A better tomorrow

In the optimal future, there will be new roles for those displaced from the workforce, says Korn Ferry’s Signe Spencer. Fourth in a series.

Signe Spencer is a senior consultant with the firm.

Although technology may reshape the future of work, without a central component–—acceptance and adoption by people—it can never fully achieve its promise. Korn Ferry believes that people are critical to the future of work and that only a partnership between them and technology will release greater value for organizations. But some people will be left behind. How can they still contribute and benefit?

Technology and automation are constantly accelerating and boosting productivity. Freed from more mundane tasks, people can be more efficient and innovative, ultimately creating greater value for their organizations. The future looks bright.

Fourth in a series.

The Future of Work: To work is human

Read the full series. >

But there is a dark side to the future of work. Many people could be shut out of it. As more work is automated and fewer clerical and manual positions remain, people in these roles will be jobless unless they can adapt and learn something a machine can’t learn.

This is the paradox of the future of work. Technology can either enable or disable the global workforce. It will allow some people to work smarter so they can do more for their organizations; it will disempower others and take their jobs.
Why is this relevant for companies, usually intent on following lean principles? Because the people being pushed out of future work still influence the wider business environment:

  • They are customers. Part of Henry Ford’s genius was to build a car for the middle class and to pay his workers enough to join it. Without disposable income, people don’t buy discretionary items. This could lead to shrinking economies and even another global recession.
  • They are voters. They can influence and even reshape the business environment, nationally and globally, through political channels. For evidence, just look at the recent rise of nationalist political voices in the US and Europe.

Although the “gig economy” may look like the answer to some of the challenges, it isn’t creating enough middle-level jobs to replace positions eliminated by automation. People reliant on gig economy work will struggle to make living wages or create the stability required to raise families. How will a reduced customer base, scraping by and dissatisfied with their quality of life, affect organizations’ bottom line?

A vision for the future

So what is the answer? There is no simple, single solution: Creating a future that works for everyone will be accomplished only by many small steps that add up. There are implications for business and corporate leaders in supporting social change and government policies. Some areas to consider:

  • There will still be work for people involving cognitive, creative, problem-solving skills; in fact, these are the skills businesses will need. But, universally, the basic education system isn’t keeping up with the increasing requirements of employability. Changes to education are needed to bolster the capacities employers will rely on in the future: creative thinking, problem-solving, adaptability, flexibility, the ability to collaborate in diverse teams, and learning agility.
  • Education can’t stop there. Adults, too, must have access to constant educational opportunities to acquire new, specific knowledge and skills, often related to technology and its applications. This learning may occur inside companies. But the burden shouldn’t rest solely on employers’ shoulders: Much of it needs to be available to the unserved and underserved employees so they can refresh and re-equip themselves to meet organizations’ new needs.
  • Solid, reliable infrastructure is critical to a future digital economy, and machines have only a limited ability to create it. Investments in infrastructure will both employ people who might otherwise be left behind and enable technology advances. In the UK alone, construction firms have urged the government to invest in skills to meet anticipated demand over the next 30 years.