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The Daily Sabbatical/Rotman | Mar 13, 2013 | 10524 views

The Future of Working Life

Lynda Gratton, The London Business School professor and top 50 management thinker describes the possible ups and downs of the future of work

You have said that we cannot imagine the future simply by extrapolating from the past. How, then, can we imagine it?

The story of the future is a ‘joined up’ story that can only be told from a global perspective, and as a result, the best way to go about imagining it is to look at trends.  In our research, my colleagues and I are carefully following 32 distinct trends that cover different aspects of how the future could be shaped.  While understanding these trends is important, it is equally important to think about how they interrelate with each other.  Often, it’s the relationships between things like demography and technology that really make a difference.   We also have access to 60 multinational companies that we talk to on a regular basis, to see what their leaders are thinking about.  If we want to know about what might happen next with oil, we talk to our contact at Shell, and if we want to know what’s going to happen next with technology, we talk to Cisco or Microsoft.  So in addition to tracking the trends, we regularly seek input from some of the wisest people in these organizations.

Lynda Gratton is a professor of Management Practice at London Business School
Lynda Gratton is a professor of Management Practice at London Business School

The 32 trends you are following fall under five broad ‘forces’ that you believe will shape our future. Please describe them.
The first is technology, which is obviously a huge part of the future of work.  It is predicted that five billion people will be connected  by 2020.  We also know that handheld devices are becoming much less expensive, which means people around the world can use them, and that knowledge is becoming much more abundant and free.  These three elements create a hugely important nexus that influences where we see new talents pools emerging. For example, Rwanda has had a very rocky history, but it is now putting a computer into the hands of every single child. Imagine what that will do for the country.

The second force is globalization.  Work-wise, probably the biggest story here is the emergence onto the world’s manufacturing and trading stage of China, India and Brazil, which are rewriting the rules of global trade.  As the goods and services created by workers in these countries move up the value chain, so too will the global aspirations of their companies.

The third force is demography and longevity.  One interesting question is, What kind of leadership will emerge from Generation Y?  And what about the generation that comes after them – Generation  Z? How impacted will they be by their use of technology at such an early age?  Then of course, there is the whole question of aging. It seems that 70 has become the new 50, and people really want to continue to develop and to do meaningful work well into their 60s and 70s.  

The fourth force is society.  It would be a mistake to imagine that we humans will remain the same as the forces of technology, globalization and demography swirl around us.  Changes will come.  For instance, we predict that as work groups become more diverse, people will begin to think more deeply about what is important to them as individuals and the lives they want to construct.

The fifth and final force is energy resources.  The way we work in the future is intimately wrapped up with our access to energy and the impact this access has on the environment.  Of the five forces, the people we have spoken to feel the most concerned, yet the most powerless, about this one.

In your view, which of the five forces will have the single greatest impact on our working lives?
As indicated, it is the intersections between these forces that will make a real difference.  But if you look at North America or Europe, the thing that’s making the biggest difference so far is the intersection between technology and globalization.  There is this ‘hollowing out’ of work happening -- by which I mean that work is increasingly being done by technology, or is being outsourced to lower-cost countries.  As a result, we are seeing a fundamental restructuring of working patterns around the world, and this has had a profound effect on work in the West.  There will be winners and losers in the coming decades; and sadly, not everyone in the West is going to be a winner.

In your view, the dark side of the future could involve “the death of easy companionship”.  Please describe this.
I’m not the only person who’s talked about this; Sociologist Robert Putnam, who wrote Bowling Alone, said the same thing, really, which is that much more work is being done virtually, and that this leads to isolation.  What might well be missing from your working life in the future is the simple ability to stick your head through someone’s open door and say, ‘Hi’, or to wander down the corridor and run into co-workers.  Perhaps humanity will adjust to ‘cyber relationships’ to such an extent that they will bring the same positive effect that face-to-face relationships do now; if it doesn’t, we face the prospect of widespread loneliness and isolation.

Interestingly, when we ask companies which areas they need to build capability in over the next ten years, the thing they talk about most is virtual work.  More and more work is being done by people who are not in the same office -- or even the same geographic area.  Add to that the growing understanding that the nine-to-five way of working is rapidly breaking down, in part because people want more flexible lifestyles.  At Unilever, for example, when they looked at reducing their carbon footprint, they found that quite a lot of it comes from moving people back and forth from their homes to the office and putting them on planes to travel to other offices.  As a result, there is no way around it: people will be working from home a lot more than they do now. 

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