Let's begin with some mind-blowing statistics:
- Today, the richest 62 people in the world have the same wealth as 50 percent of the entire world's population.
- In 7 years, millennials will make up 75 percent of the world's workforce.
- In 9 years, freelance workers will make up more than 50 percent of the American workforce.
- In 12 years, people living in developing nations will account for 85 percent of the world's population.
Often data lacks soul and so we hear a stat but don't appreciate its full implications. As leaders, we need to brace ourselves for what's to come in the world of work. Simply put, we are on course for massive unemployment like we've never seen before.
Many leading thinkers are labeling this scenario "post-work." It's a world without the traditional jobs as we know them. There is very likely some form of a universal basic income (UBI) to help supplement those working and those not working.
The issues are rooted in a compound of inevitable realities: the continuing disparity divide, a shortage of workers for growing occupations, a widening skills gap for job categories yet to exist, algorithms and automation that keep eating the world, and a new generation of workers desperate to find meaning in work. These are just some of the issues likely to be overheard at the World Economic Forum just as they are at a dinner party.
How do we start to address these concerns and step outside our reality distortion field? We can start with a public discourse around values, intelligence, and work.
It's not that an "entitled" generation suddenly decided to find purpose in their work. Finding meaning in work is a deep-seated human impulse -- but something often not found in the traditional workplace. That is, until recent times. Many Americans may claim they want stability in their work beyond meaning -- but therein lies the problem. Jobs and the security of a paycheck have been upended by work (in all it's forms) and lack of opportunity. A precarious existence is par for the course if you were born between 1982 and 2004.
Both inside and outside of the organization, an emergent workforce is ensuring their values and purpose are aligned with the work they do. Several pioneering organizations are blazing a path that caters to, and evolve with, the ambitions of their workers. Call it a "retention strategy" or "employer branding" -- I call it good business.
In developing countries, many people don't and won't have the luxury of finding meaning in work. While some may learn to turn the job they have into one they love, the stark reality is that many won't have any work at all. But the UBI schemes piloted in Kenya are already proving promising.
One crafty recipient took his stipend and invested in a motorbike to provide taxi rides. He then set up a small soap business. And then a barbershop (you get the picture). The potential for a vibrant ecosystem of micro-entrepreneurs in developing nations is a reality. Most notably, this will enable these countries to be much more self-sustaining and resilient than today. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg in addressing the myriad of issues at play -- but it's a start.
Automation has always killed jobs just as it has created new ones. The issue is that as algorithms replace the jobs of some folks, it's the displaced who are so often unable to maneuver into the newly designed ones.
One Silicon Valley tech worker I interviewed remarked, "I can't imagine what people will go to college for in 20 years time." I've heard similar echoes from academics, entrepreneurs, parents, and peers.
We still tend to think of intelligence as a single dimension. But we all know there is a host of intelligences; from creative to the intellectual, from interpersonal to existential, and beyond. Thankfully there are techno-optimists like Kevin Kelly and Nicky Case who have laid out some clear ways we can look at this as a time for humanity to flourish.
The winning ingredient isn't a single intelligence or a super genius; it's a cognitively diverse one. It could be a human team with different skills, ages, sexes, races, and worldviews. But more and more it will also mean dynamic duos and superteams made of human and mechanical minds.
Kelly and Case both agree that we should be designing for the centaur which is really about our brains working together with, not against silicon brains. Instead of thinking of artificial intelligence as a threat we should be thinking about it as artificial augmentation -- and one of our greatest opportunities to flourish.
As we redefine what it means to be human and creative in an era of biohacking and artificial intelligence -- we will also redefine the very meaning of work. Emotional work, so often associated women and with caring for family (both young and old) may finally be given the proper recognition. Investment bankers, real estate brokers, telemarketers and quasi-Instagram public-figures might soon go the way of the dodo bird.
For the hundreds of millions of unemployed people around the world, we don't need jobs -- we need work. And with nearly all of the world's population growth taking place in less developed countries, it's here where all of this new work will have to be created.
To be fit for the future of work -- we'll need to distribute work in a more inventive and equitable fashion. Think job-sharing programs on steroids. Labels like full-time, part-time, contractual, contingent, unpaid, and untraditional work should be trivial and de-classified in lieu of a new system of work. Yes, the kinks of this new world order would need ironing out, but loosely speaking work will need to be divided based on both skill (currently capability) as well as need (future capacity).
Portable worker benefits too must be tied to time worked and not to job titles. This is merely an extension of what already happens in Hollywood when actors flow from movie to movie yet still receive benefits from unions. Or in New York City, taxi drivers can draw down compensation and benefits from the NY Livery Fund.
Is this all some type of libertarian aspiration? You betcha. Is it more ethical than today's work practices? Damn straight. If we are going to school a new generation and create a resilient future of work, we must approach it with a completely new mindset. It must be one fit for the digital age, where curiosity is cultivated and the capacity to change is baked right into education.
As the future comes rushing towards us at warp speed, we can brace ourselves for a brave new world of work and as social entrepreneur Van Jones declares, "Be prepared to pivot."