The population in developed nations is aging, while the world’s overall population continues to increase at an unsustainable pace. Between climate change and rising income inequality, most people are understandably concerned about how or even whether much of society will be able to provide for itself.
Complexity breeds uncertainty, and life on Earth has never been more complex. Startlingly rapid technological advances in areas like artificial intelligence and robotics may hold the keys to solutions—or the seeds of even greater challenges.
Extrapolating from today’s obstacles, it would be easy to get depressed about the future of humanity, and the future of work specifically. The problem with predicting the future, however, is not only that it’s impossible, but that a pessimistic prediction encourages fear and helplessness. We shouldn’t be asking what the future holds but, instead, what would we like the future to be?
The road ahead isn’t a problem to solve; it’s an invitation to create. This simple shift in mindset challenges every single one of us to become part of the solution. Indeed, building a future of work that serves us under these challenging conditions will require nearly everyone’s contribution.
I believe we’re up to the challenge.
Success means different things from person to person, and the path for achieving that success can take many routes. I have seen firsthand how powerful a person’s psychology can be, whether it’s propelling a person forward or holding them back. Twenty years in the Air Force taught me that with the right training and environment, almost anyone can do almost anything. Moving into an uncertain future, I believe technology has the potential to help us tap into this human potential in new ways.
For almost two hundred years, wages tracked with productivity. Intuition suggests that a rising tide of technical progress would lift all boats by making workers more productive and therefore more valuable. However, despite staggering technological advances, wages have stagnated for decades, suggesting a decoupling of wages and productivity. According to the April 2017 World Economic Outlook of the International Monetary Fund, the share of national income paid to workers has been falling since the 1980s across advanced economies.
Despite early predictions that technology would enable society to work less, causing fears of a “leisure crisis,” just the opposite has happened. According to Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor, Americans were working five more weeks per year in 2000 than they did in 1967. In my recent study, most participants agreed that the most urgent work was to start changing the narrative around the future of work. A cultural change of this magnitude requires a large number of advocates, creators and storytellers.
Some of the most exciting innovations come from merely asking new and interesting questions, such as: How might we regenerate civil society for the benefit of the collective good so that we can feed, shelter, and care for 9 billion people on earth? What if our economy was driven by resources that were more valuable when shared? What if care, not growth, were at the center of work? On a more radical note: What if media narratives shifted to imagine a healthy future of zero growth?
What I am advocating is not easy or straightforward. Creating the future of work will require discussion, debate, experimentation, and collaboration among stakeholders. Machines are unlikely to make humans obsolete in the workplace, and instead of framing technology as a threat to human usefulness, we should see this as an opportunity to elevate human capacity and free individuals to engage with more exciting and complex tasks.