It’s the middle of summer, in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, in the middle of the Roaring Fork Valley.  And at the middle of the Aspen Institute’s annual Action Forum, amid its stunning Doerr-Hosier Center, a panel discussion vividly captured the heart of a critical story of our time: the future of work.

Moderated by CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux, the panel included Malcolm Frank (our EVP of Marketing & Strategy), Fred Swaniker (CEO of African Leadership University), Sheila Marcelo (CEO of Care.com) and Manoj Kumar (founder & CEO of the Naandi Foundation), who dove into the deep end of the pool to discuss what the future of work would look like, five, 10 and even 20 years out.  What sort of impact will shifting advances in intelligent automation, telecommunications and AI have on the labor force and people’s purpose? Where are human workers – and humanity – in a world of AI? How will technology impact regions of the world differently?

And perhaps, most important of all, what about the youth (the “inheritors”) of the world, who will be most impacted by the future of work?   

The Enduring Skills of Being Human, for Humans

What struck me was how all three of the “3Cs” (caring, coaching and connecting) in our “21 Jobs of the Future” piece resonated throughout the discussion – as did the need to reinforce our essential humanness. (To learn more, view our “21 Jobs” video playlist.)   Sheila Marcelo talked about the genesis of Care.com, stemming from her own needs as a young mother in need of quality care for her children, and subsequently scaling it into a business that provides wellness services for over 10.5 million people.

The Naandi Foundation catalyzed the deployment of large-scale kitchens to school kids in India. Through proper nutrition, it created an alternative educational ecosystem to produce skilled workers that could give and receive talent – in a word, coaching.  

Digital Tools Define Need for New Polices

When it came to the coming ubiquity of AI and the future of work, Malcolm Frank underscored the current deficit of tech workers, which now numbers 500,000 and will very shortly balloon to one million.  From every sector – whether it’s  education, government, your bank or your car – the structural opportunity to create new work abounds given the advent of new digital tools.  In short, those are the makings of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Getting into the nitty-gritty of how today’s new digital tools could help straighten the road for developments such as the gig economy, Sheila Marcelo noted that in the U.S., roughly 4.5 million families are paying caregivers under the table (and only 300,000 are doing so legally).  Platforms like Care.com can help both employer and employee remedy that – which makes well-scaled, well-operating gig work operate far more efficiently, and may help bolster some of the shrill policy debates around immigration.  If that’s made easier, it becomes more possible to visualize the pathways for workers to expand into avenues like credentialed nursing or other care-giving roles in medicine.

Continuing on this theme, Malcolm Frank talked about the urgent need for better policy and legislation focused on work.  He drew a powerful anecdote from his own experience growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, watching the city deteriorate from the fifth-wealthiest city in the U.S. into the abyss of the Rust Belt.  The jobs of the future, he said, can’t continue to  be unevenly distributed, in favor of  the bearded hipsters who make up  New York’s and San Francisco’s elite digerati. This rebalancing of the digital workforce could help rebuild marginalized municipalities like Cleveland and elsewhere, left in the rust of the Third Industrial Revolution.

Fred Swaniker echoed this sentiment from the African perspective: The deficiencies of good public education have led to poor public policy.  Sheila Marcelo and Manoj Kumar emphasized this as well, and underscored the need to ensure current policies continue to support childcare.  The Care.com CEO emphasized that brain development of newborns through age four  is especially critical to  a solid start for later success and leadership, as well as reduced incarceration rates.

The Road to the Future of Work Runs Right through the Future of Education

This theme of educational change came up again and again during the panel. While no one wants to risk the decline and fall of universities and colleges the world over, urgent change and action are needed to dissolve the siloed departments found at even the world’s premier institutions.  Subjects like data science and the future of work are galvanizing prisms through which every department can ready itself for the coming changes wrought by technology advances. 

To prepare for this, Fred Swaniker returned to the theme of coaching; his organization asks students to choose a “mission,” not a “major,” that girds their skills to effectively become problem solvers.  Put in different terms, in the future of work, education has the potential to move from “just-in-case” to “just-in-time” credentialing to solve those problems.   To prepare people for the future of work, pressure is needed to develop policies that encourage credentialing for incremental, life-long learning, allowing for micro-credentialing that can be validated by governments and businesses the world over.

But even more importantly, whether in Africa, India, Europe, Latin America or North America, schools everywhere need to redouble their efforts to ensure proper ethics and values, as well as to teach students to be good citizens of the world. This starts with empathy (a theme we wrote about extensively in our  “The Future of Privacy” report). There’s no more hiding behind the tiresome, tedious bravado of tech-bro culture as even the most successful companies now need to take a hard look in the mirror re: ethics. The time has come to leave the tortured-coder genius persona at the door.

For Humans, By Humans

In the age of algorithms, automation and AI, the question that still looms largest is: Who will ensure that tomorrow’s algorithms are built, extended and maintained with human interests at the fore –  for the good of all and with the ability to help them jump the gap and leapfrog into the future of work? Part and parcel of that, how can leaders and policymakers shine a spotlight on the pathways to the new jobs of the future, when AI runs horizontally across every job we can conceive of? (A start to answering that question is found in our latest report “The Culture Cure for Digital,” and our forthcoming analysis of the future of autonomous trucking).

The panel concluded by highlighting the role organizations like the Aspen Global Leadership Network – and leaders everywhere – can play.  Do this right.  Use your privilege. (If you’re one of the human beings on Earth with an education, count yourself as among “the privileged!”) Use it to help and serve others.  AI is great at “the science of the job” (like data analytics and pattern recognition), but people remain great at “the art of the job” (like visual cues, emotion/empathy, judgment, ethics, social context and the ability to answer the question, “What’s the right thing to do?”).

Whether in our schools, offices or homes, the human traits of coaching, connecting and caring will endure forever.  That starts with all of us, and it will happen on our watch. We know what’s coming, so get ready.  As FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  And the biggest thing to fear right now is indifference, inaction or continuing to follow the “playbook” of how we’ve always done things. 

The funny thing about the future of work is that it’s always in the future.  But being fearless in our leadership to confront it is urgently required.  Your future starts tomorrow.

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Robert Brown

Robert Brown

Rob is a global head of Cognizant Center of the Future of Work market strategy and outreach for business process services. He... Read more