How we will work in the future – a look ahead

A competition is currently taking place on the Internet to see what can be done online or virtually during the Corona crisis, from training sessions and government meetings to symphony concerts. Of course, this raises the question why this was not possible before Corona. Nothing but excuses? Fear of technology? Or afraid of your own courage?

The current crisis will promote digitalisation in many areas. On the one hand, because many people have now lost their reservations, are gaining practical experience and organisations will be able to build on it in the future. On the other hand, because it will save money and time and at the same time it will help the environment. So, all is well? Of course, this is not so easy and will also have some negative side effects.

The Millennium Project, a global participatory think tank deals with this kind of questions. It was established in 1996 with nowadays more than sixty groups of institutions and individuals all around the world. They aspire to improve humanity’s prospects for building a better future through thinking about the future and to accumulate and share wisdom about the future for better decisions today.

As part of the Millennium Project, researchers have addressed the question of what the future of work might look like in 2050. They discussed the extent to which human work will be replaced by digitalization, automation or robots, and what effects this will have on income and wealth and thus on our society. After a detailed literature analysis, three Delphi surveys (each with several hundred international experts) and about 30 workshops worldwide, three scenarios with corresponding recommendations for action were derived, which extend into the year 2050.

The executive summary of the study highlights that “future technologies will not only alter work, they will alter the foundation of cultures worldwide. The world is aware that the concentration of wealth is increasing, income gaps are widening, jobless economic growth seems the new norm, return on investment in capital and technology is usually better than on labour, future technologies can replace much of human physical and mental labour, and long-term structural unemployment is a “business as usual” surprise-free forecast. But the world is not aware of long-range strategies to address these issues, other than focusing education on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Improving education is good, but insufficient to address global unemployment due to artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D/4D printing, synthetic biology, drones, nanotechnology, computational science, blockchain, cloud analytics, cognitive science, augmented human intelligence, quantum computing, conscious-technology, and future synergies among these.”

The project has described in three future scenarios how technological progress will affect work.

Scenario 1: It’s Complicated – A Mixed Bag. A business-as-usual trend projection of the increasing acceleration of change with both intelligence and stupidity characterizing decision-making. Irregular adoption of advance technology; high unemployment where governments did not create long-range strategies, and mixed success on the use of universal basic income. Giant corporations’ powers have often grown beyond government control, in this government-corporate, virtual-3D, multipolar world of 2050.

Scenario 2: Political/Economic Turmoil – Future Despair. Governments did not anticipate the impacts of artificial general intelligence and had no strategies in place as unemployment exploded in the 2030s leaving the world of 2050 in political turmoil. Social polarization and political gridlock in many forms have grown. Global order has deteriorated into a combination of nation-states, mega-corporations, local militias, terrorism, and organized crime.

Scenario 3: If Humans Were Free – the Self-Actualization Economy. Governments did anticipate the impacts of artificial general intelligence, conducted extensive research on how to phase in universal basic income systems, and promoted self-employment. Artists, media moguls, and entertainers helped to foster cultural change from an employment culture to a self-actualization economy.

All three scenarios more or less assume that technological change is proceeding rapidly and that the world of work is also (radically) changing. On the one hand, because work will be replaced to a large extent, and on the other hand because the interaction between man and machine will become very close. The three scenarios also point to the need to redistribute income and wealth, as otherwise there could be strongly negative social developments. This means for politics and society to completely redesign the social and economic systems. This includes the promotion of new forms of work (e.g. the newly experienced virtual work) and new organisational principles (e.g. self-organisation and business agility). For education and learning, development instead of knowledge involves teaching new skills and meta-skills, such as the ability to cooperate, creativity, project organising and problem solving.

The current crisis thus brings momentum to the discussion about the future direction of work and our social interaction. During the Corona crisis, we are noticeably moving closer together and accomplishing more than we could have done before. It is important to maintain this positive energy and to move forward with momentum towards a new, positive development after the crisis.

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Author: Reinhard Wagner, CEO of Tiba Managementberatung



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