Known Knowns: The Future of Work

“85 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven't even been invented yet,” according to a recent report published by Dell Technologies. That’s a stunning estimate for widespread workforce displacement/replacement in the near future, but it’s entirely possible given recent advances in automation, processing power, and artificial intelligence. I would have been more skeptical of a figure like this if I hadn’t read The Atlantic’s cover story on a “World Without Work” by Derek Thompson two summers ago. After all, as Thompson writes, “Who could have guessed in 2005, two years before the iPhone was released, that smartphones would threaten hotel jobs within the decade, by helping homeowners rent out their apartments and houses to strangers on Airbnb? Or that the company behind the most popular search engine would design a self-driving car that could soon threaten driving, the most common job occupation among American men.”

Advances in technology and innovation mean that the world and our occupations will evolve in ways we can hardly predict. Capitalism, according to Joseph Schumpeter, is “the perennial gale of creative destruction.” Yes, that means that no amount of nationalist rhetoric will resurrect the coal mining sector or manufacturing jobs in America - the market won’t allow it. Innovation and the exponential leaps in computing power mean that none of our jobs will exist in the future in the way that they exist today. This is a particularly painful prospect given the huge percentage of workers with low-skill jobs and the relative inaccessibility and inflexibility of our higher education system. Yes, I do believe in a future that has some measure of universal basic income in the face of widespread displacement from the workforce. I also believe in a future that fully embraces the creative element of capitalism.

Innovation will upend jobs as we know them. Job security may be a thing of the past, but there has never been more power or safety in being creative. And despite predictions of workforce displacement, creativity will never be obsolete. The future of work is filled with known unknowns (Will Amazon become The Everything Store and what does that mean for Main Street America?) and unknown unknowns - events and innovations that we cannot fathom today. But the known known is that creativity will be the generative force personally and nationally -- now and into the future. 

The future of work will be creative and creativity will destroy uncreative jobs and workers. Even workers in stereotypically uncreative jobs - retail, driving, cleaning - can become creative. These workers can try new approaches to old problems, they can ask to think through new strategies for efficiency with their supervisors, they can research and practice using new technologies, they can “upskill” through community college or online courses, they can create new connections by reaching out to people they admire. Workers in more creative fields will certainly have an easier time of embracing a future of work based on creation. Workers can become intrapreneurs by solving problems within their organizations. They can be creative by devoting themselves to a craft or long-lost hobby. Writing is creative and the ability to communicate clearly is an increasingly important skill. Creating connections - in person and online - to bolster your personal and professional community, will become even more vital in the wake of widespread change. Workers can also embrace creativity, the engine of capitalism, in larger ways. They might decide to launch new products or services to solve problems or meet needs. If privileged, a worker might decide to strike out on his/her/their own as an entrepreneur rather than continue in a stagnant 9-5 job. 

Because the future of work is creative, it doesn’t exclusively belong to computer scientists and coders. I, like many who studied the humanities, have no natural affinity for coding. I could certainly learn the basics of Python, but I’ll never be great at it - my brain just doesn’t work that way. Whatever coding I could do would probably be done more efficiently by a machine because I am not a creative force in programming. Though the future of work will be driven, in many areas, by advances in computer science, those advances demand even more creative applications of complex coding, while the work of junior developers will be automated. 

The future of work requires that we all devote ourselves to be creative and solve problems in the areas where are passions line up with our skills. There is little room for mediocrity in the future because average and uninspired work will be automated, outsourced, or replaced. There will be work for artists, poets, cooks, philosophers, historians, welders, and librarians alike who create and excel. The future of work requires that we find and devote ourselves to what we do best.

We can prepare for an economy filled with jobs that have not yet been invented by inventing those jobs. You, me, us - we can all be creative. We can all shape the future of work.

Meredith Goddard