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What We Can Learn from the Present about the Future of Work

Future of Work
Surveillance Capitalism

What We Can Learn from the Present about the Future of Work

As the French writer Simone de Beauvoir once said, “To make something good of the future, you have to look the present...

9 Minutes Read

As the French writer Simone de Beauvoir once said, “To make something good of the future, you have to look the present in the face.”

Well put, Madame de Beauvoir!

Futures are always a reaction to the present; tomorrow is always a judgment on today. By training a microscope on how we work now, we can see how we’re going to work when this day is done, and perhaps gain a glimpse of what tomorrow holds.

Today’s age of the algorithm leaves us to ponder our future livelihoods. As technology progresses and permeates every fiber of our professional (and personal) lives, the question of how to keep pace, if not stay ahead, of the ever-morphing changes in the ways and means of work is today’s existential challenge.

For those among us who predate the commercial PC (me!), the past is deeply ingrained in how we think, live and approach work. To remain gainfully employed in perpetuity (a critical concern for those of us who expect modern science to keep us of sane mind and body into our septuagenarian days), we must embrace the emerging tools, techniques and technologies that will deliver a brighter, more fulfilling and productive tomorrow.

Whether you’re a hardscrabble digital immigrant (aka, an IT “original”) or an all-knowing digital native (aka, a “digital-all”), here’s what everyone – across geographies, industries and socio-economic status – needs to know to remain relevant in the future of work.

The Way We Work

Work is transmogrifying before our very eyes. The conventional hierarchy of org charts and sequential promotions up the managerial ladder are giving way to more merit-based relationships, where business value is freely exchanged regardless of title and status. And when it comes to so-called wirearchies, ascendancy is constrained only by enterprise gravity, not longevity. Titles will go the way of the 10-minute coffee break. In fact, job titles will transition into task-oriented roles that are more easily divided into human and machine responsibilities, as artificial intelligence and automation become more intertwined in our daily work routines.

The shape of our work day will also reconfigure. The 40-hour, 9-to-5, five-day work week – de rigueur since the first industrial revolution – will morph into the 10-hour, four-day work week, in recognition of the fact that many of us in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with the help of our mobile devices and remote data access, start our work days before the sun rises and are often still toiling well after the sun sets.

The Tools of Work

Technological change is only accelerating. The size of the iPhone or Android-powered device may expand or shrink depending on our fashion moods and functional needs, but our dependency on them for interactions, transactions and entertainment will only grow. Today’s handheld devices will require less typing and more vocalization and gesturing, as natural language processing and neural networks turn sound and picture into commands that invoke work processes.

Application programming – the heart and soul of unrelenting business reinvention – and the hardware and networks that power computing are undergoing cataclysmic change. Platforms are emerging that enable geeks and non-techs to create software without writing a stitch of code (or in some cases, not more than a few lines). Meanwhile, computing power will soar from petascale (i.e., one quadrillion calculations per second) to exascale levels (i.e., quintillion calculations per second), opening new vistas in business and scientific problem-solving.

Add to this the evolution of 4G to 5G networks (which are 10 times faster, with reduced latency), rules-based machine learning that is being succeeded by deep learning and neural networks, and quantum computing, in which the physical representation of data as binary bits (ones and zeros) is rendered as qubits (i.e., philosophical probabilities). All these developments offer new work potential for anyone up for these technological challenges.

The Aesthetics of Work

To thrive in today’s post-digital disruption, no organization wants to be stuffed with suits but with innovators, mavericks and creatives who are building the future of work. Creative, mold-breaking leaders don’t wrap themselves in the conformity of an idea or a drape. They don a hoody and bring their creative thinking and expression to work, eschewing Armani and Brooks Brothers as vestiges of the suited past.

And work is no longer constrained by physical space. The advent of the cloud has opened the door (for better or worse) to remote and on-the-go work that keeps businesses humming – 24x7. As I write this, I’m stretched out on my couch listening to classical music and sipping a tall cup of java. In years past, this would be somewhat heretical, or career limiting. Now, nearly half the U.S. workforce works at least part-time from home, and flexible schedules are becoming more the rule than the exception worldwide – even in business cultures that believe work not seen is unheard.

The Issues with Work

The ability to work anywhere/any time has up and downsides for all. The advent of pervasive internet connectivity via ever-proliferating WiFi hot spots and satellites has enabled us to plug, play, work and entertain via the cloud no matter where we reside or visit. This can be comforting for road warriors who have an email to send, a spreadsheet to scan or a proposal to evaluate. It can be discomforting when stress levels rise and work becomes an all-consuming proposition. WiFi, in particular, has become addictive; the more we have it, the more we seem to need it and the more we crave it when it’s unavailable or access is spotty.

And the more we’re connected, the more we tend to engage, often through unsecure networks. This creates way too many openings for miscreants to play fast and free with our personal data. That ne’er-do-wells seek to harm us by turning our clicks and swipes against us is almost understandable in a world where cybercrime has become big business. But when established businesses (aka social media sites, our banks and favorite retailers) take advantage of us, thumbing its nose at the conventions of responsible data stewardship (what author Shoshanna Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”), then we know we’re in trouble – trouble that will only get worse until remedies and relief are found.

Data privacy rules and regulations such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and California’s more draconian Consumer Data Protection Act have reinvigorated the privacy movement, and over time will curb the fast and free attitudes of big-tech business models premised on monetizing our personal data. Privacy isn’t dead, it’s just resting.

The Meaning of Work

Once privacy is regained, we will eventually become more comfortable in our digital skins, particularly as work morphs from services into experiences. Augmented reality, virtual reality and AI will make work more creative, fulfilling and productive. Work will move inside-out as these emerging digital tools become ingrained in our work lives, transforming the drudgery of mundane and routine tasks like field maintenance and technical training into captivating, immersive and more productive experiences.

As a result, a one-career mindset – I am skilled with the hammer, thus I will always be a carpenter – won’t track with ever-accelerating velocity and the functional needs of business. As work evolves, individuals will need to continually reinvent themselves with new skills, disciplines and capabilities. While intelligent automation will eliminate some job possibilities, many new roles – some yet to be created (who’s game for becoming a flying car developer?) – will provide tremendous opportunity to diversify the available portfolio of career tracks.

Nowhere will this be more critical than in our continuous quest for gender equality. While women make up a majority of the population, they remain considerably underrepresented at senior levels of organizations – despite the raging diversity and inclusion movement. And the World Economic Forum, one community where gender diversity should be a given, remains in a state of suspended animation. At the WEF’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Davos, women represented only 22% of delegates, up a miniscule 1% from a year earlier.

And it’s no better in the tech field – even at the grassroots level. The average percentage of women in the top 10 tech companies is 36%. The percentage of women in actual tech jobs in these companies is 23%. That’s far from parity.

Working Harder & Smarter

All these trends will greatly impact what we do and how we do it — be you a chief executive, a student, a politician or a salary (wo)man. Whether you’re excited by the future or fearful, this is no time to not be paying attention. The future of your work is changing — are you?

Alan Alper is a Vice President of Global Thought Leadership Programs at Cognizant, a global business, technology and consulting services firm and a co-author of the recently published report, “From/To: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Future of Your Work But Were Afraid to Ask.” He can be reached at

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