The second hottest topic of conversation in World Economic Forum (WEF) conference rooms and Davos restaurants this week: What exactly is the future of work? (We’ll get to the first hottest topic in a minute.)
Over coffee and schnitzel (and the odd glass or three of gluhwein), attendees are pondering the work ahead, and how work will need to change to reach the next summit of human potential and achievement (a topic we carefully covered in our “Work Ahead” research). After all, as we at the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work often point out, work is the foundation of modern society; everything else that we value, treasure, dream of, take for granted, worry about, is based on work. Without work, things fall apart.
Which brings us to the first hottest topic of conversation: the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. And it doesn’t take much to see that topics one and two are inextricably linked. An absence of work was core to many voters’ support of the new U.S. president, and a future that works is core to everybody’s hopes for the next four years and beyond.
With this in mind, here are some of the areas in which the future of work will be forged, and that are being explored and discussed at the WEF 2017 event. Some are brand-new frontiers; others are older and more established but primed for a phase of renewal. Each will generate millions of well-paying jobs, requiring a myriad set of skills and capabilities. All are core to the agenda of this year’s WEF – and of many more to come.
- The shift to “experiences.” From farming to the factory to the office to the service economy to … what comes next? The “experience economy.” Want to experience what it’s like to run a French vineyard? Airbnb can arrange it for you. Want to know what it’s like to be on stage with the E Street Band? Facebook/Oculus Rift will get you next to “the Boss.” Concierge-facilitated experiences will generate huge growth across virtual and physical fields. “Hosting” will manifest itself virtually (AWS, Rackspace, etc.) and physically (“Welcome to Operating Theater 7 here at Beth Israel Hospital. What you’re about to experience and participate in as a hands-on assistant will blow your mind”). The experience economy is terra incognita and terra nova.
- The build-out of infrastructure. The “great digital build-out” will produce next-generation jobs across the engineering spectrum, from civil (digging up roads to install 1,728-fiber optical cables) to structural (keeping the Heydar Aliyev Center standing). Making physical spaces and places “smart” is going to require grunt work and grit, as well as lots of smarts.
- The needs of the elderly. With aging and increasingly demanding populations, demand is exploding for skilled, semi-skilled and low-skilled but sympathetic people. Combining the most advanced medical technologies with the most ancient of human qualities to those in their golden years is a golden opportunity.
- Continued evolution of biotech. Despite being a $415 billion industry, biotechnology, in reality, is still in its infancy. Expect huge employment gains in areas like academic-funded R&D, lab technologists, production, manufacturing, regulatory Q&A specialists, sales and marketing. Genes are destiny, both for individuals and entire societies.
- The digital military industrial complex. The next big war won’t be fought on the fields of northern Belgium – or the playing fields of Eton – but in the data centers of Sunnyvale and Canary Wharf and the Datong Road, Shanghai. The weapons of this war won’t be a Gribeauval or a Sig MCX or an ICBM but code written in C++ delivered through a glass cable running under the sea or through the ionosphere. In the future, the idea of attacking or defending, home or abroad, will be a quaint notion found only in the manuscripts of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz. War will be total, everywhere and invisible. Forget MAD, think DAD (digitally assured destruction). The business of dying (unfortunate as it may be) is set to be a growth industry.
- The rise of renewable energy. In two generations, the roof of your house will be a solar panel. The space currently occupied by your boiler will be a Tesla battery. Multiply that by the 125 million households in the U.S., and that’s a lot of human work needed to switch on the renewable energy revolution (from manufacturing to selling to installing to maintaining and servicing). Every building, office, parking garage and Hyperloop station will be powered by the sun. Even in Davos (or North Dakota), advances in solar tech will mean that a snowy day still generates enough light to keep your personal grid going.
- Enabling autonomous vehicles. Self-driving vehicles will weaken the demand for driving jobs but will also generate enormous demand to build them and the infrastructure within which they move. The renaissance of the American (and global) auto industry will involve not muscle cars but the “pod” in which Minority Report’s John Anderton cruises around in.
- Augmenting and virtualizing reality. Mark Zuckerberg paid nearly $3 billion for Oculus VR (developer of the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset) in 2014 but acknowledged on his personal Facebook page that the acquisition’s focus on gaming was just a start that extends from the living room into the enterprise.
- E-gaming skills. The e-gaming industry, still considered a curio by non-gamers, is set to be a $100 billion market in the next few years — so there are many levels to go. E-gaming is where the movie industry was in 1935 or the music business was in 1960. Though you may feel that the hours your teenager spends shooting things up on “Call of Duty” are a complete waste of time, he has, in fact, been learning the reflexes, language, social norms and aesthetics of the new world. Taking those skills, that DNA, and commercializing them will serve him well.
- Travel, from here to infinity. Check out the job openings page at Blue Origin. Enough said. Put another way, follow the enthusiasms of the newest billionaire class a.k.a. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk (both MIA from Davos this week). Their investments are your opportunity. These leaders are the kings of the new frontier, underwriting the new Cristobal Colons of the new, new world. It’s going to be a hell of a ride, and you might die, but if I were 21, that’s what I’d be doing. Space is big, and according to Einstein, only getting bigger.
The future of work is emerging all around us, with a raft of job categories that even a few years ago would have been hard to predict: social media consultants, search engine optimizers, full-stack engineers, Perl developers, digital prophets, hackers-in-residence, content curators, chief happiness officers, innovation sherpas, clue shredders, pixel czars, chief ninjas. At the same time, lots and lots of existing jobs, upgraded and improved with digital technologies, will continue to be the mainstay of employment in many industry categories.
The conversations here at Davos this week set the stage for the broader discussions about the future of our work throughout the rest of the year. The view from these new summits ahead is breathtaking. Getting to them is hard … but worth the effort. Remember, the journey is the reward.
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