What is the future of work?

We attended a local soiree. Perhaps it will sound familiar. The scrum of children was playing happily (out of earshot). One table was laden with food and sweets, while another was groaning with wine and rum. Clutches of people would form to meet and talk, and then dissolve and re-form with a new set of topics and revelers. It was a perfectly nice party.

Except something felt a bit off. Many of the conversations landed someplace very dark indeed given the festive timing.

It took several trips around the party (and the punch bowl), but I finally dialed into the fact that many fellow revelers were more than a little concerned about the future.

  • Our crop of politicos is CRAZY.
  • We’re lucky we live where we do, but we’re at risk.
  • The refugee crisis is reshaping our world.
  • What are Russia and Turkey doing??
  • The market doesn’t make sense any more.
  • Where will the jobs be for our children?

And so on….

Fear of the modern day

TS464576790_webMaybe it’s me, or maybe I go to parties with mostly anxious people, but I don’t think so. Based on what we’ve heard in the business world over the past year, I would wager that your festive experiences might also be getting slightly muted by fears from our modern day Pandora’s Box.

These issues all resonated with me. Only a mad person would ignore what’s going on today and what could occur tomorrow. But in my day job I also see the amazing promise of what the future can bring, so I also have this sense of optimism. It was tough to calibrate it all, and it got me thinking more about Pandora (the Greek, not the music streaming service).

We all know Pandora’s backstory. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gifted it to humanity. Zeus, sometimes a bit of a sadist, decided to punish us too, so he sent Pandora. She was left alone with a stone jar. Curiosity got the better of her. She popped the lid off and — oops! — released the evils of the world. Notably, she was also quick enough getting the lid back on to retain Hope.

But what does a 3,000-year-old fable mean for work, business, and our lives today?

Many of our most pressing issues are largely connected to our future of work, our jobs, our personal economies within organizations. New digital technologies — sensors, robots, instrumentation, Big Data (also small), enhanced workers, and new levels of transparency — are becoming more of a factor because it’s increasingly difficult to find an industry sector or job free from their advance. The impact will be profound, and — as with every other technology shift — not everyone will benefit, and that can be scary.

And yet, “becoming digital” is, I’m increasingly convinced, a big part of both the cause and an antidote to the some of the challenges touching our lives. If we use it wisely, technology can become an element of the hope that Pandora retained in her jar because it can help us solve problems, rather than just being a source of fear.

This may sound like an Onion headline, “Tech futurist says technology is helpful.” Perhaps, but there’s more to it.

TS487814400_webAutomation will reduce demand for certain jobs, but digital is also opening up opportunities to improve productivity, open new markets, create new jobs, and fuel a groundswell of innovation. In addition to historical evidence, a growing body of new research is supporting a more hopeful future. Rather than eliminating knowledge work, “Jobs have been growing faster in occupations that use computers.” Data from study stretching back to 1871 shows that “technology has created more jobs than it’s destroyed.” There is still job growth for traditional taxi drivers and hotel workers even though Uber and airBnB are both growing at amazing rates.

The point is, if we’re smart, we could be entering into a digital-fueled economic boom, rather than a barren, jobless dystopia so many fear.

So now we are all swirling in a froth of both hope and concern about our future of work. What to do? In Hesiod’s version of the story, Pandora let loose fear and evil onto humankind, but maybe we shouldn’t see her as a purely tragic figure. She was curious, bold, optimistic, interested in understanding and exploring the world. She was really the world’s first scientist; the first explorer. Before Pandora, we may not have had plague, war, or the Kardashians, but we didn’t have true free will either.

We obviously can’t solve all our issues with a blog post, and hope is not a business strategy, but we can keep Pandora’s gift in mind as we move into a world where work is reshaped by digital. Our problems may seem bigger than ever, but we have the tools to build the solutions we need.

In the non-fiction future of work, the robots will not take over all our jobs. Humans will not be left merely oiling and maintaining the Terminators.

If we make good choices — personally and professionally — we can help ensure that the doomsday prophets are as wrong now as they have ever been about our future of work. Harmonizing work with technology in new ways will not prevent disruption, but it can give us all a solid long-term shot at productivity and innovation.

Technology is by no means a panacea for the many ills of the world, nor is it another Boogeyman from Pandora’s jar.

My colleagues and I at The Center for the Future of Work will continue to explore these ideas, and provide more practical guidance, throughout 2016.

Join me in the conversation and we wish you all a healthy, exciting, and prosperous 2016.

Paul Roehrig

Paul Roehrig

Paul is a Co-founder and Head of Strategy for Cognizant Digital Business. He is the Founder and former Global Managing Director of... Read more

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