History tells us that human beings have been around for 200,000 odd years. Of these, till about 12,000 years ago, they were hunter-gatherers. Then agriculture happened and they were relieved of bothering about the basic physiological needs of hunger and shelter. This was a watershed moment in the evolution of human history, with ‘cultivation and extraction’ becoming the key economic drivers. It is about 250 years ago that the industrial revolution happened and human output efficiency got delinked from the human muscle. The new economic driver: manufacturing and industry.

In a post-Covid world with computing power and human potential as the new economic drivers in the age of information in the 21st century, human progress has further been delinked from mental capacity, what with artificial intelligence (A.I.) and several other tech-assisted mechanisms unleashing a new world.

The context

While the concept of work as employment was almost non-existent and unthinkable in the larger part of human history, during the agricultural age, bonded labour, and other labour assumed informal forms of engagement. It is almost over the last 1,000-odd years that the modern concept of work came into being. Especially so with the industrial revolution, and with worker protections and benefits, and scientific productivity norms and linkages as an integral part of the modern-day employment model. This conception of work is now in for a major change as is being witnessed what with the sharing economy and several other milestone developments alongside a pandemic attack.

The future of work is being driven by three ‘A’s–-A.I., automation, and analytics. An epoch-making change–-something not experienced since the 19th century Industrial Revolution. Research on the impending apocalypse is all over the place. The World Economic Forum, LinkedIn, PwC, Willis Towers Watson, and various other research reports are talking about massive changes in skills required to cope with job displacement owing to automation and more.

The Indian economy is characterised by its informal quotient of 90% with low labour costs as an additional characteristic. Expert opinion is divided on whether automation would find it hard to compete with cheap labour or--as work and HR technology firm PeopleStrong estimates--23% of jobs lost to automation globally by 2021 could well be in India.

In such a situation, the educational qualifications are seen to have a limited shelf life and lifelong investment in skills upgradation will perhaps carry the day for humans.

The challenge

Most of the children born in the developed part of the world can expect to live a 100 years. Longevity is a curse or a gift is, however, a moot point unless a new structure, as different from those of our parents, is evolved to cope with this increase in life expectancy. Individuals, companies, and governments all have a role to play as the existing models cannot be stretched uncomfortably. Making longevity a gift requires concerted action by all.

Individuals will need to make choices regarding structuring life with intermittent learning phases, marriage timing, financing a longer life, and more. Individuals will also need to perhaps grow deep wiring in one area of expertise and top it up with another to form Pi style of leadership rather than the historical T.

The assumption of a three-stage life with a career stage involving a deep commitment to working to achieve financial freedom on the part of individuals may not exist. This has implications for corporates.

The challenges for governments are driven by changing social structures and individual experimentation, which will need policy and legal changes to be effective where the governments will need to budget not only for the end-of-life problems but also move towards lifetime measures. That long life does not become a curse for the underprivileged is where the governments will need to work extra.

The issues

Life will change from a chunky three-stage model--education, work, and retirement--to a fluid and ongoing multistage model where education, exploration, employment, self-employment, retirements, and a portfolio of paid and unpaid work will all be in a continuum. Education will be all through, work will be much longer, and retirement will perhaps be redistributed. This has implications for individual learning and health. Multiple transitions in the new model versus only two--study to work and work to retire--will necessitate the wisdom of exercising the power of options.

Work will change from a long-tunnel view to a maze with twists and turns. Perhaps self-awareness will be the compass to help us navigate through the maze.

Alvin Toffler, in Future Shock, wrote about people switching jobs several times in a lifetime unlike for the larger part of the last century, and predicted that there will come a time when they may switch even their careers once in a lifetime. The prediction may more than come true with people switching several careers with varying intensities of work, life being a long marathon.


The changing nature of a career may see the length of a career stretching to something like 60 to 70 years. A few trends that may influence the future of work are cloud collaborative technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Big Data; social media-influenced new behaviours; mobility defined by anytime, anywhere working; and globalisation as defined by no boundaries. Not to mention pandemic-attack driven compulsions!

The author is executive-in-residence at ISB and at UCLA, a global CEO coach, and a C-Suite and startup advisor.

Views are personal.

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