a compass for the future of work

There is little doubt that automation, by machines and software, is replacing human work and putting many current jobs at risk. How this will happen is uncertain, as an MIT Technology Review analysis of various projections shows a wide discrepancy. For example Forrester expects the US to lose 13.8M jobs and gain 3M in 2018. The World Economic Forum projects that 7.1M will be lost and 2M gained by 2020, in a sampling of 15 countries. On the other hand, Gartner expects a mere 1.8M jobs to be destroyed and 2M created by 2020. We can pretty well assume that nobody knows.

Even the overhyped focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics may be the wrong path in the long run.

“When technology can increasingly do anything, the question becomes, what should we do and why? We humans cannot be sufficiently equipped for the future without exposure to the social sciences, humanities and the arts … While essential, STEM as work skills (as opposed to research disciplines) harbor a Trojan Horse. The STEM capabilities required to create technology will one day generate technologies that accomplish STEM far better than human beings. If we’re too focused on STEM skills, we’ll eventually STEM ourselves out of work.” —Quartz 2017-11-22

We do not know which specific skills will be necessary for valued human work in the future. Whether this work is paid or not, is a topic for another post. I have put forth that certain competencies are not easy to automate: curiosity, creativity, empathy, humour, and passion. Ross Dawson has a more comprehensive list, based on three pillars of expertise, creativity, and relationships.

Another way to look at automation is how we will be working with the machines. In Only Humans Need Apply, the authors identify five ways that people can adapt to automation and intelligent machines. They call it ‘stepping’. I have added in parentheses the competencies I think are needed for each option.

  1. Step-up: directing the machine-augmented world (creativity)
  2. Step-in: using machines to augment work (deep thinking)
  3. Step-aside: doing human work that machines are not suited for (empathy)
  4. Step narrowly: specializing narrowly in a field too small for augmentation (passion)
  5. Step forward: developing new augmentation systems (curiosity)

This may help people look at how to prepare for future jobs and compensated work. For instance, in 2011 The New York Times reported that “armies of lawyers” were being “replaced by cheaper software” that did ‘e-discovery’. In Only Humans Need Apply, an example is given of one lawyer who stepped-in to take advantage of the situation. “He began to specialize in it, and eventually abandoned commercial litigation for a full-time e-discovery focus as a senior litigator.”

It is certain that we cannot tell the future. We don’t need a roadmap for the future of work. Instead we need a good compass. That compass should be based on what we know about being human. We do know what motivates people. According to self-determination theory (SDT) there are three universal human drivers: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We need some control over our lives, we want to be good at something, and we want to feel that we belong with other people. These drivers are what make us do what we do.

“That is, the social context can either support or thwart the natural tendencies toward active engagement and psychological growth, or it can catalyze lack of integration, defense, and fulfillment of need-substitutes. Thus, it is the dialectic between the active organism and the social context that is the basis for SDT’s predictions about behavior, experience, and development.

Within SDT, the nutriments for healthy development and functioning are specified using the concept of basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. To the extent that the needs are ongoingly satisfied, people will develop and function effectively and experience wellness, but to the extent that they are thwarted, people will more likely evidence ill-being and non-optimal functioning.”

When we look at the future of work, the loss of current jobs, and the effects of automation we should use the SDT compass to guide us, not a list of what the jobs of the future may look like. These maps get stale too quickly. In preparing for this new world of work, policy makers and organizational leaders should look at how they can enhance autonomy, competence, and relatedness for everyone. The future of work will then take care of itself.

I will be discussing the future of work and how our social networks affect our sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness at The Landing Festival in Berlin in March 2018.

3 Responses to “a compass for the future of work”

  1. Dr C. James Bacon

    I’m coming to you through LinkedIn.
    I’m close to completing a book on
    Information Know-How
    Getting the best in work, life, and society
    through less yet better information.
    My PhD is in Infomation Systems, but the book is about Information Itself;
    it’s the first on this elusive (yet critical) subject.
    We should connect.


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