The Future (of work) is Here

When you think about it, 2025 is not so far away.

I mean, I’m no futurist, but lately things have been, as a friend affectionately states, “a hot pile of garbage." I've now, on more than one occasion, found myself daydreaming while sitting at my desk about what the state of the world will look like in 10, 20, and 30 years from now. Are we going to fight our way towards closing the wealth gap? Or are we just going to fire shots at each other on the internet? I am a pragmatic optimist disguised as a snarky pessimist, but some days I just don’t know.

I’m afraid.

I’m not afraid to say that I’m afraid.

I understand that this is partially (mostly) due to the onslaught of terrible headlines that mainstream media now puts out in an effort to get readers to hate-click their shit (advertising revenues, you understand). I also understand that as quality of life worsens for those out of touch with technology, the more this polarizes segments of the society even more. I am a pragmatic optimist disguised as a snarky pessimist, but some days I just don’t know.

In 7 years, I don’t believe things will look radically different than today, but I do believe that, overall, things will be worse. You see, the future of work is now. We are seeing demand for technological skills. We are seeing a growing gap between the poor and the rich. We are seeing people, more than ever before, fall farther behind. What does this mean? How do we solve this dilemma? I won’t proclaim to know these answers, but here are a few of my thoughts.

If You Want to be Rich, Learn Tech.

This is a no brainer. Not only is there a growing need from fancy tech companies to hire designers, engineers, and programmers, but working in the tech industry has become in vogue right now amongst Generation Y and Zers. The conventional start-up culture of catered lunches, open-concept floor plans, working remotely, and unlimited vacation time, are but a few things that attract the eyes of Millennial workers. It’s cool to be the young whizz — after all, you can wear a t-shirt and jeans to work and start on a six-figure entry salary.

However, what most fail to recognize is that this is no different than working for a major corporation. Of course, the culture is different, but the offer of high wages in order for total compliance remains virtually the same. Ryan Holiday calls this the dress suit bribe. Whether it’s in the finance, insurance or tech industry, the bottom line is no different: profit.  It’s just been given a facelift.

If You Want to be Rich, Embrace “Alternative Work Arrangements”

Of course, this problem is something we’ve been facing for a very long time. While threats of AI and bots stealing jobs may be a newer issue, the notion of job insecurity has been a longstanding problem. The rising trend amongst employers shifting from permanent, full-time workers with benefit packages and retirement plans to the outsourcing of labour to independent contractors (both domestic and international) is nothing new. The work is the same. Health care? Retirement? Injury prevention? That’s on you.  

The painful reality is that Millennials, who have inherited this mess, have been led to believe that working for one’s self is the ultimate jackpot. A short-sighted fool may think this is a wonderful arrangement — to be the boss of one’s self — while unknowingly realizing that the security built into a full-time job, such as basic workers’ rights, was something you wished you had all along.

The truth is that so-called “disruptive start-ups,” such as Uber, Airbnb and TaskRabbit make up a very small fraction of the gig economy. They are not the problem. Institutional organizations that replace full-time workers with independent contractors, temp workers, and on-call workers are.

This is not to condemn entrepreneurship — only to suggest that this is no solution to the disparity that wounds our society. You may be able to work from home, but is that worth zero overtime pay, zero guaranteed minimum wage, and zero protections from workplace harassment and violence? Only you can answer that. But I’ll speculate that your answer will vary depending on the colour of your skin, the pronouns you use, and how many candles you blow out each year.

If You Care About Socioeconomic Equality, Learn to Organize.

If you are worried about the decline in job security — AI and bots being two parts of that — the answer is very simple: Learn to talk to people. Develop your intercultural communication skills. Knock on doors. Attend community events. Invite your neighbour for cookies and tea. We forget the basic human emotions that connect us all: love, peace, and safety. I cannot think of a more effective tool than community organizing.

In 1988, when Barack Obama was an organizer himself, he wrote an article for the Illinois Issues that summarizes the concept of community organizing quite well:

Community organizing provides a way to merge various strategies for neighborhood empowerment. Organizing begins with the premise that (1) the problems facing inner-city communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions; (2) that the only way for communities to build long-term power is by organizing people and the money [they raise] around a common vision; and (3) that a viable organization can only be achieved if a broadly based indigenous leadership – and not one or two charismatic leaders – can knit together the diverse interests of their local institutions.

This means bringing together churches, block clubs, parent groups and any other institutions in a given community to pay dues, hire organizers, conduct research, develop leadership, hold rallies and education campaigns, and begin drawing up plans on a whole range of issues: jobs, education, crime, etc. Once such a vehicle is formed, it holds the power to make politicians, agencies and corporations more responsive to community needs. Equally important, it enables people to break their crippling isolation from each other, to reshape their mutual values and expectations and rediscover the possibilities of acting collaboratively – the prerequisites of any successful self-help initiative.

Although Obama was well-aware of some of the problems that organizers face (and if you read the rest of his article, he outlines them in detail), he ultimately concluded that none were insurmountable. I agree.

The hardest part is supplying hope to the hopeless. To unite those that remain isolated. To bridge longstanding gaps. To bond two strangers together. In order to ensure that our children aren’t, at best, left to clean up this mess or, at worst, born into a world of poverty, it is up to us to do our part.

The Future of Work

A 2017 study done by Gartner, a research & advisory company, boldly concluded that 1.8 million jobs worldwide would be wiped out by 2020 due to artificial intelligence (AI). Conversely, Gartner proclaimed that from 2020 to 2025, AI will create 2 million new jobs. Unsurprisingly, the study continues through indicating that retailers will leverage AI and robotics to replace labour-intensive and repetitive activities. This can already be seen with Amazon’s experimentation of a cashier-free convenience store.

What is, perhaps, the scariest part of the study is the speculation that, “In 2021, AI augmentation will generate $2.9 trillion in business value and recover 6.2 billion hours of work productivity.” This explicitly admits that AI augmentation will erase 6.2 billion hours of work that was formerly workers' responsibilities. What happens to them?

In 2012, another prediction was done by Thomas Frey. He speculated that by 2022, over 1 billion jobs will be lost worldwide to robots, and by 2030 that number will hit 2 billion. Frey highlights 3 industries that are the most at-risk: power, automotive (specifically cars), education.

Frey, however, insists that it may not be all bad. He points out that this this will give rise to a host of new jobs, such as product designers, engineers, repairmen and stylists in industries such as robotics and 3D printing technology. For him, it's not that this will be the elimination of jobs, rather that the jobs will now be different.

Like everyone else, I don’t know what’s to come. However, I’ve been told that the most in-demand skills will be those that are difficult to automate: emotional and social intelligence, critical thinking (innovative, not linear), creative design. This does not reassure me.

I am a pragmatic optimist disguised as a snarky pessimist, but some days I just don’t know.