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What Is the Future of Work?

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.

the-future-of-work

Stephen Hawking once observed:

"Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it."

He captures what many of us think about work. But, since the Industrial Revolution, the nature of work has changed and continues to do so. The pace of this change is picking up momentum, and we are in danger of falling behind. In this article, we shall look at what is going on, how we need to adapt, and what the future challenges will be.

It is still normal to ask children what they want to be when they grow up. If you think about it, this is a curious question. The use of the verb "be" instead of "do" suggests that our profession is a fundamental part of our identity. Perhaps we will soon need to rephrase our question to "What will you be able to do when you grow up?"

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The Changing Structure

Once upon a time, a lot of people expected to spend their working lives in one place. They might work their way up the promotion ladder, but their employer remained the same.

Recruiters were suspicious of job applicants whose resumés showed frequent job changes. There was a suspicion that such people were incapable of holding down a position, they were clearly unreliable, and any money spent on their training would likely be wasted. Nowadays, it seems that Americans change employment every 4.2 years.

A statistic can only give us an overview - it is meaningless at an individual level. Even so, this does describe a trend and begs the question as to why people are now changing jobs much more frequently than they once did.

The nature of work is changing. We can, I think, point to three central reasons that are connected to each other:

Globalization

Some processes are so complex that they defy analysis. Globalization is one of them. It has brought undoubted benefits. As production has shifted to transitional economies, more people in those economies can find work, more children can go to school, and further opportunities arise. On the other hand, people lose their jobs in manufacturing centers in the developed world. One only has to think of cities such as Detroit.

Globalization has brought benefits to consumers in the developed economies; relatively fresh fruit and vegetables are available at any time of year, and all sorts of products, from televisions to trucks, are cheaper than they have ever been. However, manufacturers have shipped jobs to cheaper production centers. Workers who once worked in closed factories are finding it difficult to get new jobs. Farmers in the developed world find it increasingly difficult to produce at a competitive price - this has knock-on effects on the agricultural workers that depend on the farms.

Automation

Traditional jobs in industry and agriculture have been hit hard by automation. In many cases, automating a production line is no bad thing. Soul-destroying, repetitive jobs are done by machines that don't get bored, don't need sleep or days off, and, once the investment has been paid off, are a lot cheaper than human labor.

In an ideal world, this process would free workers to do more rewarding work. However, this is not an ideal world.

Information Technology

The revolution in computer technology and the connectivity of the internet have meant that people can work from anywhere but only in the jobs that lend themselves to distance working.

Meanwhile, more and more processes are going online. An indication of the importance of this is the decline in employment in the retail banking sector. Bank branches are closing, and customers are expected to do much of their banking via the internet. Certainly convenient for some, not so for many of the elderly, and not good news for those who thought that they had a career for life in the banking sector.

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The Gig Economy

Much of the background information in this section derives from "The State of Gig Work in 2021" by the Pew Research Center. You will find a link to their report in the Sources section at the end of this article.

We might define gig work as temporary and freelance. It uses online platforms to connect the worker and the client.

The introduction to the Pew report states:

"The emergence of companies such as Uber, Task Rabbit or DoorDash has expanded the way people make money and added another dimension to the labor force."

Pew tells us that 16% of adult Americans have tried working in the so-called gig economy. These people may have driven for a company like Uber, delivered take-out for a restaurant, written for a content gathering site, or any other of a myriad of possibilities.

Supporters of gig economy work maintain that it is more flexible and makes people more responsible and entrepreneurial. This may well be the case, but there are only so many jobs available, pay is often low, and there are few benefits. Most workers in the gig economy are insecure because they are self-employed.

Fully one-third of gig workers depend on it as their main job; for the rest, it is a source of additional income, but for over half, this extra money is important or necessary.

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Problems

As jobs in traditional sectors move offshore or online, they are not being replaced by similar jobs. New sectors are opening up, but these usually don't require a large number of hands. They also tend to demand skills that may be beyond the reach of workers who have lost manual jobs in manufacturing or agriculture.

Jobs in the new economy that don't demand technical expertise tend not to pay very well. It's difficult to work out what an Uber driver makes because the company's pay structure is complicated. Clearly, a driver in an urban area will make more than one who works in a rural area.

However, reports suggest that an Uber driver might make from $8 to $12 per hour. This is above the current federally mandated minimum wage of $7,25, but we should remember that the Uber driver faces expenses that a contracted employee does not.

The old belief that a job was for life is disappearing. We can't be sure that we will be doing the same job in ten years' time. This fosters a feeling of insecurity and makes it difficult to financially plan for the future.

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Finding Meaning

A job gives us a sense of self-worth and is an important part of our identity. What do we do if there are no jobs?

Firstly, the money we make through our work allows us to operate independently. If people have no source of income, the money that they need will have to come from somewhere. Perhaps the answer will have to be a guaranteed minimum income. This will invariably mean higher taxes.

Secondly, we have to abandon the idea that our work defines who we are. People will have to learn how they can use their abundant leisure time in constructive ways.

Final Remarks

A great social change is well underway. It will present us with abundant challenges. Through rethinking how money is distributed and how people can be best prepared for an uncertain future, we may be able to meet the challenge.

But it won't be easy.

Sources and Further Reading

  • The State of Gig Work in 2021 | Pew Research Center
    Some 16% of Americans have ever earned money from an online gig platform. While most gig platform workers say they have had a positive experience with these jobs, some report facing on-the-job troubles like being treated rudely or sexually harassed.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.