The future of work

By Cecilia Thirlway, Head of Innovation Practice at Solverboard
Published: 25 January 2018

January is a big month in Davos. Not only do the world’s economic and political leaders descend on the town armed with snow boots, fleeces and white passes for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, but it’s also when the WEF issues some of its key reports about the future of work. (I suspect Christmas is not the time to take long holidays at the WEF.)

It’s striking that more than ever before; this year’s reports have focused on what the long-term future of work can and should look like. The Eight Futures of Work white paper creates possible future scenarios based on combinations of just three of the volatile drivers of change our world is currently experiencing.

Some of the scenarios feel dystopian in their impact – for example, Robot Replacement:

“Widening talent gaps continue to dampen economic growth as businesses have lost faith in human talent. This ‘hollowing out’ of the labour market has led to deep and growing inequalities, polarized values and divided views about technology”

while Polarized World sounds disturbingly familiar:

“High-skilled people from lower-income communities have migrated to high-income, high-skill enclaves, as a cluster of globally-dispersed urban ‘super-economies’ have formed and trade ideas, goods and services with each other…Elsewhere a large segment of increasingly disenfranchised lower-skilled workers earn a meagre living by catering to the needs of a privileged few.”

Scenarios shouldn’t be seen as firm predictions of the future – but what they help us do is think about some of the long-term impacts of today’s decisions. Two years ago, the WEF’s January report estimated that by 2020, there would be a net job loss of 5.1million jobs from disruptive changes in the labour market. And now, we note that of the eight scenarios in their white paper, the four that fostered the most inequality were the ones in which the pace of learning and reskilling was low. So it’s no surprise that one of the WEF’s other reports issued this week focuses on reskilling and job transitions (anyone who has been through a corporate restructuring process in the past will feel on familiar ground here).

One of our core beliefs is that there’s nothing quite like the brilliance of the human mind: the creativity, ingenuity and inspiration possible with just a few people working together is still unmatched by any technological advance to date. So it is encouraging to see the WEF calling for a focus on lifelong learning; for education reform with an increased emphasis on “communication, problem-solving, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking”; for agile financial safety nets for workers retraining or investing in their skills; for greater flexibility around working hours and approaches; and for governance for online work platforms to provide mutual benefits to employer and worker – even if these calls don’t go far enough in some cases.

The WEF Futures of Work scenarios are a good reminder that the future of work, to some degree, is in all our hands. We’re trying hard to walk that walk here at Solverboard, not just as our platform evolves to help people and organisations take full advantage of the emerging future of work, but also as an employer and a business. Whatever your thoughts about Davos and the WEF in general, this feels like a crucial time to champion what we want work to look like in the future – for us, and for generations to come.