep the most valuable knowledge workers able to focus on their work as much as possible without burning out, and this is likely to lead to further stratification in the workforce.
Apart from what is typically recognized as knowledge work today, essentially STEM and related fields, I think (and hope) that we will also see more value placed on arts, craftsmanship, and the humanities. A hand-crafted rocking chair, a new play, a philosophical essay — these are among the last things that our technological marvels will be able to replicate.
The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?
The US college system is bound to change, although it’s hard to predict exactly how it will play out. Part of it is that it will likely take a long time due to some of these old institutions having staying power and being resistant to change. If COVID-19 and remote education showed anything, it’s that it’s beyond ridiculous to pay the fees being charged by US colleges these days. This is especially true for second and third-tier colleges, where the degree is less likely to offer enough prestige to be worth the cash, and the education itself is not as good, although not necessarily by a large margin.
For the top tier Ivy Leagues, perhaps they can continue, but inevitably the second and third-tier will see much lower enrollment rates and a huge movement to online education and a more self-guided, self-driven approach to higher education. That said, I do believe that higher education in whatever forms it takes will continue to play an important role as a gateway from being a less-responsible, less well-rounded youth to being a more capable, more rigorous and educated young adult, leading to greater career success over time.
Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?
I hate to say it, but just like it is today, not everyone will be able to find a job that fits their talents and interests at every point in their career. Some will never find such employment, and it may become harder than it is today.
If I’m right about further stratification between knowledge worker jobs and support roles, then although there will be percentage-wise a lot more knowledge workers than we have today, there will still be an awful lot of support jobs.
It’s quite possible that we will see lower levels of employment in general due to automation and resulting abundance. If this happens, I am hopeful that it will coincide with workers realizing that to lead fulfilling lives and get the jobs they will enjoy, they need to continue improving and educating themselves. And governments realizing that a great way to keep the economy humming along and to give people a sense of purpose and fulfillment is investing in more abundant and equal access to education and various forms of training.
The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?
If you’re doing a job that is rote, whether it is physical or computer-based, there’s a good likelihood that your job will be automated away in the not-too-distant future. Grab every chance you can to do things on the job that require people skills, problem-solving and creative thinking. If you don’t have a chance for those kinds of tasks, put your energy into building those skills outside of work, whether through formal education or extracurricular activities.
Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?
I believe it’s inevitable for the pendulum to swing back a fair bit, but we won’t go back to the status quo before the pandemic. We’re already starting to see companies reversing some of their remote work policies, adjusting salaries for employees that moved, or encouraging part-time work from the office. A lot of “office” work will be done in a flexible arrangement. That can be with work done at the corporate location some days out of the week, and either from home or from flexible co-working spaces closer to home the rest of the week. We’ll start seeing incentives and perks related to coming in, and office designs that encourage more interaction and collaboration to compensate for the lower-fidelity communication channels you have when working remotely.
What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?
More job-hopping, more need for continuous education, more stratification in the workforce. These are all trends where society is likely to function better. People are likely to be happier, and companies are likely to benefit more from a stronger social safety net and much more abundant and equal access to education. I think the Nordic countries kind of have something close to the right approach here.
What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?
For employers, it will be much harder to manage the workforce. They will be managing a collection of creative, problem-solving, collaborating workers. Employees who might not even be at the office and are empowered to act autonomously (and that’s what the future will need to a larger and larger degree). That is much more challenging than looking over a factory floor, setting policies and simply making sure the workers are all doing the rote work as prescribed.
A lot of employees might be in a position where for a few years, their job is on the brink of being automated away. It will be hard for them to accept that they will need to either make a career change or move into a supervising position, and many will start preparing for this too late.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?
I’ll say it again, the Nordic countries are onto something. A strong social safety net and a large investment in education will be key to prosperity especially as work shifts more and more away from rote jobs. The benefits are both immediate and also compounding over the long term. I don’t believe it’s any accident that the Nordics are among the most wealthy and happy nations in the world; yes we have a lot of natural resources, but so do many other countries that are not nearly as prosperous.
Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
Work will be changing mostly because we now have the technology to automate away so much rote work. Although the transition will be difficult for many, I think this is a great cause for optimism. We are creating abundance and getting rid of a lot of work that can be mind-numbing and unfulfilling. That allows us to focus on higher orders of creative work and freeing up peoples’ time to pursue education and their interests. This will lead to more people being able to self-actualize, and an overall higher quality of life.
One way to think of it is that technology will democratize creativity. An example might be music — today to create music, you might need to spend a lot of effort in learning the mechanics and the theoretical fundamentals of music, kind of like learning a new language. What if your computer can help translate your creativity into that language, or significantly lower the threshold? We will see more people being able to create new and interesting things in more fields, and more people crossing between fields. It might be a period where people will need to be more like the “renaissance men” of old, trying a wide range of creative pursuits and emphasizing the ability to learn, discern and disseminate.
Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?
We should fill the gap with abundant, much more equal access to education. This doesn’t mean everybody goes to university, but then again we’re starting to see the future of education online and it can be scaled up massively. Filling the gap with education will give people something valuable to do, and will also reduce the length of the gap as educated people flood the job market and create new opportunities for themselves.
Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Any sufficiently-common rote work will be partially or fully automated. Whether physical or intellectual, all repetitive work will be automated away, assuming enough of it is done to justify an investment in automation. Driving trucks, entering data for bookkeeping, laying bricks, translating, and a huge array of other jobs will be mostly or fully automated.
- More knowledge workers. Just like we already see in Silicon Valley, a larger and larger percentage of the workforce will be knowledge workers, plus the lower-paid workforce that caters to their every whim.
- More job flexibility. The pendulum on remote work will swing back a bit, but employers will need to offer more flexibility in location and time, and in many cases better perks, to remain competitive. At the same time, workers will job-hop more, just as you see in Silicon Valley already.
- Education moves online. More people will be able to educate themselves, but I think long-term it’s likely that a much smaller portion will go to in-person universities, with the finest education and all of the perks related to prestige and networking still available primarily from the top-tier schools, but a very good level of education available from much lower-cost online sources, with 2nd and 3rd tier schools losing huge amounts of enrollment.
- More self-actualization and opportunities for education. Further automation will drive a need for a more educated workforce, more wealth will afford people more opportunities to educate themselves and self-actualize, and technology will democratize peoples’ ability to be creative in more fields.