Today’s working adults have seen a lot of change in the employment landscape. But that change is likely to be modest compared to the changes coming between now and 2040. We stand at the beginning of a new era driven by exponential advances in digital technologies. As that era unfolds, people will increasingly work alongside machine partners to navigate, make sense of, and contribute to the world around us. In addition, the structures within which we work are likely to change significantly.
Our machine partners will become more and more capable of cognition. As smart machines develop further and get cheaper, they will be able to perform increasingly sophisticated and varied tasks. Their presence in the workplace will alter or eliminate many tasks that people carry out today, including tasks associated with knowledge-based work, creative work, and care-based professions. A key question is the extent to which smart machines will displace human workers faster than new jobs can be created or old ones reconfigured.
Technology is also changing the structure of work, due in large part to the lower coordination costs afforded by the Internet and the access to an expanded labor pool resulting from globalization. Such shifts are contributing to shortening employment tenure, the spread of contingent and project-based work, and the rise of taskification, or the breaking down of formal jobs into discrete tasks, often at relatively low wages and with informal job structures. Depending on what kinds of societal supports we put in place, people could increasingly bear responsibility not just for managing participation in the employment landscape, but also for getting ready for it.
What will future work look like?
Taken together, the rise of smart machines and the decline of the full-time employee can be expected to cause rapid change, making it necessary for people to reskill and upskill over and over again throughout our lifetimes. As we do so, our uniquely human attributes—such as connecting with others, solving complex problems, and generating creative ideas and outputs—will be increasingly central to our workplace contributions. Future work is likely to depend on the qualities that make us uniquely human, as compared to repeatable or pattern-based tasks that can be automated with relative ease.