The Seven Trends That Will Make the Future of Work

Il·lustració © Maria Corte

The pandemic has revealed and accelerated a lot of changes in the way we live and work. It’s become clear that the home is a place of production, that more and more workers can work anywhere provided they have an internet connection, that too many workers don’t benefit from the protections created in the 20th century, that new cultural aspirations are transforming organizations and that we need to apply a gender lens to really understand the forces at play.

Many of these trends aren’t new but they are now undeniably more visible. Each set of transformations comes with threats and opportunities. But it’s up to us individually and collectively to make the most of them. It’s up to us to decide to create a better social contract so as to make the future more inclusive. As workers, managers, writers, investors or organisors we can all make our future of work better. The best way to predict this future is to create it.

1. Craftsmanship is gaining ground among workers.

For lack of attractive trade-offs like job security and social identity, more and more workers have been growing tired of the meaningless and alienating work model of the Fordist age which is also accused of destroying both the planet and our social cohesion. There is no sustainable “one best way” anymore. More workers choose to invent their own way, to be more creative, seek meaning at work, learn continuously, and have more of a positive impact on planet and community.

More workers don’t want to be managed and choose to become freelancers. They identify with the three pillars of craftsmanship: responsibility, autonomy and creativity. These don’t only apply to manual craftsmanship (like woodwork). Indeed writing a piece of code or text is craftsmanship too! In the world of media, design and content creation, the past few years have borne the revolution of the ‘passion economy’. Creators seek direct feedback and payment from their fans and do away with intermediaries.

All this means that scientific management and division of labour are increasingly challenged. Scientific management can only be acceptable to workers if it comes with good jobs (secure and well-paid), but more often than not it now comes with precariousness and dependency. Sure, many workers are stuck in those jobs for lack of better options. But given a choice, very few workers would willingly support alienation combined with economic insecurity.

The opportunity that comes with this trend is the possibility for individuals to become less dependent on one organization, develop personal relationships with other individuals, and shape their careers in ways that are more fulfilling and enriching. The challenge is for them to produce something unique and develop enough personal relationships that they can make a living out of it. It requires applying the lessons of business strategy to the individual. Not everyone can succeed at it.

2. When it comes to the future of work, women are the frontier.

When considering the impact of the pandemic on female work, one might be led to believe the opposite: that the future of work is anything but female. In the USA alone, over 2.2 million women left the workforce in 2020 for lack of child care options! Also in all countries, informal workers (mostly women) lost their jobs massively. And jobs in proximity services were hit the hardest (hospitality, cleaning, tourism…). Not without reason was this crisis called the ‘Shecession’!

Be that as it may, these services that employ a majority of women are expected to continue to grow in the future. Social workers, care workers, nurses, doctors, and teachers are in high demand. In fact, the pandemic has made it more visible that there aren’t enough of them. The UK’s 2021 healthcare crisis is the result of the National Health Service failing to recruit enough new workers. Our population is ageing fast. In Europe alone we’ll need millions more nurses in the years to come.

Care workers won’t have to be women, of course. But an overwhelming majority of today’s elderly- and child care workers are women. Indeed the challenge will be to attract more male workers to these growing sectors. The weight of legacy and culture can help explain why some of these jobs have remained stubbornly gender-segregated: it may still be perceived as “transgressive” for men to join the healthcare and social care professions. It would involve challenging their cultural identity.

There are many reasons why women can be regarded as the frontier: they occupy jobs that have a future (hard to automate); the future of organizing is being invented among waitresses and domestic workers (by women like Ai-Jen Poo of the US National Workers Alliance); the “soft skills” that women were taught to value (empathy, caring, emotional intelligence) are the skills of the future; and the sectors where women are underrepresented (tech and finance) will need more women to innovate and expand.

3. Activism is challenging the old power structures.

2020 was the year of activism. After the assassination of George Floyd in the US, new activist movements were unleashed all over the world to challenge America’s and Europe’s racist legacies (slavery and colonialism). Since #metoo, many new feminist movements and networks are challenging old patriarchal power structures and demanding a bigger share of the pie for women. In the corporate and the political world, quotas are no longer taboo.

One sign that some forms of activism have become mainstream is the appropriation of their messages by the world of advertising. Corporations have used “activism washing” to improve their image. In many ways the four years of the Trump presidency have boosted feminism and anti-racism in the US and the world. Many brands feel the need to “draw a line in the sand” because, as I wrote a few years ago, “the age of top-down mass-market everyone-should-be-pleased marketing is over.”

After 2020, activism will increasingly permeate the world of work. It has just started to transform Silicon Valley. Tech companies have long made empty promises when it comes to diversity and inclusion. But there’s reason to believe that we’ve come to a turning point. As an ecosystem Silicon Valley will never be the same anymore (it is spread across multiple geographies now). And there’s now more awareness of the (racist) biases in artificial intelligence. These can be expected to be (partly) corrected in the future.

Activism is not only about diversity and inclusion, it is also increasingly related to climate change. More workers (and consumers) expect increased transparency about the impact (footprint) of their work on the planet. That’s why for example the B Corp certification of “social and environmental performance” is increasingly popular with candidates. New entrepreneurs create “sustainable businesses” and advocate for a “green capitalism” that can take negative externalities into account.

Il·lustració © Maria Corte Illustration © Maria Corte

4. New risks call for new worker protections.

Over the years I’ve written a lot about the “unbundling of jobs”, a five-decade phenomenon that’s profoundly altered the nature of jobs and the trade-offs that attracted workers to employers (and vice versa). We can all remember what the old Fordist “bundle” looked like: in exchange for subordination and division of labour, you had a bundle of benefits that included job security, access to housing (banking credit), healthcare, a pension, and strong unions.

As was made so visible by the pandemic, an increasingly large number of outsiders, newly arrived on the job market, have no way of proving their solvency. Millions of workers fall through the cracks of the safety net. It is said that around three million people in the United Kingdom (10% of the workforce) were excluded from the government’s financial support packages. It is clear that the safety net wasn’t designed to address the needs of workers who no longer tick the right boxes.

Contractors, entrepreneurs and freelancers are no longer a small, negligible part of the workforce. There are millions of them. And their situation calls for a new social contract. The pandemic made the following question more pressing than ever: how can healthcare and affordable housing be made universal? If workers don’t get housing and healthcare through work, then shouldn’t these things be provided to all individuals regardless of their work situation?

Last but not least, there are new risks involved with longer work lives and a fast-changing economy. It is likely that we’ll go through multiple career transitions in our lifetime. But the cost of a professional transition is high: not only do we have to forsake revenues to be able to learn a new craft, but the training itself can be expensive. Unfortunately, schools, universities and training facilities are still largely designed to cater to the needs of young people, rather than people of all ages.

5. Workers of the future will need to develop an “immigrant mindset”

If the lives of future workers are likely to be filled with more professional transitions, then they will need to develop their transformations assets, i.e their ability to change and shift several times over the course of their lives. The concept of “transformational assets” was developed in Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s book The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity in which the authors argue that increased longevity will push workers to become skilled at reinventing themselves.

To support these transitions, workers will need to be able to form new networks, some of which will be outside of their current personal and professional circles. They will also have to keep learning new tricks to maintain good brain plasticity. Happily for them, neuroscientists are now convinced our brains are much more malleable than we thought. The adult brain can even grow new neurons! Much of our potential is more determined by our training than our genes.

These workers will have to learn to know themselves better, understand what they are capable of, and most of all what they want and don’t want in life. They will have to learn to look after their future selves (by preparing for future transitions and saving for old age). As Gratton and Scott write, “issues of identity, choice and risk become central to questions of navigating a long life. So you will need to think about your identity in a different way from those who came before.”

In short, workers will need an “immigrant mindset” (even if they don’t actually move to a different country). Indeed the act of migration itself requires an appetite for risk and change. Immigrants question their identity, grow new, heterogeneous networks of support, develop cognitive skills and resilience, and face a completely different culture to which they adapt. Their transformational assets, intercultural intelligence and empathy are top-notch! We’ll all need this mindset!

Il·lustració © Maria Corte Illustration © Maria Corte

6. In our age of longevity and techno-economic transition, the three-stage life is over.Many of us over 30 have been raised with the idea of a traditional three-stage approach to our working lives: first education, then work and finally retirement. But this approach is no longer relevant as life expectancy is rising, and generous pension systems are vanishing. More people juggle multiple careers and life transitions. More companies will have to become age-agnostic in their recruitment as the population ages faster and faster.

“People will need more education as they live and work for longer. This extra education will need to be spread out over time rather than be front-loaded at the beginning of life. And if learning is no longer front-loaded then what needs to be learnt at the beginning must focus less on specific skills and knowledge and more on learning how to build the foundations for a lifetime of learning,” write Gratton and Scott in their book The New Long Life.

If individuals and institutions (corporations, unions, schools, governments) do not address longevity more comprehensively, there will be millions more destitute people among tomorrow’s elderly. But longevity doesn’t need to be framed as a “problem” or a “burden”. It is first and foremost a gift. Age is more malleable than we previously thought. People in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s are capable of more creativity, value creation and innovation than we believed in the 20th century.

Futurists rarely address the subject of demographics. Yet if there’s one thing we’re pretty sure about, it’s that we’ll be older collectively and we will probably live and work much longer. Right now ageism in the job market is a huge problem and makes it hard for workers who are asked to work longer in ofer to be able to receive a pension. For change to happen, every element of the system will have to be addressed: training, social protection, housing, employment, recruitment, training again, infrastructures...

7. Remote work is transforming management and work relations.

The rise of remote work predates the pandemic but the pandemic accelerated it by a decade at least. Depending on the country, between 30% and 50% of all jobs can be done remotely with a good internet connection. Determining what jobs and tasks should be performed remotely was challenged during the pandemic. How and where do we want to work in the future? How will we work together as a team? These are questions that have to be answered by all teams today.

I believe this trend will have a profound impact on the very organisation of work and the legal and cultural fabric of the firm. It is likely that traditional command-and-control management will be increasingly challenged. Asynchronous work will become ever more common. The flexibility offered workers will increasingly become an argument to recruit talent. But some workers will find that they can have more flexibility by becoming contractors.

“Getting away from the 9-to-5 charade” comes with a few challenges… but also many fantastic opportunities for more empowerment and creativity. The virtual office could give different people a chance to express themselves (in particular in writing as asynchronous remote work leans heavily on written communication). Remote work challenges traditional power structures because it is most effective when power is distributed horizontally.

Women have a lot to gain from the rise of egalitarian organisations. Also, when flexibility becomes the default in an organisation, there are fewer reasons to discriminate against those who ask for flexibility because they need it the most. As behavioural economist Iris Bohnet writes, “with increased demand for flexibility, we can (and you should) anticipate that competitive labour markets will adjust to employees’ preferences and stop discriminating against people seeking flexibility”.

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