The Future of Work: Changes in the Workplace and Workforce
The world is changing at an ever-increasing rate. With advances in artificial intelligence and automation, as well as changes in how and where we work, many factors will impact job options in the future. But how do we know what jobs will still be in demand, or which jobs will be obsolete? Will your chosen career still look the same in a decade, or will it have evolved in a totally different direction?
How can you prepare for changes in the workforce of the future?
What is the Future of Work?
We can’t talk about the future of work without discussing the present. If 2020 taught employers and employees alike one thing, it was how to pivot. The international pandemic required us to reevaluate when and where we could work, and what technologies we’d need to accomplish that. Public health guidelines meant many businesses had to decentralize their workforce from large, densely populated office settings to smaller, more sparsely filled co-working spaces or completely remote, at-home workers.
Learning to Pivot
This huge paradigm change was challenging for businesses and workers to navigate but there are some positive and unexpected benefits to decentralizing the workforce, and for some, more flexible scheduling. Large employers like Twitter and Facebook are already on record that their employees will not return to large corporate headquarters after working remotely, if they prefer. Dozens of other national companies, including AirBnB, Aetna, Amazon, Capital One, PayPal, Raytheon, Siemens and Zillow have made the decision to offer permanent remote employment as well.
Facebook is creating new positions to manage the shift; their new director of remote work job posting states the company "is taking a thoughtful and measured approach to the future of work at Facebook, including committing to remote work as one of our long-term strategies."
In many cases, companies had to shift timelines and priorities, pausing some plans while speeding others along.
“The shift to a distributed workforce has been dramatic and has accelerated the move to adopt remote work infrastructure," said Danielle Burhop, director of innovation research at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). "Companies that bet before COVID that work would be distributed in the future were well-positioned to respond to the pandemic."
Technologies that were once the exception for many companies soon became the norm.
“You take Zoom. We all have this literacy and understanding of that technology (now),” said Jesse Damiani, director of Emerging Technology and Insights at the Innovation Center at SNHU.
He uses as examples of this acceleration the fact that we’ve had programs like Zoom, Skype and Facetime available to us before the pandemic, “but we’d relegated virtual conversations, interactive slides, and webinars” to rare use, instead of the often daily virtual interactions many at-home workers now use.
New opportunities arise with a distributed workforce. More companies realize a need for increased employee training and resources, to foster autonomy when needed in remote environments. Employers are exploring creative new ways of engaging with their workers in a virtual realm, and some have helped make the transition less stressful for all involved by considering flex time and alternative work arrangements. And many industries are realizing this could be a positive new way of doing business going forward, even after public health concerns have abated.
Large corporate headquarters like Twitter and Facebook will be able to reduce overhead costs of real estate and related human accommodations when many jobs are done remotely. Employees can save time and money not commuting to a building for work. Parents may also save on some or all of their childcare costs when working at home (though this can be a trade-off with its own pitfalls). Work schedules can be adjusted to accommodate personal and professional tasks; you can work at times better for you, or to interact with a specific time zone.
The Future of AI in the Workforce: What Jobs Will Be Gone by 2030? What Jobs Will Never Go Away?
While it’s difficult to say precisely which jobs might be gone in the next decade or so, or what new or different jobs there will be in 2050, it is likely safe to say that the way we execute certain jobs will change, based on several factors. The two biggest drivers of how we will do business are predicted to be where the workforce will work and live; and the advancement of artificial intelligence and its ability to take over tasks previously controlled by humans, freeing us to do new or different jobs.
Where Will We Work – and Live?
Damiani predicts that changing to non-traditional remote locations will be popular for both companies and their workforces. The impact of this will be felt within industries, but might also affect where workers choose to live. This in turn will likely change local demographics and economies, real estate costs and values, and the very character of cities and towns.
“Those broader effects of the notion of being at a particular place to do a particular job – like Silicon Valley… (Those) workers are looking to move, because why live there if you can work remotely and live in a place much less expensive?” Damiani asked. “Developers, engineers, etc., they’re able to live wherever they want; what does that do to the communities known for having an art and tech culture? What happens to those places? Maybe the cost of living changes in those places. What happens to rent? Does this increase migrations?”
Co-working spaces – where individuals can rent a small office space and interact with other contractors, freelancers or start-ups who don't want or need a big office building – are likely to retain and possibly grow in popularity, Damiani said. “What roles can (co-working spaces) fill? In a post-COVID world, we’ll still have to be careful of who we’re around, and take preventative measures,” he said. Damiani also expects local entrepreneurs and gig workers will come together and create their own co-working spaces that meet their own needs more affordably.
AI vs. QC: The Human Element
No discussion of the future of work can omit the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) and its emerging role in employment across industries.
Should today’s worker be concerned about diminished opportunities if jobs and tasks are being increasingly given to robotic counterparts? Futures forecasters don't think so. When one position becomes automated by advancements in AI, other positions will likely arise for displaced human workers – to either work in tandem with the machines, or move in a different career direction.
Burhop believes there’s a need for most workers to learn the basics about AI in the workplace, but also emphasizes that future-proof skills such as creativity, collaboration and empathy will continue to be valued.
“Jobs will change in response to AI," she said. "AI can take over many rote or standardized tasks and can help make sense of structured and unstructured data quickly. So, jobs will likely evolve in tandem with AI with most workers using AI tools, robots and applications to perform their duties.”
Burhop gives an example in the field of medicine. There will always be a need for nurses and physician assistants, but their roles may change in response to AI. AI might perform notetaking and provide analysis of those notes with surface potential health issues based on data tracked on smartwatches.
“There could be a semi-permanent shift to telemedicine and adoption of health sensors to track data in real-time, changing the role of health care professionals," Burhop said. "Instead of waiting until you feel really sick and calling for an appointment, for example, AI may determine based on your data that you need to talk to a nurse that week, and an AI assistant can help get that appointment scheduled."
Quality Control (QC) is still a human-led endeavor in the first part of the 21st century.
Damiani said a symbiotic relationship is necessary for AI to move into the future. He points to careers addressing climate change as one example.
“What technologies and practices will help mitigate and improve that? We’ll need to curb carbon usage, hone carbon removal or retrieval processes," he said. "There will be a bigger need for, say, solar techs and engineers – imaginers of new, clean energy, creative minds.”
What could that look like as a job? Maybe a remote worker tending their AI co-worker.
“Humans could be manning a robot out in the field, piloting it from home. It could be the case in 2032, that’s what a ‘solar technician’ is – someone operating a machine from afar,” Damiani said.
Preparing for the Workforce of the Future
Futures forecasting is being used to speculate on the direction of work, as well as the needs and demands associated with changing times. Higher education is using this research to forecast the future of work for its own place of employment, as well as for determining how to best assist their students, who will be the workforce of the future.
“How do we take this knowledge and get ready for the future and prepare our company/college and our employees, and how do we serve the learners and prepare for the future?” Damiani asked.
The answers seem to lie with uniquely human qualities, often referred to as “soft skills,” along with proper education and training.
Why Soft Skills Will Always Matter
In the foreseeable future of work, despite any automation advances, there will still be a need for the intangible skills and characteristics that actual living people bring to the table.
“We’ll still need the ability to empathize and communicate and the ability to lead a team in a strategic direction," Burhop said. "Ethics is one area where AI may fall short. It will be interesting to see if training in ethics has a heyday in response to AI.”
Similarly, jobs of the future will develop for humans as a matter of course, despite other jobs disappearing. As one job becomes automated and no longer needs a living person, there may be a newly created related position that requires humans to tend and QC it.
Education and Microcredentials
Wherever your career goals aim you, you will more than likely benefit from having a degree. Career guidance can assist you in knowing what skills you’ll need, and even what your career industry will look like in the future.
"College has long been identified as playing a critical role in an individual’s professional trajectory," said Nicholas Botto, director of Career Services at SNHU. "But what if their industry disappears or significantly transforms?"
To future-proof yourself and your career, Botto suggests that you consider your short- and long-term goals for work and identify when and where transferable skills might come into play.
As Gen Xers continue to compete with several younger generations in the workforce, they might need to hone and learn new skills. But they also bring real-world experience and soft skills to employers that their younger competitors might not be able to.
"Regardless of your generation, professional agility is incredibly valuable," Botto said. "Credentials and competencies are affordable ways for individuals to add new skills or their repertoire or reskill for an evolving economy.
A degree is one of the most valued signals for employers when job hunting, Botto said.
"(It) represents an important foundation for your professional journey," Botto said, and pursuing internships, experiential learning opportunities and relevant certificate programs or microcredentials can demonstrate further development.
"All of these accomplishments help a job seeker tell an engaging and powerful story to an employer: I have the skills, experience and knowledge necessary to help you solve problems and achieve your goals," Botto said.
Some higher education institutions are trying to capture and cultivate soft skills, as they will shine even more in an automated world. Many degree programs can hone your interpersonal soft skills that can be applied to any career path – psychology, sociology, and communications degrees can be helpful.
Find Your Passion, Find Your Future
Will there be enough jobs in the future? If there are things people are passionate about, there will always be opportunities to make a living. Workers of tomorrow will need to consider their skills and passions, and perhaps reconsider the standard model of having one job for decades.
“The single-career concept needs to go away. If you have a range of passions that you feel skilled with, that’s your starting point,” Damiani said. “You might fork off to fit the needs of the workplace, starting at one place, and ending up someplace completely different. Instead of defining yourself as one job position, consider: what do you want your engagement on Earth to be? What lights you up? You might need to take time to think about that.”
Embrace changes in the workforce and the world, and focus on continual learning as well as your own true passions, Damiani advised.
“The process of learning and working are going to be ongoing aspects of life. Experiences that allow you to work and learn at the same time will be the most valuable," he said. "There’s no end destination; the future is one of change. If you embrace it, it’s thrilling. And it will yield things not possible in past generations,” he said.
There are ways to monetize your interests through technology that prior generations did not have.
“Pay attention to an area that’s exciting to you – like gaming or Etsy. Really figure out what unique value and ideas you can bring to the table,” Damiani said. “You have this opportunity to surf the wave or dive under it. We need everybody’s participation, it’s important. What you already love to do, paired with a need the world has, is the sweet spot.”
Kathleen Palmer is an award-winning journalist and writer.
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