THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE OF WORK
The nature of work is evolving. Anticipating what comes next won’t be easy.
Dramatic change is underway all around us: economic, demographic, political, and environmental. Startlingly rapid technological advances in areas like artificial intelligence and robotics may hold the keys to solutions—or the seeds of even greater challenges.
Complexity breeds uncertainty, and life on Earth has never been more complex.
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 ask what the future holds but, rather, what would we like the future to be?
The road ahead isn’t a problem to solve; it’s an invitation to create.
Thanks to generous support from the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources, a group of 18 diverse experts convened at the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition to craft a comprehensive vision for the future of work which could be refined, tested, and then broadly adopted by the community. We present that vision below. To the best of our knowledge, there is no other such working document.
[The complete report of who participated in this event and our results can be found here.]
The future of work lies at the nexus of employment practices, education theory, individual psychology, and technological development.
Predictions about the development and impact of technologies such as artificial intelligence and autonomous machines have dominated many discussions about the future of work. Many fear that large numbers of jobs will be lost. The more pressing question is the degree to which these jobs will be replaced over time, and the nature of that new work.
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. Even with historically low unemployment rates, inflation-adjusted wages are significantly lower than they were prior to the 2008 financial crisis.
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. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked the U.S. twenty-third out of twenty-three countries for work-life balance.
This counterintuitive disconnect between increasingly “smart” technology and an expanding to-do list for the human workforce has many roots. Wage stagnation and thus the need to work more to earn the same amount is partially to blame.
But so too is a trend toward an increase in shadow work. For example, many admin and support roles have been eliminated with the advent of word processors and travel scheduling software, but people still do the work of administrative assistants. Many of these tasks have simply been distributed to the remaining workforce, without an increase in pay or a reduction in existing work.
Even our primary roles are increasingly unsatisfying. Research conducted by Gallup indicates a staggering 87 percent of employees are not engaged in their work, with a significant number feeling that the work they do is meaningless. This stagnation has a human cost. Surveys show that stress and anxiety levels are rising sharply year over year. The state of the workplace plays an undeniable role in this trend.
Stress has a strong correlation with chronic disease, as high as 75 percent by some estimates. Faulty coping strategies such as overeating, under-exercising, and alcohol/drug abuse, are also steadily on the rise, only exacerbating the problems that led to their use in the first place.
This is not to discount or dismiss the enormous progress the world has made over the last several decades, particularly in the reduction of extreme poverty and the improvement of medical care. However, when it comes to the human experience of work, we are clearly further away from the ideal than ever.
In our rapidly evolving world, the way we decide to work will have profound implications for our health and well-being in the future.
The solution space for this challenge is vast. It spans individuals to society as a whole, the human mind and body to its working environment.
We hope this overarching vision for the future of work will help people understand the larger ecosystem and how their own efforts can align to better serve humanity and create the future we want to live and work in.
Moreover, just because technology can be created does not mean it should be created. A shared vision helps navigate hard choices, minimize unintended consequences, and make collective progress in a complex system, even when those efforts are unconnected or even unknown to one another.
We identified seven elements that answer the question, “What do we want the human experience of work to look like?” while leaving open the possibilities for how to realize such a vision.
1. Work is rewarding and enjoyable. Work has a positive connotation and is something most people look forward to doing. Work enriches lives not just financially, but also intellectually, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. Workers are generally healthy, happy, engaged, and satisfied with the impact and importance of their work.
2. Work is high-value. Machines perform the majority of low-skill and low-value tasks. There are no longer any status distinctions between manual or knowledge work, since nearly all human work is high-value and thus well compensated. This results in a relatively low dispersion of incomes between professions.
3. Work is fluid. Organizational structures vary widely based on size, industry, and other factors. They can rapidly adapt to accommodate changing market conditions. Workers are primarily hired for their ability to learn, innovate, and evolve with changing roles and tasks. A culture of continuous self-learning, curiosity, and an acknowledgement that our most relevant learning happens on the job reduces the financial, social, and psychological barriers to career progression.
4. Work is flexible. Work is performed as much or as little as desired. The hours and patterns of work will vary widely between individuals and over one’s lifetime. There are no penalties for such variety because augmented intelligence in conjunction with a habit of self-learning accelerates re-entry into work whenever desired. Workers enjoy adequate time for rest, leisure, and thoughtful reflection, all of which support a healthy work life.
5. Work is collaborative. A culture of collaboration and shared responsibility for the entire team/organization as well as society as a whole is commonplace. Machines amplify the strengths of humans and minimize their weaknesses, and vice versa, creating a virtuous cycle of improved outcomes for less time and effort.
Augmentation is tailored not just to the task, but to the individual or machine accomplishing the task, accounting for changes in conditions that impact either’s performance. Because there is an abundance of both work and workers, intelligent systems can dynamically redistribute tasks among teams to promote well-being and results.
6. Work is a low-risk endeavor. Because distributed human/machine teams can self-assemble to tackle complex problems at low cost, companies are able to experiment with new models, organizations, products, and services with ease. This allows workers to curate and choose from an abundance of financial and intellectual opportunities on demand. Digital transparency and cognitive orthotics increase trust and improve decision-making of distributed teams, providing workers a high level of individual agency, whether they are an employee, entrepreneur, or contractor.
7. Work supports the greater good. Ethical advisors help companies navigate the complex trade-offs and potential unintended consequences of their decisions, particularly during development and implementation of intelligent technologies. Access to a rich variety of data streams allows the needs and desires of shareholders, workers, customers, and communities to all be accounted for in decision-making process. The market incentivizes solutions that benefit multiple stakeholders while reducing harm.
The field of artificial intelligence was born out of a desire to design machines that could replicate human capabilities. While certainly a compelling challenge for the science and engineering communities, this founding motivation may no longer serve society well.
If we adopt this vision to transform the human experience of work, a number of implications become apparent.
1) Psychology and culture remain under-appreciated factors in our ability to create a more positive future of work. To date, the assumption has been that better access to education and skills training, combined with a strong social safety net, will solve the greatest issues for those most likely to be impacted by the various technological, demographic, and economic trends. But this assumption is grounded in our current system, and misses the significant psychological and cultural forces that also play a part in determining outcomes.
Consider, for example, that countries with the strongest social safety nets do not typically have the highest rates of entrepreneurship. Indeed, among OECD countries, the United States was rated last for social protection spending and yet receives the highest Global Entrepreneurship Index rating by a comfortable margin.
Moreover, the U.S. Labor Department has concluded that federal job training programs have been ineffective at raising participants’ earnings or meeting the needs of employers. Clearly, education and access to opportunities are not the only contributors to the changes we are trying to facilitate.
It’s hard to measure the impact of factors you can’t see, such as individual psychology and group culture, and that’s evident among the many approaches typically proposed. While increased access to coaching and mentoring is certainly a start, it’s also true that psychology and behavior change strategies need to be more fundamentally integrated into the development of all solutions.
2) Augmented intelligence, not artificial intelligence, needs to become the central design principle for technology. The real benefit of AI and automation from a societal standpoint is its ability to eliminate the menial and mind-numbing tasks that have historically required human effort, freeing large segments of society to perform more interesting, valuable, and meaningful work. The responsibility for the shift from artificial intelligence to augmented intelligence, however, may lie more with business leaders than technology developers.
For example, many argue we should maintain jobs for humans as cashiers and truck drivers, with the implicit assumption these workers are not capable of performing higher value tasks and thus would otherwise find themselves unemployed. The problem here is not AI or automation per se, but society’s underestimation of what workers are capable of achieving, particularly when augmented by intelligent technology.
However, this requires businesses to view automation as a means of developing the full potential of their human workers. As Paul Daugherty and H. James Wilson put it in their book Human + Machine, “investing in people must be a core part of any company’s AI strategy.” That doesn’t mean technology cannot also take away work we want to perform, but we have to be careful we don’t judge what’s valuable or desirable based on our system’s current limitations.
Industry will need to drive the demand for augmented intelligence and prove its utility with specific use cases. As the skills gap widens, and it becomes increasingly difficult to hire and fire towards new skill sets, we hope this will make augmented intelligence the greater focus of development.
3) Changing the narrative is imperative. Our current cultural narrative about the role work plays in our lives and economy was shaped by the dawn of the Industrial Age.
People have largely seen themselves as a cog in a machine for profit and production, leading multiple generations to equate work with a paycheck as a means of survival. For their part, businesses have primarily focused on technology development as a means to increase productivity and scale.
The vision for the future of work that we’ve laid out here will likely seem fanciful to many at first glance. Others may argue we have not been bold enough. As Peter David Stroh points out in his book Systems Thinking for Social Change, “Vision becomes a living force only when people truly believe they can shape their future.” We must help both business leaders and workers see the potential benefits technology offers, as well as their own responsibility for creating a better future.
A Call for Community Action
What we are advocating is not easy or straightforward.
Although certain elements of this initial vision may exist within individual organizations, the human experience of work as we have described it remains a long-term ideal for most at this point.
The stories we tell each other and ourselves about the future of work are important.
A vision that we as a society agree to work towards will shape our beliefs, our priorities, and our experiments.
However, we don’t expect that we’ve got the vision right on our first try. What’s needed now is discussion and debate so that stakeholders can align their efforts towards collective success.
I invite all the passionate and creative people we could not host at the initial meeting to have that conversation now.
What do you particularly appreciate or support in this description?
What’s missing from our vision?
How could this vision help us better coordinate and work towards collective success?
Leave your comments below.