The Future of Work is here

An introduction to a series of articles on the future of work

(1st article in a series – by Duncan Robins)

Many organizations and thought leaders are attempting to predict the future of work during this time of unprecedented change. We are experiencing the end of the Industrial Era and the rapid rise of the Age of Digital Dominance. This article summarizes a series of articles written to add information and energy to a growing movement committed to finding solutions that will drive economic development and prosperity for workers, businesses and communities in rural and middle America. The other articles include: 1) Transformation is Inevitable: 2) Winners and Losers; 3) Organizations of the Future; and 4) Age of Digital Dominance.

THE TRANSFORMATION IS INEVITABLE (2nd article)

During the next decade, industries, local economies and the nature of work will be transformed on a massive scale and at an accelerating pace. In the U.S., 40% of our workforce is employed in an occupation that could see significant job losses.  Although many new jobs will be created, the net impact on jobs will be felt unevenly by industries, communities and workers. The parts of rural and middle America that prospered during the Industrial Era may be at a greater risk in the Age of Digital Dominance, as many jobs requiring lower skills will be disproportionally disrupted by six unstoppable forces.

Three persistent forces are pushing this transformation (1. Globalization; 2. Knowledge Growth; and 3. Technology Adoption), three unstoppable forces are pulling the transition forward (1. Consumer Demand; 2. A Demographic Shift; and 3. A Cultural Revolution), and three enablers are greasing the wheels of change (1. Digital Communication; 2. Marketplaces and Co-working Spaces; and 3. Social Supports). These forces will drive rapid changes on a global scale, but the impacts will and are being felt unevenly by local communities and in every workplace throughout the U.S.

WINNERS AND LOSERS (3rd article)

Automation of U.S. workplaces will have a major impact on every community and job in the U.S. However, the implementation of robots will not be uniform across all occupations, companies or industries. Some jobs are more likely to be automated than others. Work that requires lower skills, that is primarily repetitive and predictable, is most susceptible to automation. While those jobs that are primarily unpredictable, involve interpersonal interactions, and/or require high skills, expertise or creativity are least likely to be automated.

Automation in the U.S. workplace will come in two forms. We will use the terms physical robots and digital bots, or collectively ‘bots’. Technology advancements that improve worker efficiency, including automation, will impact every U.S. job over the next decade, but it will be the physical robots that will be reviled. While most news outlets will cover the ‘invasion’ of the physical over the implementations of the digital form of bots, both will play significant roles in reshaping the occupational landscape. The physical robots will have a greater impact on blue-collar jobs in the manufacturing, warehousing, agriculture and transportation sectors. While the more stealth, digital bots will quietly reduce the need for white-collar workers in clerical, customer service, and analytical roles.

As the U.S. economy transitions from the Industrial Era and into the Age of Digital Dominance, each community will experience the transformation very differently—there will be obvious winners and losers. A pattern is emerging, but the future is not inevitable. Researchers suggest a significant correlation between the average education level attained by a workforce within a region and that region’s future (annual) job growth potential. The lower the average education attainment, the lower the likely growth rate. With focused investments in education, worker training, business development and infrastructure, the regions on the bubble or struggling may avoid slipping as the U.S. economy becomes more polarized.

ORGANIZATIONS OF THE FUTURE (4th article)

In the near future, competition will be so fierce in the winners-take-all global market that corporations will be forced to break with their rigid, Industrial Era, organizational structures. They will need workforces that are more agile with higher skills, less segmented by function, and more able to assemble quickly, in small teams, when needed.

Millennials will be a cultural force that will reshape the future of work. Notably, many Millennials faced the harsh employment realities of the Great Recession just as they were entering the workforce. This may have a large impact on their collective views for many years. According to surveys, Millennials currently think differently than their parents. While their parents often chose ‘work or life’, Millennials are choosing to ‘work like life’. The majority of Millennials value having experiences over accumulating material goods and are skeptical of corporations. Surveys have also discovered that 74%(3) of this new workforce enjoys collaborating in small groups and 75%(1) expect to have the ability to work remotely. These expectations will challenge organizational structures, human resource policies, and management processes.

The future of work will look very different. We expect five workplace trends to prevail: 1) Workforces and technology will morph as physical and digital bots become ubiquitous; 2) The definitions for ‘employee’ and ‘job’ will become blurred as organizations incorporate more flexible staffing models; 3) The nature of work will be defined more by teams and their digital collaboration tools than by centralized, corporate-controlled, physical spaces and organizational structures; 4) Re-skilling programs will become competitive advantages of organizations, required of, but also sought after by the skills-based workforce; 5) Traditional employee benefits like healthcare and 401Ks will become decoupled from workplaces.

THE AGE OF DIGITAL DOMINANCE (5th article)

Technology-Enabled, Distributed Services organizations, or TEDS for short, will become the most dominant organizational structure of corporations during the Age of Digital Dominance. Technology in the form of digital platforms will connect their distributed workforces, support their marketplaces and will enable their market-facing applications. Examples of TEDS include Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Apple and Uber.

TEDS represent a new form of organization, perhaps better described as an ecosystem, that will dominate global markets for years after the Industrial Era has given way to the Age of Digital Dominance. The most successful of these firms share many of the same organizational characteristics. They all: 1) are technology-enabled; 2) have distributed workforces; 3) mix physical and digital assets in their service offerings; and, 4) are extremely agile.

While TEDS appear to have all the power and momentum today, balance will once again be restored, but the counterforce will come from Millennials as workers, consumers and community members. Many current politicians, officials and community leaders, however, may be surprised by what the Millennials demand and how powerful they will be.

Most freelancing Millennials may not fight for ‘employee’ status. In fact, the primary motivation of Millennials who freelance, according to polls, is independence. Almost half of all U.S. Millennials participated in the Gig Economy in 2018, with many more interested in doing contract work in the near future. Successful Millennial freelancers do not necessarily want to be an ‘employee’. However, they are interested in benefits that are currently tied to being an employee: 1) work-related training; 2) access to healthcare; and, 3) tax incentives to invest in retirement. It is interesting that none of these benefits need to be tied to an employer-employee relationship.

CALL TO ACTION

The transformation from the Industrial Era to the Age of Digital Dominance is assured. This transformation is underway. The six forces driving the changes are massive, unstoppable and aligned.

Unfortunately, some industries, communities and workers will be impacted more than others. Those of us concerned about the future of work and life in rural and middle America must come together to chart a path forward. My community is one of those at risk of falling further behind. We, in the community, are engaged and motivated. But, we like many other communities facing similar challenges, can’t do it alone. We need a movement that results in new education paradigms, business development, investment in infrastructure, innovative tax incentives and new privacy, antitrust and intellectual property laws. We can do this if we work together.

 


Many organizations and thought leaders are attempting to predict the future of work during this time of unprecedented change. This article is part of a series written to add to that dialog with hopes of energizing action on solutions that will drive economic development and prosperity for workers, businesses and communities in rural and middle America.

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The author, Duncan Robins, is the Chairman and a founder of TheFutureofWork.org. Duncan and his wife moved to a rural community to raise their family. For over two decades, Duncan has flown over the digital divide weekly to work as a CEO for Private Equity-backed businesses in larger cities. Currently, he is the CEO of Assemble Technologies, a Michigan-based, organization of the future. Duncan has worked to reduce the educational divide with leadership positions in Higher Education and two career-oriented training companies. He has also worked for Bain, McKinsey and Morgan Stanley. Duncan earned an MBA from Stanford and graduated summa cum laude from Harvard.

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Other articles in this series:

(1) Robins, Duncan, The Future of Work is Here, September 2019, The Future of Work.org

(2) Robins, Duncan, Transformation is Inevitable, September 2019, The Future of Work.org

(3) Robins, Duncan, Winners and Losers, September 2019, The Future of Work.org

(4) Robins, Duncan, Organizations of the Future, September 2019, The Future of Work.org

(5) Robins, Duncan, Age of Digital Dominance, September 2019, The Future of Work.org

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