The future of work has just arrived

Almost every aspect of our work lives is changing fast. The future of work is now. Let's not get stuck in the Industrial Age.

Watch the complete episode

When we look at the future of work, we tend to take for granted almost all the elements of how we structure our work life. There’s an office, a factory or another place designated for work. The workday has eight hours, lasting roughly from nine to five. The work week has five days and, in most cases, they are Monday to Friday. In Germany, almost half of the population is employed (40.8 million people in 2020, down 0.8% from 2019), while only 4.0 million (-3.7%) are self-employed. In 2019, labour market participation was at an all-time high.

Statistically, full-time employees work 41.0 hours per week, while their part-time colleagues manage 19.5 hours. Employees train for their jobs through formal education. They work 40 hours a week for roughly 40 years before they retire. Jobs require certain qualifications and have descriptions; there are hierarchies at work. Careers mean either climbing up the corporate ladder or changing jobs to move forward. Managers deem learning unproductive. Companies pay us by the hour.

From a historical perspective, most of these are quite recent phenomena. The modern office and the factory have been around since the Industrial Revolution: about 150 years. The eight-hour workday was instituted over a period of time from the late 19th to the early 20th century, and the 40-hour workweek came even later. Germany didn’t widely adopt it until little more than 50 years ago. Open-plan offices, first designed in the early 20th century, only came in widespread use in the 1960s.

The structure of our work is the result of the industrial revolutions. Each revolution adapted the setting, but the overall structure remained in place.

The changing job landscape

Fast forward to 2021. Huge chunks of work are suddenly remote. The office crumbles. The eight-hour workday is questioned, the five-day workweek may become obsolete. Employment in Germany has peaked and will further decline due to demographic change. This alone will spur a fresh round of automation, both in white-collar and blue-collar jobs. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 has a pretty clear picture of the changing job market. Old jobs lost and new jobs created will demand massive reskilling for nearly half of all workers.

This amounts to formal qualifications losing their value, while learning becomes part of the job (and thus can’t be considered unproductive any more). Education will move on from learning stuff to learning how to learn. Now, this is something experts have predicted for decades. Increasingly, learning is moving online – a pandemic-enforced change that won’t go away. Homeschooling, personalised learning, and a focus on social and emotional skills are also here to stay, at some level. Nothing new, but now high on the agenda.

But – and this is a huge but – learning itself will become automated and thus taken over by machines, at least partially. We shouldn’t confuse machine learning and deep learning with education, though the former will have repercussions for the latter. Our education system is stuck in the Industrial Age. It’s time to abandon the Industrial Age framework of schools as factories with children as commoditised products – instead of people. The future of work is what can’t be done by machines (or, at least, not yet…).

Middle managers become obsolete

A huge part of this is care work or reproductive labour, and another part is dealing with machines and automation, as seen above. The new jobs created are digital. The jobs we lose are those performing repetitive tasks that we can – and probably should – automate. But we will also lose typical middle-management jobs. Where work is well-structured and workers know what to do, middle managers become obsolete. Our world is no longer complicated, but complex, and this has tremendous consequences, as Stowe Boyd puts it:

“We have not crossed the line, but the trend is toward a workforce of 100% knowledge workers performing cognitive, non-routine work, and all other tasks being automated at some time in the near future.”

In his view, this completely changes the nature of management:

“One key aspect of postnormal business is that the people working in them will demand greater autonomy, and not just out of egotistic arrogance, but as an outgrowth of their expertise and the networks of ‘talent’ needed to get things done today. That autonomy decreases the central role of bosses as decision makers and task managers. These folks won’t need bosses, they need resources, they need barriers pulled out of the way, and they need strong teammates, but they don’t necessarily need a ‘boss’ to do those things. They just need the help of others, to cooperatively make those things happen. And no one has to boss someone else around to make those things happen: we need to pull together, not get pushed into line to make things happen.”

The shift to asynchronous

Decision making will be radically decentralised. And careers will be different in times when the corporate ladder makes less and less sense. Job hopping has been touted as the new normal for quite a while, but most people in Germany still stay at the same workplace. The average length of service has been at a high, even slightly increasing, level for decades. In times of rapid change and a diminishing labour force potential, this trend could well sustain.

The shift to remote work will also amplify the shift to asynchronous communication. There are two major reasons:

  1. knowledge workers need uninterrupted time to get their work done, and
  2. with the spatial detachment of work comes a temporal separation.

Workers will work according to their own schedules, not by the artificial rhythm of the Industrial Age. The tools are there. And the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous communication has been there since the age of business letters and the telephone.

Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash

More about the topic