"A Dozen Surprises about the Future of Work": Implications for Workforce Professionals

Apr 7, 2011

Photo of Andy Hines

The Future of Work.
Andy Hines, University of Houston Futurist, author of Thinking about the Future, and editor of Hinesight, spoke to the US Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration's Region 4 Technical Assistance Forum in Dallas last week about the future of work.

We thought it was worth following up with some ideas about the implications of Andy's "Dozen Surprises" for workforce policy makers and program professionals.

Here's Andy's presentation if you'd like to have a look.


We've summarized Andy's key points below, adding our own commentary along the way.

Surprise #1: Humans will be augmented.
On the one hand, anyone who wears glasses is already "augmented." On the other hand, emerging technologies have the potential to dramatically improve human performance, physically and cognitively. This is great news for people with disabilities who have faced an uneven playing field for decades. But it also raises bigger questions about the work-related expectations, like whether students taking prescription drugs to stay awake or improve their performance are "cheating?" Or whether people who are working without augmentation will be left behind.

Will organizations need policies governing worker augmentation? What advice will workforce professionals provide to students, workers, and firms about this issue?

Surprise #2: Emerging markets will rewrite the rules of work.
Will work hours remain 9-5 when more American companies serve markets in Asia? As more foreign firms locate their operations in the US, will they function like American firms? How will we negotiate increasingly culturally diverse workplaces? Will the rules of work (hours, pay, benefits, organizational culture, etc.) change? These and other questions challenge the leaders of global firms today, and will challenge our institutions more broadly tomorrow.

Workforce leaders may welcome the arrival of more diverse firms and industries with whom to partner on a wider range of issues - but they will need more than just labor market and economic data to be able to make good decisions about where to invest their time and resources.

Surprise #3: Where is intelligence?
Our "things" are getting a whole lot smarter. This implies big changes for the world of work: the abilty to find intelligence in streams of data will be in demand across industries; as well, the expectations of people who are "knowledge holders" will increase and shift - these people will be expected to be able to deliver intelligence where it's needed, when it's needed, and through any device people happen to have. Learning and labor exchange will be no less affected by these trends - what are we doing to aggregate information about jobs, work, and learning currently shared openly through social technologies and make sense of it?

Surprise #4: Getting Paid
Ouch. This is a tough one. We are developing new "open source" business models that rely on volunteers, students, even customers to co-create value (via the design of products and services). But we have institutions and systems locked into models that assume customers pay companies for what they produce. Companies in turn, pay employees for the hours they spend on the job. Navigating the challenge of payment for "value" and not just for products or services poses significant challenges for companies going forward (especially those in the knowledge business). It also means that individuals have new ways to access opportunities (e.g., by co-creating products and not just applying for jobs). Both will likely need help managing these transitions.

Surprise #5: The "gig" economy (we changed the name here because, well, we really like this subject and for us, "gig" speaks to the dynamic better than "project")
As we shift to an economy rooted in agile teams developing products and services across firm, industry, and even geographic borders, people will not be connecting to "jobs", but to "work" - in the form of projects, gigs, or time-limited contracts. But navigating this kind of labor market depends upon a few things: social networks, especially easy access to weak ties; and community access to benefits - like health insurance and professional deveopment and learning opportunities. Are we becomng our own managers? What does that imply about workforce preparation programs/content?

Surprise #6: Is fairness possible when "same-rule-for-everybody" policies no longer work?
We saw the beginning of this question arise as "flex-time" policies entered the workplace. Who gets a customized work arrangement and how do we insure that different arrangements are "fair?" There are no easy answers here, but the trend suggests that workforce professionals be attentive to clients' negotiation skills and not just their skills certifications.

Surprise #7: Working to live, not living to work
The great recession changed the way many Americans behave, economically. We are saving more, spending less, and exploring new ways of sharing. Collaborative consumption, while not quite the norm, is no longer "the fringe" either. Even the most fiercely independent Americans are discovering alternatives to ownership and opting out of long commutes from the suburbs. More of us are deciding that if we're going to work hard, we may as well love what we do - especially in an uncertain economic environment. This changes the way labor markets work: self-employment options become more attractive to more people; and job seekers begin to assess opportunities not just based on hours and pay, but on other important intangibles - is the company a "good" employer? A "good" corporate citizen? Does it produce a product I can be proud of? Workforce professionals will increasingly be called upon to provide this kind of information to their customers in addition to information about jobs. Already we are seeing workforce programs build their capacity to provide career and learning advice, not just access to job opportunities and training.

Surprise #8: Work is a thing you do, not a place you go.
The combination of flexible hours and collaborative platforms (like Sharepoint, Basecamp, wikis, etc.) have challenged organizations to reinvent workflows. This pressure will increase as workers seek to integrate personal/social technologies in seemless ways. For workforce professionals, understanding these technologies and the skills people need to use them effectively in their job search, work, and in learning and career deveopment will be critical.

Surprise #9: Where do I get training?
Accessing training has been outsourced - to us, the workers. On the positive side, we've never had more options - online, offline, classroom-based, practicum-based, etc. But how do we find what's best for us? How do we assess effectiveness? For workforce professionals, this is a dramatic change. It means understanding a much broader education and training ecosystem that is not even necessariy located in a geographic place. It might mean revisiting the definition of "training" - and making it possble to invest more flexibly, in adult internships for example. And it surely means preparing clients for a world in which training and career advancement is up to them. 

Surprise #10: Nearsourcing, not outsourcing.
Changing global economics, the complexity of supply chains, the rising cost of fuel, and expectations about environmental regulations are making local and simple sound increasingly attractive. But for companies to succeed locally, they will have to strengthen local ties to their communities - a great opportunity for workforce leaders.

Surprise #11: Happiness matters, too, not just productivity. (We changed this title, too - blogger's discretion).
For years I've asked my economist friends whether they wake up in the morning thinking about their contribution to the gross domestic product. For years, they've laughed. Today, economists and policy makers are finally catching up. Happiness matters in more than Bhutan - we're all getting on board, though "well-being" seems the frame we're most comfortable with.

Surprise #12: Meet the new boss - not the same as the old boss.
The impact of multiple generations with different workstyles and experiences in the same workplace is a subject much written and talked about. Workforce professionals will be increasingly called upon to provide advice to workers and firms about managing in ways that faciltation intergenerational learning and minimize potential conflict.

There's a lot to chew on here. We're grateful to Andy for sharing it, and to DOLETA Region 4 for hosting the event.