The nature of work is set to change in unimaginable ways, with drastic consequences for production and distribution. There are several societal shifts driving this change: an ageing population and a rise in unskilled workers, coupled with advances in cloud technologies and new possibilities for human enhancement.
According to the European Commission, in the UK alone, the over-65s age group will have increased from 17% of the population in 2010 to 23% by 2035, with 2.5 million more over-85-year-olds in the same period. And it’s predicted that the number of people aged 60 and over as a proportion of the global population will be 22% by 2050 ‒ double what it was in 2006.
Increased unemployment in developed countries will also wreak havoc on our economies. Today, 40 million workers in advanced economies are unemployed, according to management consultancy firm McKinsey. Simultaneously, businesses in these nations can’t find workers with the skills they need: a catch-22 that risks stalling economic growth. McKinsey predicts that by 2020 France will be 2.2 million Baccalauréat-qualified workers short to meet demand, with an excess of 2.3 million less-educated workers struggling to find employment.
Working the cloud
These two factors create the perfect storm for new systems reliant on cloud technologies, robots, and human enhancement. Here’s why.
Cloud computing is a hot topic, and for good reason. It’s been hailed as one of the best ways to ensure future productivity, collaboration, and innovation. Forrester estimates that by 2016, 43% of the US workforce will be virtual. A study by ABI Research finds that the social collaboration sector ‒ comprising social sites which allow groups to share knowledge and swap favours ‒ will reach $3.5bn by 2016, up from just under $1bn in 2012. This quid pro quo arrangement will fuel unprecedented innovation in consumers and products.
Cloud technologies could also help to train workers in the skills they need to get jobs. For example, NGO Enstitute, which matches students with start-ups, or educational video site Khan Academy. Virtual learning libraries in the cloud will encourage entrepreneurs and experts to leave advice in written and video form, available for anyone.
Films like iRobot and Prometheus have already introduced us to the prospects of working alongside robots, and robots are already displacing humans in labour and manufacturing roles. For example, one of the reasons hi-tech manufacturing is moving back to the US is that motherboards can be made by machines, so cheap Asian labour is no longer incentive enough to produce them abroad.
A December 2012 article by Kevin Kelley for Wired argues that robotics are already integrated into the global economy, citing Google’s search abilities and iPhone assistant Siri as examples. But he also argues that robots could eventually take over even white-collar roles. However, while automation may transform the workforce and eliminate certain jobs, it also creates new kinds of jobs that are generally better paid and that require higher-skilled workers.
Human enhancements such as implants and memory-boosting smart drugs could be integral to the future of work, combating the issue of a shrinking workforce. The elderly could take smart drugs that enhance memory and cognitive abilities; those with hearing disabilities or sight impairments could reverse damage, and enter the workforce. A recent report by the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences on Human Enhancement and the Future of Work discusses the next steps for policy makers and organisations, as human enhancement becomes a vital tool for future employers.
Fauzia Musa is a Strategic Planner at IDEO. Image credit: CC Seth Anderson.