We must widen our vision of what could shape the future of work


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The future of work is a story we will be narrating for many more decades to come

The ‘future of work’ has been the foundation of my research and practice for more than a decade. I’ve written three books, directed a research consortium and taught a class at London Business School on the topic – let’s just say it’s been an immersive experience.

But on standing back and thinking about this period it’s clear to me that I, and others, fell into four big traps. If we are to really help people navigate their own future and support leaders to build a narrative on this then we must be sure to avoid these traps from now on.

The first trap was focusing exclusively on job destruction. Ten years ago economists made some broad predictions about how technology (specifically robotics and early AI) would profoundly affect millions of people by ‘taking their jobs’. The press was full of pictures of large aggressive robots. The reality has been a great deal more complex. Technology rarely replaces a whole job, but rather some aspects. And the conversation is now less about ‘what can machines do?’ and more about ‘what should humans do?’ In considering this we are looking more at job creation and also at the essential human attributes of empathy, intuition, judgement and creativity.

Secondly, we failed to see the bigger picture. The sight of machines performing human tasks caught our attention. But less observed were other changes that would prove even more profound.

One was the changing role of women in the workplace. As women became more educated and motivated to work they began to prefer a ‘career’ to a ‘job’. As they did their preferences affected their familial role, and the role of fathers and their working preferences.

We also hadn’t understood the impact the combination of increasing longevity and decreasing fertility would have. People were beginning to live healthily into their eighties and nineties, therefore upending the idea of retiring at 60. And as fertility fell in most countries the average age of the population climbed into the forties. Together these would serve to profoundly question some deeply-held assumptions – about the role of men and women, and about what it is to age.

Third, we did not celebrate pioneers sufficiently. As I’ve spoken to executives over the past 10 years it’s become clear that, while many employees were following the assigned ways of behaving, some were exhibiting ‘deviant’ behaviours. They were taking a year off in their forties and travelling around the world. They were demanding to work into their seventies. Even if they were men they wanted to get home to spend time with their young children. But these people are not social deviants; they’re social pioneers with the courage to step outside the norm and, by doing so, prepare themselves for the future. And finally, we did not change our assumptions about learning quickly enough.

So here is my view of the (near) future of work. Technology will affect some of the tasks we perform and many of us will be working into our seventies. So we all need to be prepared to upskill (to more useful tasks) or reskill (to more valuable jobs), and we need to do this fast and frequently.

That puts an enormous emphasis on what we could call ‘lifelong learning’. But few companies are prepared for this. Their notions of ‘training’ do not embrace the real excitement of learning technologies, and they focus on the young rather than all ages.

And here is the thing. The ‘future of work’ is a story we will be narrating for many more decades. But if we are to really help people make the transition and build a compelling narrative we must look at job creation as much as destruction. We must widen our vision of what could shape the future, celebrate those who are taking the first steps and overcoming corporate inertia, and use technology to help people learn across their whole lives.

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School

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