When something gets stretched or squashed, engineers talk about ‘elastic’ and ‘plastic’ deformations. Elastic, as you might expect, is something that can be stretched or squashed and then return to its original shape. Plastic deformations are more permanent. In a plastic deformation, something is bent beyond its elastic range and the new shape is retained.
The impact of COVID-19
When we’re talking about the changes that will stay with us after the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels to me like we frequently confuse plastic and elastic deformations. People experience an elastic change long enough for it to become a temporary ‘new normal’, and come to the mistaken belief it will be permanent. But when the pressure is removed, it is much more likely that things will snap back to their old state.
So, what does the future of careers look like? We’re likely to see three key changes in the workplace:
- Change enforced by law: legislation will enshrine some pandemic measures in law. Let’s just hope the disenfranchisement of many voters doesn’t last…
- Change enforced by caution: risk managers and HR departments in organisations are likely to be extra cautious about their responsibilities and liabilities, driving more enforced behaviour change
- Change enforced by failure: the businesses that have failed might not be coming back, and nor might their business models
Much of this will be realised in flexible working. Vital as face-to-face contact is for communication and collaboration, our focus on face time, all the time, is terrible for productivity. We waste enormous amounts of time on commuting. That’s even before we consider the carbon impact.
Flexible working only really works when we stop thinking like that. When we schedule time for communication, face-to-face or remote, but let people manage their own time outside of those moments. As long as people are delivering on expectations, we should be a lot less concerned about how long they are sat staring at a screen.
If more of us are going to work remotely, we need to think less about how many hours people are putting in and more about how it is affecting their wellbeing. We need to create more opportunities for interaction, perhaps taking the opportunity to reinvent some old traditions away from our alcohol-centric past.
Future of careers: tell your own story
While workplaces undergo a period of accelerated change, it is on us as individuals to think about our careers. We know that the single clear path has disappeared for most people. You can no longer walk out of school or university, join a trade or profession, and pursue that career for life.
Disruption is coming, even to those niches that currently look robust. The construction trades are hungry for people right now. But over the next two decades they will go through enormous change. The skills you will require as a bricklayer, electrician, or plumber will be dramatically overhauled with the introduction of new materials, more modular construction, and co-working with robots. Law, accounting and finance still look on face value like solid professions, but they are on the verge of dramatic change.
This constant disruption, across all fields, leads to a lot of uncertainty, amongst those entering the world of work and those advising them, and those already in work as well. Because the paths that we understand, and the experiences of the previous generation, are no longer a good guide.
The best route to success, particularly in a “wicked world” of novel and complex problems, is diversity of experience and learning. The people concerned about their varied work history have actually been doing the best possible thing to build success.
We need to differentiate between future jobs and future work
There are many estimates of how many jobs might be susceptible to automation in the coming decade. The typical response is that many new jobs will also be created. And they will.
But I don’t believe that jobs, in the traditional sense, will be created in the volume that would be required to offer meaningful employment to the many millions of cab drivers, call centre operators, retail assistants, warehouse workers, lawyers and accountants, who might be displaced by technology.
This is different to saying that there won’t be work, however. But work is something very different to a ‘job’. A job means a mutual commitment with an employer. It means benefits and protections. These have already been eroded. There has been some pushback from governments around protections for those in the gig economy. But I think it’s only a matter of time before these rights are overturned — sometimes in the most dramatic way possible. After all, robot cab drivers will have no rights.
The future of freelance work
One of the core tenets of my belief about the future is that technology is reshaping our organisations — public and private — from large monoliths into networks of smaller components. The smallest component is the individual, the freelancer.
This has been one of the fastest growing forms of work on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years, and I don’t see this growth slowing. The good news is that there is plenty to do. And it is work that might be better suited to people than machines. A few examples:
In both the UK and the US, national infrastructure has faced decades of underinvestment. New build catches the headlines: HS2 and Crossrail for example. But there is an enormous amount of maintenance work to be done, on both public and privately held assets.
Though machines can augment every aspect of this work from the design process to the delivery, sheer human flexibility of thought, and motion, will remain in demand.
The more things in our world become digitised, the more we crave rich, tactile, physical experiences. A higher proportion of our spend goes on experiences over goods, we eat out more, when we drink it is lower volume and higher quality. We start buying vinyl again.
I think the demand for the human-made, the personal, the crafted, will continue to grow. Fashion will dictate that for every mass- and machine-produced item in your home or on your person, you demonstrate some personality with more crafted items. Digital consumption will continue to be balanced with experiences you just can’t get online.
Care is the oft-cited example of an industry that won’t be disrupted by automation, and that faces growing demand thanks to our ageing population. Care absolutely will see a measure of automation. But the bulk of the work will still be carried out by humans for now.
The problem with this is the low value we continue to place on care work, both formal and informal. We pay very little to those raising our children or caring for our parents, or anyone else who needs our support, for that matter. If redistribution of wealth is needed anywhere, it’s here.
Since the passing of the days of ‘Cool Britannia’, we have been very poor at celebrating the power of our creative sector in this country. And yet it remains a global powerhouse, turning out a disproportionate amount of the world’s stories, art, design, architecture, music, television formats and more.
The disruption of the traditional media channels threatens this industry, and our national strength, perhaps more than any other. But while we have this power we ought to recognise its value and promote it as a career path — not least because creativity is a critical and under-trained skill in other disciplines.
How will jobs change in the future?
This is far from an exhaustive list, but I hope you get the idea: jobs may be disappearing, but there will be work available. The question is how do we support those in inconsistent work, how do we enable constant learning and reskilling to allow people to keep up with a fast-moving market for skills. How do we make this new world of work a positive for more people, not a terrifying world of risk.