The challenge with predicting the future of work or the future in general is that our predictions are what we know today, and so we extrapolate based on trends. When pundits make enough guesses, occasionally one hits the mark and we subsequently describe those individuals as being prescient. We duly ignore the other, not-so-prescient predictions. Knowing this, I am not dissuaded from making my own guesses as to the future of work, because I will rely on our imperfect memories to burnish my reputation as being prescient even when some of my predictions may not come to fruition.
Here’s what I know to be true of the future—it’s fickle. Black or white swan events can alter, reverse or halt any predictions. I liken it to the odds placed when one bets; the longer the odds the less likely you’ll win the bet. The same holds true for predicting the future. The further out into the future your guesses take you, the longer your odds of being right. But, never say never.
My predictions about the workplace are based not solely on trends, although they inform my view, but rather on our stage of life and generational dispositions. I am of the view they both influence our decisions as to how we will organize ourselves in the workplace of the near and not-so-near future. I’ve come up with five themes. Some of them are based on our extended longevity, others our changing demographics, and the rest, our generational dispositions. It’s my hope I’m five for five, but as I mentioned, it’s a bit of a crapshoot and only time will tell.
1. Multiple careers: Since we will soon be breaking the 100-year life barrier in greater and greater numbers, people will not only have longer life spans, but longer work lives. We will see the rise of the multiple career paths. Multiple careers will require a rethinking of our educational institutions. To remain relevant, there will have to be an annuity approach to education since we will be in constant need of knowledge upgrades.
2. The rise of the side hustle as mini engines of corporate growth. Many Gen Z employees will likely have side hustles, something they do outside of work as a revenue stream. Initially, this will be met with great resistance from employers, but eventually smart companies will not only encourage these activities, they will compete for and leverage them, becoming early investors and incubators for new lines of business.
3. Truly embracing diversity. America in the next few years will move from a white majority country to an actual pluralist society with no group in the majority. There will be an outcry by some who will feel we have lost our “exceptionalism,” but the opposite will have happened. We will become what we have always aspired to be but never quite lived up to—a model for rest of the planet to emulate, where a truly diverse population sees itself not as a melting pot, but as a coalition of diverse people working together not because we were born to do so, but because we have chosen to.
4. The young will solve the virtual workplace problem. Technology as it exists does not support building and maintaining deep relationships in a virtual environment. Gen Z and their children will not only use VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality), they will make it so immersive and natural we might have to rethink even a hybrid workplace. The dark side of this possibility is our “real selves” may fall far short of our augmented personas, leading some to further isolate themselves from others for fear of exposing who they really are.
5. What’s old is new again. Because we will be living longer and our social safety nets continue to erode, we will all be working longer and, as a consequence, more and more young people will be managing more and more people significantly senior to them. This will cause a potential rift between generations if it isn’t designed into how the workplace of the future handles transitioning people in and out of their roles. It will also open up opportunities for the creation of new roles to share the wisdom, patience and knowledge accrued by older generations and passed along to successive generations in the form of shadow advisors, confidants, sounding boards and mentors.