Visualizing Jobs of the Future: Putting People at the Center in the Future of Work

From TV shows like Black Mirror to McKinseyOxfordOECD, and Brookfield Institute studies, many views of the impact of technology (particularly automation) on the future of jobs and society is bleak. We are told stories of automation that will eliminate broad swaths of jobs, opening up opportunity for some, and having catastrophic effects for others (like non-college educated workers). Brookfield Institute’s “The Talented Mr. Robot” (2016) estimates that “nearly 42% of the employed Canadian labour force is at a high risk (70% or higher probability) of being affected by automation over the next 10 to 20 years.” Some speculate, like futurist Thomas Frey (2014), that hundreds of new types of jobs resulting from emerging technologies, capabilities and needs will emerge to employ those people. NESTA predicts that “around one-tenth of the workforce are in occupations that are likely to grow as a percentage of the workforce. Around one-fifth are in occupations that will likely shrink. This latter figure is much lower than recent studies of automation have suggested. This means that roughly seven in ten people are currently in jobs where we simply cannot know for certain what will happen.” 

It is clear there is not a consensus on what the overall job loss or creation impact of emerging technologies could be with wide ranging estimates of across sectors. Further, while predictions for job loss like these abound, there are far fewer organizations working on envisioning the future of work and the jobs of the future that will employ the workforce of the future as current jobs are changed by automation and other emerging technologies. 

This is where I’ve focused my research with my digitalHKS research fellowship. Since January 2018 I’ve been collaborating with Bill Eggers and Amrita Datar from the Deloitte Center for Government insights to humanize the future of work and visualize the impact of technology on jobs to empower organizations, employees, and individuals to create a more positive future. 

This week at MIT’s EmTech NEXT Conference, Bill and I debuted some of the early products and methods we’ve developed together, including a Future of Government Work “Gallery Walk”. This gallery walk featured four government jobs of the future, depicted through futuristic art, text, and storytelling, including:

  • Child Aid Coordinators of the future are smart, connected and always prepared the deliver on their mission—protecting vulnerable children. They safeguard the rights of children and intervene in cases of abuse, neglect, or ill-treatment.
  • Garrison Commander of the future uses analytical software, virtual reality training tools, and secure communications to ensure a smoothly functional military installation that service members, family members, and civilian employees are proud to call home.
  • Mobility Platform Managers of their future, and their teams, are responsible for managing the city’s integrated multimodal transportation network and ensuring the seamless movement of people and vehicles. They supervise advanced AI systems that power the mobility platform.
  • Public Health and Safety Guardians of the future use the power of data, cognitive technologies and their public health expertise to protect the health and safety of citizens.

The Gallery Walk exhibition seeks to invite observers to consider how emerging technologies will enable government work to become more impactful and productive, increase decision making capability, and better support the overall wellbeing of the employee--while focusing on the core building block of the future of work, the individual person doing the job. The exhibition seeks to humanize the work transformation we might expect to see by 2025. This work demonstrates that not only new jobs will be created, but some existing jobs will change in very real ways that we also need to be prepared for. It also provides a story that both employees and employers can relate to in order to help encourage real discussion about these futures and enable people to visualize how they might start to approach those possible destinations. 

Our work reverses the current tendency to go from generalizations about changing technology to assumptions about broad job classifications, and instead starts with specifics about particular jobs for a more concrete understanding of what could happen in the workplace. 

The Gallery Walk is just a taste of what we’re working on. We’ve been busy developing content (examples of jobs of the future and a method for developing jobs of the future) and engagement approaches (such as workshops and the gallery walk) to encourage engagement and discussion around that content. 

Developing proactive and productive tools for designing the future of work is both timely and important.

According to McKinsey, “375 million workers—or roughly 14 percent of the global workforce—may need to switch occupational categories as digitization, automation, and advances in artificial intelligence disrupt the world of work… In terms of magnitude, it’s akin to coping with the large-scale shift from agricultural work to manufacturing that occurred in the early 20th century in North America and Europe, and more recently in China… The task confronting every economy, particularly advanced economies, will likely be to retrain and redeploy tens of millions of mid-career, middle-age workers.” As the MGI report notes, “there are few precedents in which societies have successfully re-trained such large numbers of people.”

Both employers and employees will need to own their continued education and skill development in order to fill the jobs of the future. Thus, employers and employees will need to be given tools to envision the jobs of the future in a more visceral way so we can move towards them as a realistic destination.

Today, society has an opportunity to design a better future given the transformation in jobs and way of working that is coming—a future where workers aren’t just more productive but where their individual well-being is better cared for in a job. Emerging technologies will change existing jobs as well as create brand new ones. It will affect almost everyone: you, me, our family, our neighbors. Its time humanize the discussion to one beyond an economic discussion about workforce and labour. The individual people that will be affected by this change should also be engaged in this discussion. The content and engagement approaches that I’ve been developing through my digitalHKS fellowship in partnership with Deloitte are a few ways I believe we can start increasing the diversity of voices in the discussion about the future of work.

You can hear more about our call to put people back at the center of the future of work discussion in the talk I delivered at EmTech NEXT, here: https://events.technologyreview.com/video/watch/jenn-gustetic-harvard-people-future-work/