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In the 10 years since I launched the Future of Work Consortium, the topic has become increasingly important to the agenda at Davos, the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. During that time, we have gained clarity about some aspects of the future of work (for instance, that technology will have an impact on tasks, not jobs), become more optimistic about others (for instance, that there will be relentless job creation), and have grown certainly more fearful about the significance of growing threats (for instance, the impact of mid-level job destruction on the rise of “popularism.”)
This year, as a steward of the World Economic Forum’s System Initiative on Shaping the Future of Education, Gender and Work, I attended council meetings and stopped by many other presentations and panels on this topic. Here are my five big insights about the future of work from Davos 2019:
1. We’re in the middle of a major transition. I think we are only just beginning to realize the scale of the transition taking place right now — simply put, most people around the world will need to upskill and re-skill. As one person remarked, “It could be an ugly transition.” Another reminded us that in a recent survey in Asia, more than 40% of respondents were concerned about the impact of technology on their jobs. People spoke of the need to shorten pathways to new skills and for leaders to create a positive narrative for workers. But beneath this sentiment was a real fear of complacency — and a feeling that it is hard to create the sense of urgency that will be required to make such a colossal shift.
2. It is vital that we create fast upskilling and re-skilling. There is no doubt that skills are the currency of the labor market. Yet right now, as a labor economist pointed out, there are mismatches in needs and capabilities, as shown in a recent CEO survey that reported that many CEOs were concerned about the lack of available skills. In a panel on education, people pointed to the disconnect between what business wants and what education is creating, in part caused by a lack of understanding and dialogue between these two entities.
There is wide agreement that we need a massive push to prepare people for new jobs and skills, but right now, no one is doing enough to prepare people for those future skills. As one Nobel Prize-winning economist ominously remarked, “Now school does not mean you will learn; learning does not mean you will have the skills for the labor market; and having the skills does not mean you will have a job — it’s a more complex route.”
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3. We have to address the gender gap in technology jobs. There was a general feeling of frustration that the gender gap has remained so stubbornly in place (only 23% of Davos participants this year, for instance, were women). Much of the conversation about gender focused on technology: Many new jobs are in data analytics, where women are significantly underrepresented. One tech leader noted that it could get worse: “Right now, 20% of women in a technology career are considering leaving.” This lack of diversity is reflected in the way in which the industry is developing, down to the creation of the algorithms that are behind AI.
It’s crucial for women to advance — and stay represented — in STEM careers. As one participant said, “Women are an underutilized potential. Technology favors credentials, and more women need to believe these are credentials they are prepared to invest in.”
4. Flexible working is becoming the norm. There is an ever-greater variety of workers in the labor force — more parents, more people over the age of 60, more carers, more lifelong learners — and they all want flexibility. Working conditions, of course, differ around the world: In some countries, like Australia, flexible working is available for many, while in others, like Japan, the corporate culture punishes flexibility. As one tech entrepreneur said, “I want control over my calendar,” and that’s rapidly becoming the norm as technology underpins mobility and collaboration. Another remarked that once you’ve had flexibility, “it’s hard to take it away.”
5. The great hope is (inclusive) education. In panels and groups, inevitably, one of the common opening questions was: “…and what are you most optimistic about?” Many people answered “education,” but noted that it has to be inclusive. I heard about a number of amazing initiatives in India and Africa to bring learning to all. But there are challenges: Much of sub-Saharan Africa, home to some of the poorest people in the world, has very little internet connectivity. Education credentials remain a challenge in these areas, where branded establishments are often favored. While technology-based education could and will increase networks and pathways of learning, there was a general feeling that it has not yet delivered on the promise.
Education is potentially a key propeller to advancement, but social mobility, we heard, is actually decreasing, as elites “opportunity hoard” — that is, stockpile future opportunities for their own children. One academic remarked: “Education is creating an empire on the back of credentialing, and we need to turn away from this. We need methods that deliver not credentials, but skills.”
Overall, conversations and ideas have moved a long way from the simple “robots will take your job” headlines of a few years ago. There is a growing awareness that we have to act now, and at scale.
And who are “we”? “We” includes many of those who were at Davos: government ministers, who have to prepare to provide economic support to people in transition; educators, who must drop their focus on credentials and instead help people prepare for a lifetime of learning; corporate leaders, who must reverse the current trend of spending ever less on training and development; and civil society, which must work with communities to bring the promise of education to all.
The future of work is one of the most burning platforms of the next few years. Time alone will tell whether the anguish will convert to action.