For the largest part of human history, humans worked for their own and their family’s survival and lived life on a day-to-day basis, much like the others in the animal kingdom. Agriculture and domestication of livestock changed that. With some becoming feudal landlords who started indulging in slaving others—perhaps the earliest form of a man working for another. Human living, thus, got delinked from time. Industrial revolution further changed the landscape with evolving sophisticated employment models to suit the age of manufacturing and automation, replete with worker salaries, incentives, and benefits. Human productivity and living got amplified with the aid of machine. In the information age, technology has delinked the human potential even from mental prowess. Combine this with average longevity getting stretched to a hundred years and healthy productive work-life to perhaps seventy-odd years.

The pandemic has brought the future forward. The shifting landscape is painting an altogether new horizon.

Work, which is an integral part of not only how humans live or survive, but also to find a meaningful purpose to life, therefore, is getting directly affected.

Future of work

Future of work is going to be determined by a few factors. Seventy years of long work-life may impact the number of careers—not jobs—a person pursues. Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ is all set to become real.

It may lead to multiple mini sabbaticals to make one skilled for the next career as also multiple mini retirements to make the most of life. With limited time to a career, the commitment levels may see a swing. There will be a premium on lifelong learning as “the average person entering the workforce in 2030 will have to plan to reboot their skills eight to ten times throughout their working life,” as per Thomas Frey, a futurist, at the DaVinci Institute. McKinsey’s ’Jobs lost, Jobs gained’ 2017 report predicted that by 2022, everyone will need an extra 101 days of learning.

AI and the emerging technologies will perhaps make some of the current skills irrelevant and may make some others as the most ‘sought after’. Soft skills, and social and economic skills are expected to rise to the top. Soft skills are defined by higher cognitive skills like creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Social and emotional skills like leadership, service orientation, social influence, managing others, kindness, compassion, empathy, and emotional intelligence will also rise to the top. A recent The Wall Street Journal article, "Wanted: Employees Who Can Shake Hands, Make Small Talk," captures the nuanced importance of social and emotional skills beautifully in the title itself. With technology leading to a gradual reduction of repetitive tasks, rule-based operations and processes, and administrative reportage, humans will perhaps have more time for innovation, collaboration, and productivity. For once, John Maynard Keynes' argument in Essays in Persuasion about mankind ending up with 15-hour work-week owing to people getting more productive, thanks to machines, technology and new ideas, may come true.

Technology as hardware has historically assisted humans by being outside of us. Technology getting embedded into a man may give rise to a new workforce of cyborgs and newer work standards. Threats and challenges to the established concepts of capitalism, globalisation, and the rise of sharing economy and platform businesses will be some of the other factors affecting and determining the future of work. Even as one could interpret in all this as Schumpeter’s 'creative destruction' working in disguise, especially with regard to the future of work, it is far more complex than meets the eye. As an example, will the emerging future of work deliver on its promise of diversity and inclusion?

The future of work will be determined by the changing nature of work—the processes, environments, contexts, and relationships for work. Add to this a few developments—cloud collaborative tech, IoT and big data; social media-influenced new behaviors; mobility defined by anytime, anywhere working; and globalisation as defined by no boundaries. And top it with pandemic-attack driven compulsions! If the future of work is wide and epoch-making, so are the attributes of tech-driven labour markets—indefinite, erratic, and extreme.

Moreover, if work becomes different, so will the act of learning. Technological angst is integral to the evolution of human civilisation. The success of ‘Learning how to learn’ as one of the top 20 most sought-out courses out of 3900+ courses on Coursera perhaps drives home the point.

Individuals, companies, institutions, and governments will all have to play their part as the existing models will not be tenable. Exercising the power of options will help make longevity a gift which will require concerted action by all.

More twists and turns. More fluid than fixed. More sprints than a marathon. That will be the future of work.

Views are personal. The author is Executive-in-Residence at UCLA, a Stanford Seed Consultant, a global CEO coach, and a C-Suite + Start-up advisor.

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