There are a number of generally accepted theories as to what the workplace will look like in the near future. With the advent of new and more powerful technology, change is inevitable. And while it is fun to imagine a world of AI, advanced robotics and other marvels of the future which will make our lives so much better, the truth probably lies closer to the middle in that for every potential win for humanity, there is likely an offsetting loss and which side you are on might be as simple as the circumstance and geography to which you were born. Here are some of the most common predictions with a cold, hard look at what it might really mean.
The Rise of the Freelancer
Much has been made of the fact that today more than at any other time, the use of freelancers is expanding. In the information technology field, independent contractors are seen as an essential part of the labour mix. They bring specific experience not available among client's employees or they help to shore up a project that requires a temporary increase in manpower. But ideas like the "Taskification" of work whereby companies tap into a global pool of freelancers who perform work or "tasks" for a fee is also seen as a growing trend. Taskification allows for employers to tap into a global pool of workers but with no obligations to those individuals. Simply hiring the lowest-priced labor with no concern for their well-being or the conditions under which they deliver their labor is potentially no different than the existing issue of the sweatshops of developing countries.
The Disappearance of the Bricks and Mortar Office
The downfall of the corporate office workspace and traditional employee has been predicted for years. I can remember during the dot.com boom everyone talking about the new economy and how a much more flexible workplace would mean that more and more tech workers could work from home or from random geographic locations. "Co-working" and "Digital Nomads" offer two solutions and address both the problem of isolation that freelancers experience working from home as well as the wander-lust that more and more workers exhibit. The benefits of co-working seem obvious, a "social" space whereby individuals work on their specific assignments while networking and sharing ideas sounds great. But individuals using these spaces report frequent interruptions, difficulty in locking in on their tasks and constant chatter about new and exciting opportunities...which just might be better than the one they are currently working on. And having a workforce, spread across the globe working off their laptop, probably on a beach in the tropics sounds idyllic. But even with the most disciplined worker, is it unfair to suggest that they might just be more inclined to disengage from work when presented with a constant temptation of leisure and recreational activities? We are already in the middle of a trend that sees workers move jobs more frequently than at any time in history. The effort that goes into acquiring, training and retaining talent is already daunting. While co-working and digital nomads might not exacerbate the trend, I'm not convinced that it is the answer to productivity and retention.
This is not so directly related to work but I was struck by this while I attended a presentation recently at the faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta. The topic was driverless cars and looked at a future of networked, people movers which would move citizens and therefore workers to their destinations seamlessly and without accidents or other human-induced glitches. While the idea of relegating gridlock to the pages of history and reducing the human carnage of vehicle accidents is vastly appealing, the presenter mentioned that networked vehicles would also give the worker of the future a "work pod" connected at all times to their place of work while they travelled throughout the day. As we already know, it is getting harder and harder to disengage from work and the thought of a vehicle designed around my desk at work tends to make me cringe. Sure, we'll also use the vehicle for fun...
Retirement will be a Thing of the Past
For some, the ability to continue to work well past their retirement years is an attractive proposition. If you are in a job you love, retirement may not be something you aspire to. And with advances in health care and medical treatment, people are living longer. Demographic changes and an aging workforce may mean more opportunity for our seniors to stay gainfully employed. But for those who are looking forward to retirement their choices may be considerably more limited. Personal debt is at an all-time high and for many workers, the cost of living in large cities where the jobs are presents a massive strain on their budgets. People are living longer, putting more stress on their savings and the same advances in health care and medical treatment mentioned above, means that individuals will have to plan for longer lives. Seniors may very well represent a viable labour force, and for many of them, that may be a good thing. But for those who dream of a life of travel or fishing after their work years, those dreams may be out of their reach.
The future as always, holds the promise of fascinating advances in technology and with these advances, opportunities for humans to experience the world in new ways. Work is and will continue to be impacted by these changes and many of them should be positive. But we also need to be aware that none, in and of themselves, will work for everyone, nor solve all challenges and that the answer, probably does lie somewhere in the middle.