What Is The Future of Work?

My one criticism of ConnectingHR Unconference3 was that no one really talked about “the future of work”, which I thought was the theme: it was a bit like we talked around the edges, leaving a theme-shaped hole in the middle…

In the spirit of the unconference, then, I thought I would put down my own thoughts on what work might look like in the future. I say my own thoughts, but frankly they probably all come from other people – not least The Economist, which recently had a special survey on the future of jobs – and people like Charles Handy have been writing about changing working structures for decades. None of this will be new. Most of it will probably be a bit random…

Of course, there will probably be many different futures for different people in different careers, and at different times. All futures are contingent. Some of these futures may even be reality now.

Here are two videos which aim to show two remarkably similar visions of a connected future at work and at home, by Microsoft and Ericsonn respectively:

These things may come true – they even be working as portrayed for a very few early adopters – but I believe that for most people in the world – probably even most people in the rich nations – these realities will never happen. (Please don’t get back to me in ten years’ time when it turns out this is exactly how we all live our lives…)

One of the many the futures of work may be no future at all: economist Chris Dillow has looked at the numbers, and reckons mass unemployment may be with us for a very long time. He reaches this conclusion on the basis of forecast of economic growth, which is way below the growth needed to reduce unemployment significantly. Thus, under- and unemployment are likely to be features of the work environment for a long time to come.

This may have major social implications, making competition for (some) jobs intense, perhaps reducing the income generated by work, and severely restricting applicants and employees expectations.

Another possible future may be an increase in the freelancing. Since I started freelancing a few years ago, the number of freelancers I know has increased dramatically. The use of job-websites such a elance and oDesk makes connecting freelancers or contract workers with their clients easier, and – for tasks that can be done anywhere – can cut costs. Why pay a freelancer in New York if you can pay one in Islamabad a tenth of the cost? Social networking sites like LinkedIn will play a part in this pattern too, oiling networking and building a contact base – maybe everyone will need their own CRM system to keep up with all their contacts (and potential clients and customers), too.

The Economist survey describes a world of micro-freelancers, in which tasks are broken down and bid (and paid) for in terms of minutes rather than hours or days – Amazon’s Mechanical Turk does this already, and yesterday I learned of two sites – TaskRabbit, which enables those with time on their hands (be they un- or underemployed) to do tasks that the rich, but time-poor, haven’t time to do, and CloudStaff, which provides virtual PAs based in the Philippines to anyone online anywhere. The Economist sees this as leading to a polarisation of work between “good jobs and commoditised ones in America and many other rich countries”, and describes a world in which

One strategy could be [for the unskilled] to find a high-flyer and stick close. Even if joining their posse is out of reach, there are still horses to be fed and watered. The time-poor new rich are generating demand for household staff, and this sort of work can be very well paid. A private secretary and general factotum can earn up to $150,000 a year nowadays. Salaries for standard butlers range from $60,000 to $125,000 and a head butler can make as much as $250,000, according to the website of the Butler Bureau.

This sounds like a return to a feudal society, with a increasing inequality across many measures.

Coupled with this is the flattening of organisations to the extent that they may become virtual – all the functions outsourced. I heard of a company yesterday that has only two people running it – a managing director and a sales manager, all the other functions being outsourced or bought in. This company was spun out of a university to capitalise on intellectual property created by academics, but other organisations can now do the same. Nike is seen as a popular manufacturer of training shoes and sports equipment, but it can also be envisaged as a specialised design company, with its other functions outsourced – notably manufacturing and distribution.

Much has been written about “portfolio careers” – I have certainly changed direction several times, and I reckon many freelancers would view that they have portfolio careers. It can be a very flexible lifestyle, but the freedom to do lots of different things is balanced by a lack of stability and security which would not suit everyone. (Not having responsibilities like a mortgage or children helps…) Many might view this new world as a frightening place, full of rapid change and lacking in security.

I remember a discussion I had twenty years ago with my then-boss in a consultancy. (I wasn’t a consultant – I was working in the finance function.) He described how he wanted to move the firm to a “donut” structure: a core of full-time employees, with associates to call on outside that, and freelancers to help on specific tasks: this was a variable resourcing model, where the firm didn’t have to pay for people to hang around (or to learn, or help others learn…) in slack periods. I don’t know if that company moved that way, but it seems to me that whilst the donut model would work well, not many organisations have adopted it. (What would you call a flat donut model? A pancake? The pitta end?)


I’m not quite sure where this leaves us: a myriad of future working patterns, with everyone someone on the spectrum of work from fulltime at one end through parttime to freelancing to unemployed at the other. Some people may just opt out altogether – my guess is that the black economy would prosper at a time of high unemployment and uncertainty. It sounds as if it will be a time of growing inequality. Alternatives might be sought – perhaps the “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy LSX” movements are a symptom of that.

The internet may enable some people to prosper – putting buyers and sellers of services together, for instance – and may commoditise others’ skills. Maybe there will be a premium on those with social media skills. Anyone for blogging…?


7 thoughts on “What Is The Future of Work?

  1. Francesca

    Doughnut. You are not North American.

    I’ve been thinking quite a lot about skills trading and co-creation. If we in Haringey can’t make enough money to feed ourselves, we may have to start growing things together. If I can’t get a corporation to hire me and individuals can’t afford me, I can easily envisage a world where I trade my services for others’ services or the goods I need.

  2. patrickhadfield Post author

    …In a world paralysed by economic collapse, a return to barter may well be necessary. Unfortunately, in that case, I doubt there’d be much market for business consultancy skills…!

    1. patrickhadfield Post author

      As I said in my post on #CHRU3, as a participant I take full responsibility for failing to discuss it! And it did get me thinking – which is the thing…

  3. Dan Sutton

    I think how this work thing turns out rather depends on what manufacturing technology and energy technology do to the cost of goods. Specifically I’m thinking of how many days skilled labour or semi-skilled labour needs to be exchanged per annum in order to have a materially comfortable life and what this does to the reservation wage.

    If the amount of labour required for a good life is say 30 days per annum that’s a different proposition from a world in which 150 days of labour are required in terms of the security of people’s livelihood. I’d feel much, much more secure knowing that 8% of my productive capacity needs to be sold rather than 41% ( or 11.5% and 57.5% if you discount weekends as productive capacity.) I’d insist on work that suited my ability and interests much more in a low cost of living scenario and consequently be able to charge more. I’d also be able to build up a larger store of wealth in good times so that if work was scarce or dull I could opt out of paid employment and do stuff that didn’t pay so much cash.

    I wonder what people will do with the additional spare 190 odd days.

    Thinking about the barter economy I’m drawn to the idea of a low cash velocity economy but one where I teach someone’s kid improv and in exchange they teach my children the piano. Whilst money is an efficient way of exchanging goods and services if I’m only working 30 days a year I can afford for things not to be efficient.

    I wonder how easy it might turn out to be to opt out of the economy of the mega-rich.


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