IT / Technology
What Changes in the World of Work Are We Likely to See in the next 25 Years?
If we think back just 25 years or so (which is only the late 1980’s) the world of work was very different. Just a few of these differences were:
- There were many more large companies with lots of employees than there are today
- Most companies (except a few very large ones) had a local city, State or at most national customer footprint (with little reach beyond their country borders)
- Employees worked for fewer employers over a career (only 2-3 over a career on average)
- Weekends were worked as an exception rather than a rule (and retail businesses were largely closed on a Sunday)
- Data was largely stored in physical form (paper files, books, etc.) and needed to be “looked up” or researched painstakingly
- Computers had only just started to appear (and had yet to replace all the typewriters that were in abundance)
- There was no Internet outside military circles
- Communication both inside and outside a given organization was largely by letter and phone
- There were no mobile phones (let alone smart phones) in business
- There was little or no working from home (or even much part time work)
All of the above meant that people in organizations tended to work in fixed teams, on a more steady task basis in a world that felt more predictable and less prone to the sort of fast-paced change that has become commonplace today. And the prospect of even greater change is now very much in the expectations of every employee at all levels, especially as the impact of the Internet and new technology continues to transform tasks, processes, businesses and whole sectors of all kinds.
If the last 25 years has seen a dramatic transformation of the world of work, what can we expect to see in the next 25 or put another way what will the world of work look like around 2040? Although this relies on quite a bit of “crystal ball gazing” we can make some educated guesses by extrapolating some of the existing trends and maybe go a little bit further. One modern author who has been looking into the future is Wharton professor Jeremy Rifkin, who in his latest book suggests that we are heading into what he calls the “third industrial age”. Although it is a crude summary, in the first Industrial Age of Feudalism, (running from the middle ages to approximately around the sixteenth century) we saw Kings, Queens, Barons and Squires take charge of land and command that people in general paid rent to work the land on their behalf (to the significant advantage of the land owner). In the second Industrial age, staring around the seventeenth century in most of the then developed world, we saw the rise of the new “merchant” class who brought in a new trading system which became known as capitalism with money being the vehicle through which large-scale projects could be initiated and worked to build large-scale companies, industries and even countries. Rifkin suggests that we are in the last stages of this second age and starting to enter an entirely new age called the “Collaborative Commons”. This is a period in which the creative energy of large numbers of people will increasingly be coordinated (usually with the aid of the Internet) by undertaking large, meaningful projects mostly without a traditional hierarchical organization. These projects will often, but not always, be undertaken with no or only minor financial compensation for participants and value will be earned and exchanged in many new ways, many of which will be non-monetary.
According to Rifkin, as the cost of providing goods and services gets cheaper and cheaper (and starts to approach a marginal close very near to zero) the main drivers of change in society and the business world in particular to this new “collaborative commons” era will come from the move to what is called the “internet of things” where people and objects are all connected electronically in some way. He suggests that there will be three sub-aspects or individual “engines” of this – These are:
- the means of communication (for example, the Internet today is accessed by two-thirds or the world’s population linking them not only to each other but at least theoretically allowing them to exchange value between one another, or what Rifkin calls moving from consumer to producer/consumer or pro-sumer for short),
- the means of power (which is increasingly moving to natural and renewable sources such as wind and solar and allowing individuals to provide for themselves) and finally
- the means of delivery or logistical methods (which is already transforming as the use of drones gets every more diverse and other driverless automated vehicles come into use).
These three drivers will act to transform many industries progressively, having already done so in book and magazine publishing (think Amazon), newspaper advertising (think Craigslist), the music business (think Apple), the taxi business (think Uber and what they say to new would be drivers on their driver sign up page) and the travel accommodation business (think AirBnB) just to name a few. And this is only the beginning according to Rifkin, as the cost of producing an additional good or service gets closer and closer to zero, so an industry will be progressively transformed. This will start with other information and service based sectors, but eventually will dramatically impact on traditional manufacturers and even large capital asset businesses like oil or electricity, for example (especially as technology such as 3D printing becomes more sophisticated, he suggests). As a result of the dramatic impact in all three of these areas, Rifkin suggests that capitalism is likely to be outstripped by the collaborative commons model in just 30-40 years.
Although Rifkin represents only one view of what the future may look like, whether or not you buy into either its particular shape or the timing of the expected changes, what we can say for sure is that things will be just as different then as they are when we look back 25 years now. It therefore pays us to spend more time not only thinking about these potential changes but to spend at least some time in talking about them so that we can be more ready to face the challenges that these changes will bring.