Brace yourself for the future world of work

April 27, 2012
Katherine O'Brien

"In the past, job security meant you worked for 30 years for the same company. Today you can't even count on being able to work in the same industry for 30 years."
- Daniel Burrus in Flash Foresight

The world of work has changed so much in recent years that some say that it's nothing short of a revolution and — hold on tight — the pace of this rapid change is only going to accelerate. We've already moved away from the one employer-for-life model; now we seem to be moving away from the one-career model and even the one-employer-at-a-time model.

"I think we are undergoing disruptive changes in the structure of work," says career transition coach Tara Orchard. The workplace of the future will see "less structured employment, fewer full-time permanent jobs, fewer careers that evolve along a hierarchical trajectory," says Orchard. Instead, she sees future workers doing a combination of self-employment, temporary employment, contracts and crowdsourced work. (Crowdsourcing is the chopping up of a whole job, using a number of freelancers to do the separate components.) Simultaneously there will be a decreasing need for companies to invest in physical office locations, Orchard says. More employees will share offices, desks and resources and work on multiple projects and jobs at the same time.

Although futurists have been talking about a growing just-in-time workforce for the past 40 years, we always reached the end of a recession and "things went relatively quickly back to normal," says Orchard. She thinks that things are going to be different this time because of "the mashup of societal and generational change, economic change, and rapidly evolving technology that connects us as never before."

Writer and marketer Seth Godin, who among other things writes about the post-industrial revolution, would agree that the world of work is not going to revert to what it once was. In the blog post The Forever Recession (and the Coming Revolution), Godin asks why people would believe that high-paying jobs to do work that can now "be systemized, written in a manual and/or exported are going to come back ever?" The Internet, he writes, "has squeezed inefficiencies out of many systems, and the ability to move work around, coordinate activity and digitize data all combine to eliminate a wide swath of the jobs the industrial age created." (Indeed, in this TD Economist report (PDF), economist Dina Cover writes that although the Canadian manufacturing sector has rebounded since the recession, only a third of the jobs that were lost have been recouped.)

In Godin's opinion, the new "revolution of connection," creates new productivity and new opportunities. Companies will certainly gain from using virtual workers. As Lindsay Olsen writes, this practice saves companies money on rent, utilities and equipment costs and it also allows employers more access to a greater talent pool when they are able to look beyond their geographical limitations. Gary Swart in the Work 3.0: How The Employment Model Needs to Change article, points out that remote work can also be a boon for workers as they "have the freedom to choose which projects interest them most."

Along with the breakdown of geographical boundaries another trend will likely be an increasing blurring of them. Work "will be fused into the rest of our lives to a much greater extent than is the case today," writes labour studies professor Thomas Klassen for the CBC's series The Way We Work. "The distinctions between volunteer work, school work, house work, child care work and paid work will become less. As well, the boundaries between full- and part-time work, permanent and contract work, and working for others and being self-employed will grow less distinct."

Increased technological change
As you are probably well aware, technological change has had a staggering impact on work. The Future Work Skills 2020 (PDF) report from the Institute of the Future, a Silicon Valley-based research group, discusses six major drivers that are reshaping the world of work, and all but one of them (extreme longevity — yes, we're living and working longer) have a connection to technology. One of the drivers mentioned is the rise of smart machines and systems and the corresponding automation of repetitive tasks. As well, as Michele Martin of The Bamboo Project, points out, the Internet of Things (when real-world objects or animals are connected to the Internet) is going to automate many jobs, reducing or eliminating certain positions. Conversely, cloud computing is going to have a huge impact on job creation, according to Susan Hauser of Microsoft. "It's a transformative technology that will drive down costs, spur innovation, and open up new jobs and skillsets across the globe."

With a economy that is becoming more and more tech-driven, the education and skill level needed by workers will increase. "The U.S. Department of Labor finds that 62 percent of all now require two-year or four-year degrees and higher or special post-secondary occupation certificates or apprenticeships," writes Edward E. Gordon in the 2009 article The Future of Jobs and Careers. "By 2020 we can expect that these talent requirements will increase to include 75 percent of U.S. jobs."

Gordon goes on to state that many students workers lack the necessary reading, math, science and communications skills for growing 21st Century careers. "STEM jobs [i.e., those in science, technology, engineering and math] are predicted to outpace more traditional jobs in both numbers and salary levels over the next decade."

In fact, the Ontario Literacy Coalition's Menial No More (PDF) report points out that as a result of emerging technology and increased global competition, jobs often perceived as low-skilled now require “nuanced essential and digital skills." For instance, a typical delivery person now must confirm orders and shipments of goods using tablets.

The aforementioned Thomas Klassen also points out in his article that the "front-end loading" of education will become less common in the next several decades — in other words, long years of education will no longer be followed by many years in the workforce. "Instead, education and training will occur in spurts throughout one's life."

The evolution of the work scape will benefit some workers — primarily those who are highly educated and skilled, adaptable and entrepreneurial. According to Tara Orchard: "I see a widening gap between workers who are adjusting and those who are not. Workers who are adjusting are finding multiple opportunities — they are constantly employed and working many projects at the same time — [while] others continue to fall further and further behind." Orchard says she's concerned that workers who are not able to rapidly adjust and work in a flexible just-in-time workforce — perhaps single parents or persons with a disability or recurrent illness, or simply those without the right skills — may become more marginalized.

About is a free online magazine to help Toronto job seekers find work. An initiative of Findhelp Information Services, is an Employment Ontario project funded in part by the Government of Canada.

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