Normally in September my Quotes of the Week (and some of my most popular Images of Interest) have focused on work. But increasingly in my part of the world there is a sense of massive change in progress. Work as we have known it seems to be going away or fundamentally changing. We may well ask what is the future of work?
Where are we now?
We live in a current economy of low unemployment. But there’s not much sense of prosperity or well-being in the circles where I travel–and I’m not alone.
Wages are mostly stagnant. Income disparity is growing. Even more than globalization, robots are taking more of the “gold standard” manufacturing jobs that used to be the backbone of the middle class.
We’re at a moment of change. So, then, what is the future of work?
People have to do something with their time. And very few of them are willing to spend their lives just idly partying away till they die. That might appeal for a while (longer to some than others, no doubt), but after all is said and done, most people actually do want a purpose in life. Many find that purpose in their work.
Beware of too much idealism
But what if the future of work turns out to mean fewer and fewer jobs? Where do people find purpose in life? Many people believe that society must place a higher value on the work that robots and AI can’t do.
But human-interaction jobs, hands-on caregiving and individual interactions, as well as many types of creative work, have long been undervalued in our culture. These are in what is called the service sector. Is that the future of work?
Habits change slowly. What has been valued and prioritized in the past will by sheer mental habit tend to be valued and prioritized well into the future. The future of work may well include more “service sector” jobs and “gig work.” But will that somehow translate into well-paying jobs, even though it has seldom done so in the past?
Certainly there are entertainment superstars (standouts in sports, music, etc.) in the service sector who rake in massive profits, but they’re the rare exceptions. Highly skilled tech workers who can manage whole factories full of robots also will number relatively few, out of the general population. They’re the outliers.
Humans may be doing things that only humans can do, but current trends seem to indicate many won’t be making middle class incomes doing them. Doubt my analysis? Quick check: how many wealthy early childhood education teachers do you know?
What, then, is the future of work?
It’s likely going to be a development of several forces, not all of which are anticipated yet. A 2014 canvass of experts in related fields by The Pew Research Center yielded slightly more positive predictions than negative, but the responses were almost 50-50. Everyone agrees it will be different.
Optimists suggest maybe more of us will be able to find interesting, creative work—or, at least, suffer fewer physical hazards and less boredom. Some policymakers warn that government will need to build in “guardrails” to help us develop a human-friendly workplace in the future. Some, like Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, favor a guaranteed minimum income to offset jobs lost to automation.
Whatever directions the workplace evolves, it’s clear we should be having the conversation now. We all need to have a say, regarding what is the future of work.
IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to Edicia for the futuristic looking command center image; to The Pew Research Center, for the quote from Stowe Boyd; to Futurist Gerd, for the “brain illustration” image on the future of jobs, work, and education; to Rasumussen College for the “What Can You Do with an Early Childhood Education Degree?” image; and to Jonathan Lockwood Huie’s website and Dream this Day for his advice about building the future.