Future of Work: 7 trends for 2021

Laëtitia Vitaud explores what measures we need to take to put the trends on the future of work, some of which have been around for a long time, into action.

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Laëtitia apperead as a guest on our digital show WHAT’S NEXT in February 2021. She explored how the pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate our view of the home and the workplaces, and how we need to plan very differently for a new style of living in the future.

#1 Our hunger for direct feedback is growing.

Whether you call it “craftsmanship” or “passion economy”, there’s a trend that’s not about to stop and that’s likely to transform work as we know it. More workers seek autonomy at work and want to see the direct impact of their work. They want direct feedback from users, clients, or from the work itself. It means scientific management and division of labour are increasingly challenged.

Indeed scientific management used to come with good jobs (secure, well-paid jobs supported by powerful unions), but now they come with precariousness and dependency. Alienation was compensated by economic security. Not anymore. As more good jobs are replaced by precarious ones, people’s hunger for direct feedback continues to grow.

As I wrote in this piece about the lessons from the Arts & Crafts movement:

Workers are tired of the meaningless, repetitive and alienating work model of the Fordist era. They don’t want to repeat a “one best way” over and over again. They want to invent their own way, be more creative, feel they have an impact and find meaning in their work. They don’t want to be managed: they want to manage themselves. That’s one of the reasons why an increasing number of workers choose to become freelancers.

In my particular field of work, things are changing increasingly fast. With the (exponential) growth of a platform like Substack, of the podcast economy, and of self-publishing, traditional media are increasingly challenged. As a lot of traditional media are incapable of being more inclusive of women and minorities, it’s a trend I welcome. I launched this newsletter exactly a year ago, and it’s been very rewarding to have all these personal exchanges with readers, to learn from you, and improve the quality of my work in the process.

The great opportunity that comes with this trend is the possibility of working as individuals, and developing personal relationships with other unique individuals. The challenge is that as a worker you have to develop something unique. For people who’ve been raised to conform, it’s anything but easy.

“The same forces—technology and trade—that destroyed the widget economy have given birth to what I call the Passion Economy.” “A commodity is an undifferentiated product that is easily copied and replicated by others. (…) Commodity businesses are price takers, meaning they get paid whatever the market happens to be. (…) By definition a passion business differentiates itself from others so that it can charge a unique price that represents its unique value.” (Adam Davidson in The Passion Economy)

#2 Women are the frontier.

The jobs and activities dominated by women have been hit hard by the pandemic: jobs in proximity services, healthcare, childcare, elderly care, hospitality, tourism, cleaning… were impacted the most. Many female workers lost their jobs, or had to stay at home to look after children. That’s why this crisis is now referred to as a Shecession.

Nevertheless most of these jobs and sectors that employ a majority of women will continue to be the fastest-growing ones. Our population is ageing and people consume more and more services so we’ll need more nurses, care workers, but also teachers, coaches, janitors… In Europe alone, millions of new nurses and social workers will be needed over the next two decades. And an overwhelming majority of them will likely be women.

The secular trend of so-called “reproductive labour” going from unpaid to paid may have been momentarily curtailed by the pandemic, but it’s unlikely to stop in the future. The growth of paid domestic work will continue in the future. In fact the pandemic also had the effect of making some of these jobs more visible. Many of them were deemed particularly “essential”.

When it comes to the future of work, women are the frontier for several reasons:

  • Women occupy jobs that have a future (care workers aren’t easily automatable).
  • Wherever women are exploited, mistreated, harassed, and underpaid, there are future of work struggles and challenges. For example, the future of organising is being invented by remarkable women such as Ai-Jen Poo (National Domestics Workers Alliance in the US) or Maimonatou Mar (Gribouilli in France).
  • The qualities that many women were taught to learn and value (empathy, listening, caring, conflict management, culture, service, emotional intelligence…) are precisely the “soft” skills that are said to be the skills of the future.
  • The sectors where women are underrepresented (finance, tech, construction…) will need to innovate and/or expand if they want to have a future. For that to happen they’ll have to be more inclusive. Without women these industries will be heading straight for disaster, if only because of climate change (no, climate change can’t be addressed without women, but I’d need a whole newsletter to expand on that subject).

#3 Activism will force more people to share power.

2020 was definitely the year of activism. The assassination of George Floyd in the US started a new phase of reckoning all over the world about the violence that non-white people suffer every day from our old patriarchal institutions (among which the police). Colonialism, slavery and patriarchy may have officially disappeared but they have left such strong traces in our society that they may as well still be alive and kicking.

For a few years now, many corporations have used “activism washing” to improve their image. There’s definitely a before and after Trump when it comes to activism. Many brands have felt the need the “draw a line in the sand” and take a stand. As I wrote a few years ago in this piece about “brand activism”:

“The new rules of the digital game have transformed the way we communicate and market our products. The age of top-down mass-market everyone-should-be-pleased marketing is over. You can’t please everyone, and if you do, you end up pleasing no one. A strong stand is how you attract superfans. Can you still exist without them?”

After 2020, activism will increasingly permeate the world of work. It has just started to transform Silicon Valley (not without resistance!). 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. I call this turning point the “three Ps”.

  • Product: The design of machine learning algorithms, AI tools and all applications is based on biased data. To improve your product (see the example of facial recognition software mentioned above), you must make it less “racist”, i.e. have more diversity among your engineers, and more diversity in the data used to design the products.
  • People: Diversity in HR will be increasingly critical at a time when access to talent is exceedingly limited. Trump has just suspended all immigration visas for skilled workers Silicon Valley depends on (one in two employees in tech companies was not born in the US). So these companies will have to get creative and find talent elsewhere, in local, diverse communities (among Blacks and Hispanics).
  • Politics: 2020 is a turning point with elections, a pandemic, an economic crisis, demonstrations against racism and police violence. Racism is at the heart of all debates. At the same time tech companies (notably Facebook) are accused of complicity with Trump. To restore their image in this time of unprecedented backlash, they must do more than just make empty promises. (Why George Floyd’s Death could change Silicon Valley)

Millennials and Zs may be less involved in traditional politics but many of them want their work to be more political. Activism is work, and work is activism. Over the past few years, new laws and metrics have forced companies to be much more transparent about who has power. There’s more transparency about the lack of diversity: everybody is counting now. If power is not shared in the future, all hell will break loose.

Obviously, activism is also increasingly related to climate change. Expect transparency about the impact (footprint) of work on the planet to be more and more demanded by workers and consumers.

#4 The unbundling of jobs is more visible. New risks call for new protections.

The unbundling of jobs is something I’ve been writing about for almost 4 years now. It isn’t new. It’s probably been going on for almost four decades. Here’s what I wrote in this article about the unbundling of jobs:

“In the mass economy, each job used to be a bundle. With that job came money, health care, a pension, provable solvency to purchase a house and a car, the promise of stability and constant enrichment, and more. Each worker accepted a “bargain”: division of labour in exchange for a “bundle” of benefits and security. Work wasn’t necessarily fulfilling and interesting. But the bargain made the relative alienation perfectly acceptable.

For at least four decades now, jobs have been progressively unbundled.With globalisation, desindustrialisation, the rise of automation, and the decline of labour unions, jobs are less and less coupled with the traditional benefits of the industrial age. Wages have declined. The financialisation of the economy has stopped corporations from offering workers job security. The old “bargain” is gone.

In many ways today’s white-collar and service jobs resemble the jobs of the industrial age as division of labour and bureaucracy still largely define how work is organised. But workers now face the possibility of unemployment, downward mobility, and the lack of social protection. Jobs no longer come with the promise of upward mobility.

An increasingly large number of “outsiders”, newly arrived on the job market, have no way of proving their solvency. They find it harder to access housing in the densest urban centres. Geographic inequalities have only intensified the problem, as some cities or areas concentrate more and more jobs while others become depopulated and poorer.”

This unbundling isn’t a new trend. What is new is that more people realise it’s happening. The unbundling of jobs has become much more visible. The pandemic has made the unbundling even more visible than it already was. As more people work in alternative work arrangements (as contractors and freelancers), in 2020 more people have found themselves deprived of the traditional protections associated to salaried work (at least in most European countries).

In fact there were so many of them that some governments couldn’t ignore them anymore. Britain and France for example handed out unemployment benefits to the self-employed. The creation of a “new bundle” is a challenge for our institutions (social protection, schools, unions) and companies.

There are new risks today like having access to housing when you don’t have a pay slip, or financing a professional transition (from one career to another), that aren’t covered by the old bundle. And there are more and more people with unbundled jobs who aren’t covered for the usual risks (healthcare, childcare, unemployment). There’s a need for a new social contract. Work can’t be regarded as a purely individual choice.

More and more of these questions will be up for discussion in the very near future. The way these questions are answered will have a huge impact on the future of work.

#5 The immigrant mindset is what we all need.

I’ve just moved to Germany to continue to develop my own “immigrant mindset”. You can’t take things for granted and take it easy when you have to start afresh in a different country. Everything is different. Everything is hard. Even sorting the trash feels like an engineering challenge. It’s not just the language: you may know how to translate a word but can’t figure out why it’s used in that context and what it refers to in the moment.

One of the reasons I took up the challenge is that I’m convinced it’s a valuable experience in a world that’s increasingly fragmented. Not only will I develop my cognitive skills, I’ll also get to learn to “navigate across cultures”. And there’s a chance that’ll help in the future of work, as I explained in a previous edition of this newsletter:

“If the life of our children (and ours) is likely to be composed of more transitions, then we’ll need to develop our transformational assets, i.e our ability to change and shift several times over the course of our lives (…)

You’ll have to know yourself better, understand what you’re capable of, and mostly what you want and don’t want in life. Acquiring self-knowledge will be more critical than ever. A healthy dose of empathy may also come in handy. As Gratton and Scott write in their book, “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.”

Last but not least, in a life of transitions and migrations, you’ll have to learn to navigate across cultures. Even if you’re not a migrant, you may have to live and work with migrants.”

2020 has been a year of complete uncertainty. Much has been written about the need to develop the “uncertainty mindset” (I wrote a newsletter about it). It turns out the immigrant mindset and the uncertainty mindset intersect. I recently came across this Fortune article I loved. It’s titled “Why an immigrant mindset is such a valuable asset during COVID” in which I read this:

“There’s a certain worker undeniably in high demand during this pandemic: multiskilled, flexible, resilient, and tolerant of risk and the great unknown.

Basically, immigrants.

The act of migration itself underscores an appetite for risk. Outsiders bring with them fresh perspectives, new ideas, and a certain hustle and hunger to survive. In the middle of this current and historic upheaval of the world order, some employers are finding that’s not just welcome but necessary.”

Like women, immigrants are also the “frontier” when it comes to the future of work. They take up new (unbundled) jobs nobody else wants to have. They challenge their identities and acquire new skills the way more and more people will have to in the near future. Why not get ready for it and adopt the immigrant mindset right now? And pay close attention to immigrants as a population of work pioneers?

#6 In our age of longevity & techno-economic transition, the 3-stage life is over.

I’ve already written a lot about how longevity (and the ongoing demographic revolution) are going to continue to affect the world of work and the way we define careers. A few years ago I read The 100-Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, and more recently I devoured their new book, The New Long Life. I even interviewed Andrew Scott for my podcast Building Bridges! (It’s going to be released soon). The way they frame the debate about longevity and work is very convincing.

“Too much of current policy is aimed at the final stage of life and viewed through the prism of a three-stage life. The consequences of a 100-year life are for everyone, not just the old, and involve far more than adjusting the level of pensions or flexing the date at which retirement starts.” “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.” “Long lives are lives of transitions (…) Simply following the herd is not going to work” (The 100-Year Life)

“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. As the social philosopher Eric Hoffer remarked: ‘In times of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists?’” (The New Long Life)

The three-stage life (training, work, retirement) is giving way to a multi-stage life that’s more individualised. But because multi-stage lives are more individualised, they’re also become more precarious. If people and institutions (corporations, unions, schools, governments) do not address longevity more ambitiously, there will be millions and millions more destitute people among tomorrow’s elderly people.

Whenever longevity is mentioned in the media, it’s usually mentioned as an economic “problem” or a social “burden”. F… this! I would love to live a longer, healthier life and spend more time doing fun stuff with people I love. As Gratton and Scott keep saying, it’s a gift, not a burden. It’s high time age was talked about differently. Age is malleable.

Why do publications about the future of work so rarely tackle longevity and demographics? If there’s one thing we’re pretty certain about the future, it’s that we’ll be older collectively and we will probably live and work significantly longer.

Governments do (sort of) address longevity when they say we’ll have to work longer, but right now there’s so much ageism in the job market that it’s not enough to say you have to work longer. First and foremost you’ll have to be empowered to work longer. Otherwise you’ll just be unemployed for longer.

To really tackle the intersection between work and longevity, every element of the system will have to be addressed: training, social protection, housing, employment, recruitment, training again, infrastructures… I’m adamant that 2021 should be the year we tackle the subject much more extensively. I’m pretty sure it will be.

#7 Remote work is transforming traditional management & 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”.

Laëtitia Vitaud writes Laetitia@Work, a newsletter on the future of work and consumption. This post first appeared on Substack.

Photos by Alessio Lin, Clay Banks, David Clarke and Brooke Cagle on Unsplash