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What you need to know about the future of work

What you need to know about the future of work

What you need to know about the future of work

What is the future of work?

The subject of “The future of work” has been around for quite some time now. Many experts have offered differing opinions on what it is. This has opened the subject to much debate and scrutiny and much research has been done. Governments, non-governmental organisations and the private sector have all looked into the subject. The best way to define the future of work would be to take a look at what these experts have said on the subject. We take a look back to 2016-2017 when the topic was considered to be hot. [1] In 2016 The World Economic Forum annual meeting held under the theme “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution” could arguably be highlighted as the first major event when stakeholders from across the board discussed the future of work. Preceding the annual meeting the World Economic Forum published a report titled “The Future of Jobs” which sort of sparked the conversation throughout that annual meeting.[2] The report states that development in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing is building upon and exhorting one another. This creates a foundation of a revolution more encompassing than anything this world has ever seen. The major question then is how will the government, business and individuals react to this.[3]

Here is what some of the experts had to say to address the question of future of work during the 2016 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting held in Davos: [4]

Jonas Prising, CEO of ManpowerGroup

“We see high unemployment with unfilled jobs, rising productivity with stagnant wages, and economic recovery with declining upward mobility.”

Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft

“Any kind of job is going to have a digital component. It doesn’t mean everyone’s got to be a computer scientist; digital technology can, in fact, bring skills to a much more under-skilled population because of their ease of use and the ease of access to technology.”

Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director, World Economic Forum, Till Leopold, Head, Inclusive Economies Practice, Centre for the New Economy and Society, World Economic Forum

“If you are choosing your college degree today, STEM skills are a good bet,”

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda

“Technology has become a huge multiplier, affecting growth and development and connecting people. Even for the poorest people, having some simple technologies has improved their lives; very ordinary people are understanding the importance of technology. In the last 10 years in Rwanda, it’s just continued progress, and most of it contributed to by the use of technology. This revolution will produce winners and losers. Our job is to reduce the number of losers”

It is interesting to note the four questions which are embedded in the subject future of work as James Manyika, McKinsey Global Institute chairman and director points out.[5] These questions or points of discussion are:

  1. The impact of artificial intelligence, automation on work and jobs, and whether we’ll have enough work and jobs left after that.
  2. The changing models for work and work structure. This involves questions around independent work, the gig economy, whether people work as outsourced services or not.
  3. Whether people work and earn enough to be able to make a living or not. Will technology make that even worse as we look forward considering most advanced economies have seen a huge stagnation of incomes?[6]
  4. How does a workplace actually change? How work will be organized and how it will look in terms of people working alongside machines.

Findings from the 2016 Future of Jobs report share an even clearer picture of what is the future of work. The findings are:

  • Technological disruption is interacting with socio-economic, geopolitical and demographic factors to create a perfect storm in labour markets in the next five years.
  • Jobs gains in the next five years will not be enough to offset expected losses, meaning we have a difficult transition ahead.
  • If you are choosing your college degree today, STEM skills are a good bet – but most importantly you will need to learn and specialize throughout your lifetime.
  • Even as jobs shrink, companies will find it harder to recruit
  • Regardless of the job you are in, expect to face pressure to constantly modify your skills
  • The threat of automation and a jobless future could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if both employers and employees don’t act today
  • Government, business and individuals will need a mindset shift towards education and employment

Fast-forwarding this to 2020, one can say the future of work is now. It is already here, as Bernard Marr, a contributor at Forbes writes. [7] In 2017, the International Labour Organisation Global Commission On The Future Of Work began its work and published their work in 2019 in a report titled, Work for a Brighter Future. The commission was co-chaired by the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa and Sweden’s Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven.  The report states that technological advances will create new jobs, but those who lose their jobs in this transition may be the least equipped to seize the new opportunities. Today’s skills will not match the jobs of tomorrow and newly acquired skills may quickly become obsolete. However, if everyone is aware of the changes, if everyone is included and works together to find solutions, there is a brighter future to our world of work.[8]

What skills are needed for future jobs?

In their 2017 report, McKinsey Global Institute addressed the question of what automation will mean for skills.[9] They said:

“Workers of the future will spend more time on activities that machines are less capable of, such as managing people, applying expertise, and communicating with others. They will spend less time on predictable physical activities and on collecting and processing data, where machines already exceed human performance. The skills and capabilities required will also shift, requiring more social and emotional skills and more advanced cognitive capabilities, such as logical reasoning and creativity.”

The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report lists Top 10 skills to have in 2020. This list echoes the same sentiment to what McKinsey said. One can see that the skills needed for future jobs are more of the “soft skills” traditionally not given the attention they deserve. The continued accelerating pace of technological and socio-economic disruption, changes in business models will not only influence the skills employees to need but shorten the shelf life of their skills. Even in roles not directly affected by the technology they will be some sort of skill addition to adapt to the new ecosystem. The World Economic Forum predicted that, on average, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job in 2016.

Figure 1: Top 10 Skills in 2020

Below are some of the findings from the Future of Jobs report concerning skills needed for future jobs:

  • More than one third (36%) of all jobs across all industries are expected to require complex problem-solving as one of their core skills, compared to less than 1 in 20 jobs (4%) that will have a core requirement for physical abilities such as physical strength or dexterity
  • Overall, social skills such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control.
  • Content skills (which include ICT literacy and active learning), cognitive abilities (such as creativity and mathematical reasoning) and process skills (such as active listening and critical thinking) will be a growing part of the core skills requirements for many industries.
  • Many formerly purely technical occupations are expected to show a new demand for creative and interpersonal skills. For healthcare practitioners, for example, technological innovations will allow for increased automation of diagnosis and personalization of treatments, redefining many medical roles towards translating and communicating this data effectively to patients.

At Virgin Unite, they have learned that ‘Hybrid leaders’ will be in demand. [10] They describe these as leaders who can work collaboratively across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors and use business solutions to tackle the world’s social and environmental problems. The concept of a job for life will not exist, they say. They foresee a constant movement across projects, organisations and roles. This will bring a radical shift to traditional methods of attracting and retaining talent.

How do you prepare for your future job?

It is clear with the continued disruption to business models and the work environment life-long learning is a must. There will be constant upskilling. Saadia Zahidi and Till Leopold from the World Economic Forum advise that, regardless of the job you are in, expect to face pressure to constantly modify your skills. Remember, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will consist of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today. Also, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills. Bernard Marr, a contributor at Forbes says, “Individuals will need to act and engage in lifelong learning, so they are adaptable when the changes happen. The lifespan for any given skill set is shrinking, so it will be imperative for individuals to continue to invest in acquiring new skills. The shift to lifelong learning needs to happen now because the changes are already happening.”[11]

Figure 2: Virgin Unite skills needed in the future workplace

What does Covid-19 mean for the future of work?

The advent of Covid-19 has become a catalyst for some of the concepts of the future of work. What began as a few weeks of working from home has accelerated the change in how we work.  In their report titled, Remote work in the age of AI, the team at slack reports an estimated 16 million U.S. knowledge workers started working remotely due to Covid-19 as of March 27; that number is likely much higher now.[12] It is clear the traditional idea of office life has been put on hold and it is not certain yet what the future holds. One thing that’s for sure is that things will never be the same again.

Ian Wong, co-founder and CTO of Opendoor, an online real estate transaction provider, says, “The future of work is looking flexible. Right now, the majority of tech employees are working remotely, but I see a future where employees have options. As companies consider more permanent options, employees need to be communicative with their managers about what’s working and what’s not. Leaders should also be mindful of the needs of their employees. Maybe the future workplace means coming into an office one to two days a week, maybe it’s meeting as a team once a month, or maybe employees are fully remote There are a lot of unknowns right now, but I don’t predict work will go back exactly to how it was pre-COVID-19. There will be changes.” [13]

One could conclude that remote working has been cemented as the new way to work. Big tech companies have taken a stance that might suggest so. Facebook has advised employees to work from home for the remainder of the year, in some cases, permanently. Google is ensuring facilities occupancy rate is at 10%. [14] Twitter is reported to have all employees working from home permanently. [15]

Business leaders and individuals need to be aware of the changes happening and be knowledgeable about how best to navigate these changes. After all the success of a business or one’s career mainly lies in their hands.

Future of Work Statistics you should know

Will there be enough work in the future?

McKinsey notes some of the questions people have concerning the future of work and the increasing automation is will there be enough work in the future. Over time, labour markets adjust to changes in demand for workers from technological disruptions, although at times with depressed real wages as shown below:

Figure 3: Employment changes in the United States 1850-2015

Which core work-related skills will be in demand?

Below you can visualise the change in demand for core work-related skills across all industries. This will help managers in their future workforce strategy and employees on which skills to enhance.

What are the future labour markets likely to be?

Below there is a table showing a compilation of some of the estimates from reputable organisations on the estimates likely to happen in future labour markets. [16]


[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/what-is-the-future-of-work accessed 27 July 2020

[2] https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs accessed 27 July 2020

[3] The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution January (2016)

[4] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/11-experts-at-davos-on-the-future-of-work/ accessed 27 July 2020

[5] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/what-is-the-future-of-work accessed 27 July 2020

[6] Poorer than their parents? A new perspective on income inequality Richard Dobbs, Anu Madgavkar, James Manyika, Jonathan Woetzel, Jacques Bughin, Eric Labaye, and Pranav Kashyap (2016)

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2019/07/15/the-future-of-work-5-important-ways-jobs-will-change-in-the-4th-industrial-revolution/#372c98e554c7 accessed 27 July 2020

[8] Work for a brighter future, Global Commission on The Future of Work, International Labour Organisation 2019 

[9] Jobs lost, jobs gained: What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages, McKinsey Global Institute, James Manyika, Susan Lund, Michael Chui, Jacques Bughin, Jonathan Woetzel, Parul Batra, Ryan Ko, and Saurabh Sanghvi (2017)

[10] https://www.virgin.com/virgin-unite/entrepreneurship/five-things-you-need-know-about-future-work accessed 28 July 2020

[11] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2019/07/15/the-future-of-work-5-important-ways-jobs-will-change-in-the-4th-industrial-revolution/#372c98e554c7 accessed 28 July 2020

[12] https://slackhq.com/report-remote-work-during-coronavirus accessed 28 July 2020

[13] https://www.techrepublic.com/article/the-rise-of-the-digital-workplace-and-the-new-future-of-work-experts-weigh-in/ accessed 28 July 2020

[14] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/05/18/facebook-google-work-from-home/ accessed 28 July 2020

[15] https://insights.dice.com/2020/05/13/twitter-employees-work-from-home-permanent/ accessed 28 July 2020

[16] Work for a brighter future – Global Commission on the Future of Work (2019)

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