Many jobs didn’t exist a decade ago. New technology creates new jobs, but can eradicate jobs too. Below, Ian Pearson discusses the future of work and technology, and addresses the business and managerial impacts of future technology, future careers, and the restructuring of offices.
Many jobs didn’t exist a decade ago. Think of people who design web sites or ring tones for mobiles. New technology creates new jobs, but can eradicate jobs too. Many people are employed as smart cogs in big machines. Machines will replace them. Administrative and agency jobs will be frequently eliminated over the next few years, adding up to perhaps a third of employees in big companies. Knowledge workers will follow soon after.
Fortunately, few people do only knowledge work. Most jobs include a proportion of human centric activity, which is harder to automate. This work includes some management, leadership, influencing, counselling, teaching, policing, entertaining, sports, personal services, and care work. As other areas of work are automated, human-centric parts will expand, and ultimately form the basis of the economy. Let’s call it the Care Economy. For example, in call centres, automated voice response could already deal with most routine calls. Some managers may make some such workers redundant, but better managers will move them up the value chain, allowing them to deal with more complex calls, offer more personal help, and make callers feel warm about doing business with their company. Almost instant response for simple transactions will come via computers. Machines effectively force us to concentrate on being human. This is likely to protect customer facing jobs, even while internal jobs are eradicated. Companies of the future will have a visible human shell and a machine core.
Although people in knowledge professions start their careers doing intellectual work, they gradually progress into interpersonal work. At senior manager level, they focus on negotiating deals, influencing and entertaining existing and potential clients, or using their human knowledge, experience and political skills to work out cunning strategies. New technology may accelerate progression to this stage. There should be sufficient latent demand to achieve this, since increasing turbulence in the economy due to technology change will increase the need for professional services.
Summarising, low paid workers, professions, technology support workers, and public facing employees, will retain their share of the working population, but administrators, agents and knowledge workers will decline. The human contact service economy will grow. In total, the care economy today employs about a fifth of our workforce, rising to about half over the next two decades. People will mostly be happy to cease being cogs in a machine, and will rejoice in having more human contact in their jobs. Inevitably, some will be unwilling or unable to make the transition, and we will still have some unemployment, but most people that want to work will still be able to find a useful role. As we move into the care economy, we will discover what it really means to be human.
The internet notionally allows us to fragment an institution into its component parts and reassemble them using the newest tools, without any regard to the geography of these parts. Of course, physical components are not as geographically independent as information ones so we have to use some common sense, but when we are done, the new institutional structure will often bear little resemblance to the original. The tools available now and in the near future will allow us to automate a good proportion of the tasks, streamline authorisation lines and generally disintermediate the entire management infrastructure of a company. Some companies won’t be needed at all, since this fragmentation and re-assembly will occur at an industry-wide level, not just within a company. Others will spring into existence to milk the opportunities of helping people set up their companies with the minimum of fuss. An entrepreneur can then set up a new company without worrying about all the administrative functions surrounding managing staff. Many new companies are extremely staff-light already, but future ones may be even lighter.
If we look at a large manufacturing company such as a car manufacturer, the manufacturing takes place in large factories. Matter can’t be sent across the net, so the physical manufacturing is not directly affected by the net – cars will still be assembled in factories in a few decades, though 3D printing will have some impact by allowing local manufacture of some parts from templates downloaded over the net. What is affected is the whole of the design process, the means to supervise the manufacturing, the logistics associated with manufacturing, the control and supervision of the tools, and all the other management processes in the company, from personnel to the board. These are the information processes and departments, and are where the bulk of the value lies today, even in a manufacturing company. They can be implemented anywhere, or distributed around the world, wherever the most appropriate staff can be found at the most attractive price. Restructuring could be profound. For companies that aren’t making physical objects, the changes will be even larger. Virtual companies will comprise a very small core of key staff with top level skills. Other staff can be bought in on a project by project basis. So we need a few ideas creators, a few assimilators to package their ideas into useful and desirable products. When people still don’t buy them, we need expert marketers. Various new roles will spring into existence in this restructured economy – guides, guilds and so on. The elite will thrive in such an environment, often working for several companies at a time with high rewards. Everyone wants to employ them to gain a market edge. But the bulk of people are effectively commodity items, with a global supplier base. There will be enough work to ensure that most people will still be employed, but the work will be volatile.
All this implies a huge overhaul of administrative management. Much of it won’t be needed, and the rest will be restructured. We will be competing for our share of the global pie with many other countries. For individuals, it will mean constant re-skilling and lifelong learning as they try to keep up with the next generation of electronic tools. Provision of advanced artificial intelligence tools will mean that an individual will be able to do work that may have been too difficult previously. While companies may look at this as de-skilling jobs, it is equally validly up-skilling the person. A junior clerk may now be capable of a middle management role, and many middle managers might make use of the extra skills from AI to become an entrepreneur.
Certainly, the e-business environment will include a great deal of AI in a few years. Data mining software will automatically discover market niches that need to be filled. With automated personnel management, and databases full of people with the right skills, and physical resources in the right places, putting together an automated virtual co-operative will soon be possible. A group of freelancers will be brought together by this software to fill the market niche. Instead of a company with its departments full of managers, we will have freelancers and software. Virtual companies won’t usually be able to compete with such efficient structures, and of course the freelancers will keep the gains for themselves, with few overheads and no shareholders to pay. But the freelancers won’t be administering anything any longer; they’ll be using whatever other skills they might have, amplified by artificial intelligence.
So the future for administrative management seems quite simple. The most elite managers and leaders will be retained as a core of efficient virtual companies. Some more will be up-skilled and see their market value increase. They will be pulled lucratively together by software administrators into virtual co-operatives, or become fully fledged entrepreneurs. The rest, probably most, will either take early retirement or be absorbed into commodity administration farms. Remaining an administrator in a conventional company won’t be an option for any but the elite. The companies of this future world will have to be lean and mean with the smallest core staff possible, farming out administrative tasks as far as possible to software based specialist companies. Most administrative management will be seen as an overhead that should best be replaced by software.
The future office will be strongly affected by the changing nature of work. People will increasingly be employed on short-term contracts with virtual companies or participate in virtual co-operatives. They may often work from home or in telework centres, multi- company office complexes that allow people to telework without having to stay at home. Future screen technology allows thin touch sensitive displays to lie flat on desk tops just as paper or tablets do today, or to be projected onto them. Using these displays and video visors or active contact lenses, people could work with their colleagues around the world, both real and computer, almost as if they shared the same office. They could meet from their desks, or sometimes they may share rooms with other people, and large screens could extend these meeting rooms both into virtual space and other real offices. People may be present physically, remotely, or by proxy. AI could stand in for us when we are not available personally, allowing us to effectively be in many places at once. Geography will be much less significant, and computer proxies help reduce the problems of time zones too.
The future office will make widespread use of chips, not just in computers, but in our environment. A wide variety of sensors and activators will monitor the work environment and adjust it for our comfort and health, check it for electronic bugs, jam unauthorised transmissions, perhaps even sanitise it using UV. If a company is very techy, they may want even more invasiveness, though most won’t. They could alter the office climate, and may respond to stress or discomfort. They could monitor equipment, arrange for testing or repair before the user has even noticed a fault, and connect appliances together. They could allow appliances to adjust for the preferences of the occupants, diverting calls to the nearest terminal, wherever the person roams. There are a lot of options here, and it is safe to say that most companies will only use technology to a point that suits their culture, and most will preserve a much more natural feel. Other companies may want to go the whole way and use as much as possible, just to create the right atmosphere for their staff. A lot of tech will be available to those that want it, but the automated office will be rather like the automated home, possible, but scarce. Smart desks will also charge any electronic devices left on them. This technology is already becoming commonplace today and will soon be ubiquitous. Cordless power delivery is also starting to emerge so there will be no need for cables for either communications or power supply.
The future is exciting. Futurists can only talk about the options that lie ahead, like showing a map. The path we actually take will include some of those and not others. As a species, as a nation, and as individuals, we choose the path we take. It isn’t fixed. We need to look ahead, see what the landscape offers, and pick which way to go. You can be a passive passenger, drifting with the tides, or you can be proactive, making the future work for you. Forewarned is forearmed. If many around you have no idea what is coming, you have the advantage. Make the most of it.
Excerpted from You Tomorrow: The Future of Humanity, Gender, Everyday Life, Careers, Belongings and Surroundings by Ian Pearson. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Ian Pearson is a full time futurologist, tracking and predicting developments across a wide range of technology, business, society, politics and the environment. He is a Maths and Physics graduate and later became a Doctor of Science. He has worked in numerous branches of engineering, from aeronautics to cybernetics, sustainable transport to electronic cosmetics. His inventions include text messaging, the active contact lens, and active skin. He was BT’s full-time futurologist from 1991 to 2007 but now runs Futurizon, a small futures institute. He has written several books and made over 550 TV and radio appearances. He is a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, the World Academy of Art and Science, the Royal Society of Arts, and the World Innovation Foundation.