As we’ve argued before, the past year may have been disruptive, but largely because the future of work has arrived sooner than we thought, rather than because it is not the one we foresaw. And of course, this sudden arrival at an expected destination has left us unprepared for some of what we have found there.
Most notable perhaps is the use of technology. Although it’s became a cliché earlier in the year to say we have adapted better than expected, what we have really learned over the past nine months is how well technology can replicate - if not replace - our physical interactions.
The outcome of that experiment into working life is mixed. While the adoption of new technology has helped us cope with remote work very well on the whole, its drawbacks are becoming clear in the adoption of new terms to describe phenomena such as Zoom fatigue. This BBC report identifies the underlying issue of why we find Zoom so exhausting. It’s because we’re human.
This longer piece from Aeon develops the theme. It suggests that part of the problem is because we are still adapting to the technology, before it becomes ‘stuff that works’ but also because the instinct of technology designers to problems is to add more features, when the solutions may be about behaviours, ‘humanising the tech’ and especially reclaiming our human selves without the machines.
This relationship between people and tech will define the new era of work as it did the last. But in profound new ways that will reshape our lives, society and the economy. The Future of Jobs 2020 suggests that by 2025, automation and a new division of labour between humans and machines will disrupt 85 million jobs globally in medium and large businesses across 15 industries and 26 economies.
Roles in areas such as data entry, accounting and administrative support are decreasing in demand as automation and digitization in the workplace increases. Around half percent of employers are expecting to accelerate the automation of some roles in their companies.
We can expect to see the consequences of these changes soon. People working in traditional professions will see a growing part of their role merged with artificial intelligence and some roles such as professional driving may disappear altogether.
The near future might also see the much-heralded advent of Quantum Computing which will be a game changer in every way. This is not just about the creation of more computer power as enshrined in Moore’s Law, but a step change in computer power beyond anything we might be able to imagine. The AI DeepMind’s solution to a longstanding question about protein structures may transform healthcare and is also a taste of things to come.
Such developments will change our lives in ways we cannot predict, not least because large parts of the current labour market will be challenged by the rise of the machines. Already our children must be gearing up to a world in which some jobs won’t exist and new ones will emerge of which we are still unaware.
The great lesson of 2020 is that these machines won’t be perfect either. They’re created by humans for humans and we will have to adapt ourselves and strive to perfect the machines at the same time.
One thing we are already learning is that the technology cannot replace everything we like about being around other people and in the physical world. The technology has the potential to disconnect us as well as connect us, and so we must learn to work with it in ways that suit us, rather than fitting ourselves to the technology.
There are reasons to be optimistic about all of this. The future is unwritten and we have learned some extremely valuable lessons this year.
Perhaps most importantly, we might come to appreciate both the potential of tech and its limitations when it comes to connecting with each other. That may be the defining idea in the new future of work.