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The Future of Work

In 1918 as World War I was coming to a close, my grandfather, Jack Snow, was born on a farm outside of Jasper, Alabama. Life on the farm was incredibly labor intensive for the entire family and young Jack pitched in as best as he could, even learning how to plow the fields at 8-years-old. While his father had only studied until the eighth grade, Jack’s insatiable curiosity and love of learning brought him to Alabama Polytechnic Institute, later renamed Auburn University, where he studied agriculture. He worked three jobs to put himself through school. After serving as a paratrooper in World War II, Jack returned to Auburn, where he pursued a Master’s degree in Fish Management. He would go on to become the Superintendent of the Fish & Wildlife Service’s hatchery in Marion, AL and later, a consultant with USAID. He literally taught people all over the world to fish.

Growing Urbanization

Jack’s journey from farm to city coincides with a geographic migration that has been occurring in the United States since the Industrial Revolution ushered in massive productivity gains in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1860, roughly 25 percent (6.2MM) of Americans lived in urban areas (defined as 2,500 inhabitants or more) while 25.2MM lived in rural areas. By 1890 the urban population grew to over a third and in 1910 it was 40 percent. Around the start of WWI, the rural-urban balance tipped for the first time in American history. The industrialization of modern agriculture further increased rural-urban migration with productivity gains coming at the price of fewer and fewer jobs. In 2000, the urban American population reached 79 percent.

This tale is playing out all across the globe. Increased urbanization with the continued rise in the world population means that the cities of tomorrow will be larger. How will we employ all those people especially given the technological advances in automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing? What will the future of work look like?

Work Changes

In 2013, Oxford professors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne released a paper that estimated 47 percent of jobs are at a high risk of being automated within two decades. Larry Summers, a former American treasury secretary, studied employment trends of American men between 25 and 54 and found similarly concerning trends. In the 1960s, one in twenty men was not working. Summers estimates that in ten years that ratio could plummet to one in seven.

[pq]In the 1960s, 1 in 20 men was not working. In 10 years that ratio could plummet to 1 in 7.[/pq]

Technological advances and global supply chains have certainly freed up modern people from having to produce their own food and clothing. Unlike my grandfather, whose family needed to feed, tend, and protect the chickens to eat an egg, all I have to do is go across the street and buy a dozen eggs from my local supermarket. For much of the modern world, the tedious and laborious work that defined our ancestors has stayed in the past. Workweeks have shortened and with the advent of more free time, personal entertainment options have grown exponentially.

The Value of Work

To be clear, I believe work is a noble endeavor and one that is important for the human psyche. In her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, Russian-American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand writes, “whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source… the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before.” Work energizes us and gives us purpose. You can look no further than a typical refugee camp to see what life is like without work—because in most cases it is illegal for refugees to work.

In a recent National Public Radio podcast, Gregory Warner discussed this harsh reality with Ahmed, a well-educated Syrian lawyer who fled to Turkey when the war reached his city. Immediately, after reaching the refugee camp, Ahmed searched for work, any work, that would help him provide for his family. Unfortunately, he discovered that it was illegal for anyone to hire a refugee and that the penalty was close to $5,000. Ahmed made the difficult decision to return to Syria where at least he would be able to work. Warner described the differences between most refugee camps and Nakivale, a refugee camp in Uganda that has allowed refugees to work for the past fifteen years:

Nakivale looks nothing like a refugee camp that you might find in Kenya or in Rwanda or in Nigeria. In most refugee camps you have a series of tents, people inside the tents, listless, sort of mopping around, trying to use less calories. In this camp it’s kind of energetic. I’m walking around with Osman Faiz… and he says it’s all because of the right to work.

Work & Technology

In a recent Pew Research Project entitled the 2014 Future of the Internet, experts were split as to the impact that artificial intelligence and robotics will play on the future of work and on the net creation or destruction of jobs by 2025. While some believe that technological advances will create jobs we cannot even imagine today, others believe that the displacement of workers due to automation is already occurring, the pace of which will only quicken. Stowe Boyd, Lead Researcher at Gigaom, had this to say:

Widespread use of autonomous cars and trucks will be the immediate end of taxi drivers and truck drivers; truck driver is the number-one occupation for men in the US…. Just as importantly, autonomous cars will radically decrease car ownership, which will impact the automotive industry.

Tom Standage, Digital Editor of The Economist added:

Robots and AI threaten to make even some kinds of skilled work obsolete (e.g., legal clerks). This will displace people into service roles, and the income gap between skilled workers whose jobs cannot be automated and everyone else will widen. This is a recipe for instability.

While it is entirely possible that our economy will be able to adapt to the ever-changing pace of technological innovation, I believe that mass unemployment and underemployment is waiting for us on the horizon. Experts agree that the pace of technological advances is quickening and that our education system is horribly behind at preparing the next generations for the needs of tomorrow’s economy.

Responding to the Future of Work

How will the business leaders of today—and tomorrow—respond to these changing market forces? Will we focus exclusively on the bottom line as most managers did during the massive outsourcing epidemic during the 1990s or will we view our employees as valuable contributors to our long-term success? The answer may ultimately determine the fate of our businesses and communities.

This article was originally posted at Joel Montgomery’s blog.