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Can we Predict the Future of Work?
The livestream broke halfway, so we decided to write the episode instead.
June’s episode was too peppered with technical glitches. But the cliched saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
This time, rather than to endure the patchy June recording, we offer three toasts of lemonade. We have decided to capture three themes that we discussed on the live stream, and infuse it with a few questions of our own.
What does “Future of Work” Mean?
Work has always been a large topic, harkening from the days of the Industrial Revolution, that dramatically changed the means of production of goods. But in the eyes of the younger generation, we saw how digital transformation changed the way we work, which was accentuated with the pandemic. None of us could have envisioned how mainstream remote working was a decade ago. None of those in Gen X would have predicted how pervasive PCs are in everyday work.
However, what we would like to describe as the “future of work” often depends on what we prioritise. Anne noted, in her observations of employees, that employees care much more about “work-life balance” than traditional markers of success, such as the “career ladder”. This has upended the way employers offer attractive job offers. Gone are the days, especially for my generation, where we simply bidded for the highest-paying job offer. Many young people have side hustles or projects they do outside, be it in the art and craft domain, or a side project such as VCC. This necessitates a paradigm shift as per what the Straits Times also alluded to in their current series of “The Great Renegotiation”.
But perhaps the most hotly debated topic that many want a paradigm shift on is on work hours. While the UK is experimenting with a 4-day work week, latest results in Singapore suggest concerns on the “reallocation” of hours. However, Anne viewed it differently, considering how a 4-day office work week meant a full day of travel being saved, and how working from home meant all that travel time could be saved for being more productive. She also quipped that, considering the progress in work environments automation and productivity tools, we should move away from a dogma that an employee’s conscientiousness be measured based on purely work hours.
But this presents a dilemma: not everyone can work remotely. What if these disparate groups of workers belong to the same workplace and debate over what it means to be “equitable”? The future of work is very much a game of philosophical view. Should remote workers based in other cities be paid less by virtue of their lower cost of living? Should on-site workers be paid more by virtue of the extra effort they have to put in, sometimes against their will, to report to a site? As the contemporary debate suggests, no very clear cut answers exist. Beyond being paid a good wage, today’s employees value fairness a lot more than the employees of yesteryear.
The Future of Education for the Future of Work
With seismic shifts in how industry has transformed, the natural educator in us asked if it was possible to “train” the successive generations of the workforce. The World Economic Forum (WEF), after all, highlighted top skills they predict would be important.
One way to interpret the changing skills landscape is to visualise how the job market may morph, thanks to robots replacing jobs. Generally, traits of easily replaceable jobs are as follows:
Low cognitive load
Repetitive (i.e. boring)
Easy to programmatically define the problem and write a solution for it
In time to come, the jobs remaining are likely to become harder to do, on average, simply by virtue of robots doing “easy jobs”. But that raises alarm bells for the next generation. Must the education system equip them better to face a job landscape with ever-increasing barriers to entry? Would more people not “make it” in such a competitive environment? Add “rapid change” to the environment and one’s predictions might end up all wrong.
Rather than to “pick subjects”, the WEF has decided to generalise their list of top skills, converging on how to think and how to envision beyond the ordinary. And it is in this spirit that Anne inserted her nugget of wisdom that the education system has to be oriented to be more inquiry-based, as opposed to simply being about the acquisition of knowledge.
The Metaverse: Universes of Choice?
One of the topics that has continually fascinated many VCC team members is the metaverse. VCC gathers in our office space in the metaverse, but what if this became more mainstream? I personally remembered some stories on how workplace metaverses became more divisive than cohesive, with bosses enjoying the cost savings that come from global teams meeting in virtual offices rather than flying in from different parts of the world. Yet employees are not always amused at checking into a metaverse which they know are knowingly under the control of their employers, with every action and conversation potentially being logged in some dark corridor of the company, slowly spinning into cobwebs of potentially incendiary material.
As with many ideas, Anne opined that the metaverse might be much more hype than promising as those that exploited most of the commercial potential in such a world were in the gaming space, as opposed to bread and butter technology companies. In my view, she was viewing an exciting prospect that may not be solving a problem that is deemed important enough to have a unique solution that does not exist beyond any “real universe”.
I simply thought it was a matter of choice. Metaverses were not an entirely novel idea, but fresh air was breathed into the idea thanks to the discussions on web 3.0. But as with all digital worlds, unlike Hotel California, we can choose to check in and out wherever we want, and a metaverse thrust upon us, where we can check out but never leave, sounds every bit like the future tech-averse people seek to avoid — the future where a certain “meta” tech overlord runs the world. In our discussions on the metaverse, it was simply confined to employees not necessarily wanting to keep logging onto the company metaverse, just to find a corner in the virtual pantry to pass snide remarks about their bosses. They would simply set up a Whatsapp chat group, without the boss.
Pauline opined how metaverses have potential in education, since we are able to augment today’s physical reality with the richness of the digital world. In fact, Anne added how her company today makes training and simulation more realistic through augmented reality (AR). However, AR supplements, not replaces physical reality. Both their paradigms suggest to us that metaverses should be viewed as a tool we can exploit at will, not a band of control where we subject everyone to log into at 9 am each day, and step out at 6 pm. As far as innovations go, nobody wants to revert to a world of punchcards even if sold as a sexy “metaverse factory floor”.
We probably do not know how 2050 would turn out to be. When our parents grew up in the 1970s and were asked to predict the “future of work”, would they have predicted the rise of the dotcom era? But that also raises a point that we are unlikely to ever be able to predict with great accuracy, what the future economy holds, and how work would change in response to that. But what we can control is what we think the future of work should be and to adapt to that. Societies have transformed the workplace before, such as how the Industrial Revolution drastically automated production. We have also altered conventions before, such as the pushback against unfairness, such as slavery in the United States. As a collective, we have more say than we may believe it to be. But what do we do with our shared voice?