When is the future of work
Image: Alexey Wraith/Shuttersock

When exactly is the future of work?

11 Oct 2017

There’s so much talk about the future of work, but when exactly is it and what do you need to know about it?

Future of Work Week

As we delve deeper into the future-of-work sphere this week, we’re answering a number of questions about the nitty-gritty of it all.

Having looked to the past to help us answer those worrisome questions around losing our jobs to the robots, we will now be looking forward to determine how automation really will play a part in our working life.

We’ll also be examining how the trends of the future of work will affect our health, with an increasing pressure to perform.

But first, when exactly is the future of work? With so many conference-style discussions and thought leaders talking about the seemingly vague concept, it’s easy to brush ‘future of work’ off as a buzzphrase, one that won’t affect us for years.

However, future by name does not mean future by nature, according to John Hagel III. “It’s happening today,” he said.

Hagel is the co-chair for Deloitte’s Center for the Edge. He has nearly 30 years of experience as a management consultant, author, speaker and entrepreneur.

‘Artificial intelligence is pretty stupid without data’

He is also well versed in all things future of work thanks to the extensive research that Deloitte carries out.

“I think that part of the issue is the future of work tends to include many different dimensions and contexts of work.”

Hagel added that the future of work also incorporates everything from increasing reliance on third-party labour to automation. “Virtually all of those have started to play out in one form or another so the future is today.”

The future of jobs

With the future of work being less in the future and more in the present, are the concerns over job loss due to automation something we need to concern ourselves with right now?

“My sense is it will happen faster than most of us think, partly because the technology is advancing at such a rapid rate,” he said. “But equally, [so is] the data that’s required to fuel the technology. Artificial intelligence is pretty stupid without data.”

Indeed, our deep dive into the history of automation and jobs shows us that it will be a long time before robots are actually able to replace us, if ever. This, coupled with the natural production of more jobs over time, brings Hagel towards the optimistic side of things.

He also believes it is more likely that the highly skilled workers will be affected.

“Some of the highest-skilled jobs are actually going to be some of the earliest to be automated,” he said. “A PhD is less and less of a safety net in terms of job security.”

Looking a little more closely at the possible automation of jobs, Hagel said anything that involves significant work with data and analytics is in danger. “The machines are becoming more and more adept at doing that.”

The future of skills

When thinking about the future of work, it often feels like checking off a list. First up is how soon it’s happening; the second tick box is the question around jobs; then, people want to know about reskilling and upskilling to maintain a level of job security.

“The real challenge is figuring out what people uniquely can do and focus more on what I would call capabilities rather than skills,” said Hagel.

“Skills tends to be, ‘I know how to use this machine in this context’ or ‘I know how to respond to this customer situation in this prescribed manner’. Those kinds of skills tend to rapidly grow out of date,” he said. “Any skill you have today is going to be obsolete fairly quickly.”

The alternatives to these so-called hard skills are capabilities. These are things such as curiosity, creativity and imagination. These are the kind of soft skills that help people to come up with new ideas and approaches to identify new opportunities. More importantly, these are the skills that are nigh on impossible to automate.

“Those are going to be much more sustainable and are much more uniquely human than skills that can be automated and replaced by a machine,” he said.

‘Any skill you have today is going to be obsolete fairly quickly’

If you read enough reports about the future of work, you might be wondering if you should reskill for a completely different industry – for instance, the ever-growing tech sector. Hagel spoke about his two daughters wondering the same thing.

“My advice to anyone today is first of all, find a passion. Find something you’re really, really passionate about, and don’t stop until you find it,” he said. “Once you find it, find a way to make a living out of it because that’s the only way you’re going to thrive in this new world.

“If you’re not driven to learn faster and be more creative and have higher impact in whatever your area is, you’re going to be in trouble.”

The problem thus far with passion is how much or little it’s encouraged as a genuine pursuit. Many people have experience of being told that if they have a passion for something, it’s fine to pursue it as a hobby but your day job must pay the bills.

If this is the way we’re taught to think, how will our education factor into the future of work?

The future of education

Unfortunately, the education system as we know it was designed to build skills that are highly standardised, highly specified and very much geared towards specific jobs.

Hagel said this kind of education is becoming less helpful within the future of work. “Our entire educational system is going to have to be rethought from the ground up.”

He also said that the education system is very far away from catching up to what the future of work really needs. “They’re building more programming classes and more computer technology classes earlier in the curriculum but, to me, that’s not the answer.”

Once again, it seems the answer lies in developing the soft skills of creativity and curiosity.

As a current employee, what do I need to know?

“The average worker needs to realise that no matter what credentials they have, no matter what skill they have, it’s less and less relevant, and what really matters is how quickly they’re learning and developing themselves,” Hagel said.

“The more you have a sense of getting better faster, the more likely you are to continue to be able to be gainfully employed.”

‘I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to a world of stability’

Hagel said new jobs will definitely come into play but during the transition period, three things need to fall into place to ensure minimal job loss:

  • Individuals need to drive their own development and learning
  • Organisations need to facilitate this kind of accelerated learning
  • Public policy needs to encourage this transition

“If all three of these are not aligned, we do have a risk that there will be this transition period where there will more jobs lost than created,” warned Hagel.

While we talk about the future of work as one specific wave of change, the truth is that it will never not be approaching us. There will always be an ever-changing future of work encroaching on the world we currently know.

But, as Hagel put it, one thing is certain: “I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to a world of stability.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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