Dean Barber

The Future of Everything

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on July 23, 2017 at 4:23 pm

For many of us, our last names reveal the work of our ancestors.

Common Anglo-Saxon names like Baker, Brewer, Butcher, Carpenter, Cooper, Mason, Miller, Sharp, Smith, and Tailor were all trade names, which required craft and expertise acquired over years and passed down through generations.

My last name is Barber. Back in the Middle Ages, Barbers did far more than haircutting. They also performed surgery, bloodletting and leeching, enemas, and teeth pulling, among a host of other things that would probably turn your stomach.  Gosh, I’m glad I didn’t live back then.

The Industrial Revolution wiped out these identities. And today, many of the factory and office jobs that replaced farming and craft trades are themselves disappearing.

We Don’t Know

Much of what I write about in this blog concerns the future of work. I will be the first to admit that while I ponder on the future, I don’t know, nor does anybody else, what lays in store.

I frequently joke that if I called myself a “futurist,” I could charge considerably more than I do now as a consultant for economic development organizations and companies on corporate site selection.

We all hope that the Digital Revolution, like the Industrial Revolution before it, will create as many jobs as it destroys. We sense that big changes are in the air and that dislocations are inevitable. Report after report, and this blog, say as much.

But will automation and artificial intelligence result in a fundamental rethinking of our relationship to work and to one another? How will we change?

The Predictions Differ

The World Economic Forum’s study into The Future of Jobs (2016) estimated that 65 percent of children entering primary school today will work in job types that don’t yet exist. 3.5 times as many jobs could be lost to disruptive labor market changes in the period 2015-2020 than are created.

The study saw job losses in routine white-collar office functions but gains in computing, mathematics, architecture, and engineering related fields.

Some believe that we could see 80 percent or more of current jobs disappearing in the next 20 years, whereas a McKinsey Global Institute report last year found that only 5 percent of jobs can be fully automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology, although for middle-skill categories this could rise to 20 percent.

A Complex Relationship

With all due respect to the World Economic Forum, McKinsey (a group I respect and often quote) and any and all of those who might hazard a guess on the future of work, history teaches us that it’s hard to predict how technological change will unfold.

The relationship between automation and employment is complex. When automation replaces human labor, it can also reduce cost and improve quality, which can increase demand and theoretically create new jobs.

Many assume that it’s going to be people or robots, all or nothing. I don’t quite see it that way. I tend to believe that advances in artificial intelligence will focus more on specific tasks rather than entire jobs. In that scenario, robots will mostly augment rather than replace humans. But what the hell do I know?

Four Futures of Work

Instead of obsessing on predictions, a group called Shift: The Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology, a joint project of New America and Bloomberg, took a different and I think more valuable approach. In its executive summary, the Commission opened with a line that will stick with me forever:

“The future of work is the future of everything.”

Convening more than 100 leaders from multiple sectors, including labor, civic, religious, academic, entrepreneurial, and more traditional business perspectives, the group was asked two basic questions:

(1) Will there be more or less work in the future? (2) Will work continue to be in its traditional form, full-time jobs, or separate into more “task” work (like short-term contracts, part-time gigs, or other alternative arrangements)?

The Commission distilled the common themes from these visions, some positive and some negative, and came up with four basic scenarios, four different futures of work. So what are these different futures? I quote from the Shift report.

Rock-Paper-Scissors Economy: Less work, mostly tasks.

“A community-based, local, and sustainable economy that prioritizes work in person to-person interactions. Advancing automation, in combination with a slowing of the overall economy due to rapidly aging population and a declining birth rate, leads to the elimination of many full-time jobs.

“Available work has been reconfigured to a task-based format; many people piece together their income — and, if they can, benefits — through a series of temporary gigs, identified by digital platforms and facilitated by smartphones.

“The winners are those who provide an experiential service based on a human interaction, activity, or skill, like cooking coaches, gardeners, and eldercare providers. Losers are those whose identities were so wed to a particular job that they opt out of the labor market instead of adapting.

“Of those open to entrepreneurial activities, many join the maker economy and produce organic goods in and for their neighborhoods; more people derive a sense of purpose from contributing to their families, their “contingent families” of friends, and their communities than from their jobs. Free time, once scarce in an economy that pushed people to work ever-harder to sustain high levels of consumerism, becomes a marker of status in an economy in which people work less.”

King of the Castle Economy: Less work, mostly jobs.

“A corporate-centered economy in which economic life is organized around large, profitable companies and those they employ. Increased automation keeps corporate productivity levels high but employment levels low, dampening consumer demand. This leads to less dynamism in the economy and decreased innovation overall as people become worried that leaving a full-time job means they won’t find a new one.

“Lower employment levels generate lower tax revenues and corporate philanthropies take over former city and state functions in the places they operate. Geographic and political tensions rise, and society splits into three clear social classes: those who work in high-tech jobs at large, profitable companies (and successfully defend their jobs, and generous benefit packages, from qualified outsiders); those who have full-time jobs protecting the people and assets in the corporate class, who struggle to assemble health-care and retirement benefits; and those who perform on-demand work when it’s available.”

Jump Rope Economy: More work, mostly tasks.

“A portfolio approach to work in which people build reputational rankings with each task they complete, combining multiple income streams to allow for a career that’s self-driven, entrepreneurial, and constantly changing. An aging workforce that stays engaged, combined with millennials seeking flexibility as they reach their peak parenting years and high consumer demand as a result of full employment, pushes the market into more discrete, task-based jobs.

“Technology assists in efficiently cataloging the different tasks that need doing and helps people develop and monetize their skills, which are always shared on social networks — every keystroke is public. The economy is buzzing, so people can be selective about what they do and can replace traditional corporate-provided benefits. As a result, most people do what they enjoy most of the time and are always on the lookout for the next opportunity.”

Go Economy: More work, mostly jobs.

“A technology-driven economy in which people embrace connectivity in every area of their lives and look for ways that machines can extend their capabilities through data-platforms, electronic devices, and virtual reality. Automation takes over almost all routine, data-processing jobs, freeing workers to focus on creative, strategic thinking.

“As people realize the ways in which AI can help them, they increasingly take risks in their jobs which results in more innovation. Benefits become progressively more generous over time, and eldercare becomes as standard a company benefit as childcare.

“Online retailers hire and train lots of warehouse robot monitors, lawyers take on many more cases as AI takes over the paperwork of discovery, and scientists and intellectuals use AI to file and monitor patent applications. Jobs multiply as new and novel platforms are invented on which to build new ideas.”

The Shaper of Cities and Regions

So there you have it, four different futures of work as envisioned by the Shift Commission. The group concluded that each could work out well for America, or poorly, depending on how we respond.

The commission found that most people want certainty more than making more money, more than doing work they feel is important and meaningful. They value stability of income, health care (Republican Party best be careful), retirement, and the other benefits we have come to expect.

Economic developers should take note that the future of work will shape cities and regions, and that the different futures might affect some areas in different ways than others.

It is very possible that I have provided you more questions than answers in this blog. Perhaps that is my aim.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. BBA helps companies and communities. Mr. Barber is available as a keynotes speaker and can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com

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  1. Fascinating Dean! Will you be attending the Many Futures of Work Conference in Chicago in October? https://www.futuresofwork.org/agenda/. I hope so…I would love to meet you. I will be there!

    I believe that just as regional success is dependent upon the people who live in the region today, that regional success in the future will also be dependent on the people who live in that region. Are they planning for the future or just watching it come at them?

    Organizations like “Communities of Excellence”
    can help drive healthy and empowered regional planning.
    “http://www.communitiesofexcellence2026.org/

    And, proactively planning for the future as they are doing in Northwest Missouri (www.cfnwmo.org/) is the kind of place that I think has the best opportunity for success in the future.

    This is why NERETA spends so much effort trying to get workforce development and economic development to work together. It is only when they proactively develop a vision of success for their region that they can achieve it. Success seldom happens due to one person’s efforts…but due to the willingness of people to come together to identify their local strengths and build upon them…TOGETHER.

    Right now we are in a very “self-oriented” zeitgeist. I think more than any other lesson for humanity that the future holds will be the great need for inter-dependency. Let’s hope that inter-dependency will drive more empathy and understanding.

    My greatest fear however is that robots will not need us. And, given that robots can already “outsmart” their human creators by developing language that we do not understand…that is a very real possibility! (http://www.pcgamer.com/facebook-kills-ai-that-invented-its-own-language-because-english-was-slow/)

    I guess all we can do is plan with hopeful hearts….

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