The future of work

Nearly three years ago, a warm bundle of exquisite loveliness was placed in my lap, sparking an ongoing conversation between her father and me about what work life might be like as she lives through the remainder of the 21st century.

People who study the future haven’t had a very good track record regarding predictions (recall flying cars swirling through skyscraper canyons and humans colonizing the moon) so our guesses aren’t likely to be any better or worse than the professional prognosticators.

My work life started in mid-1960s when manual typewriters, mechanical adding machines and rotary desk telephones with flashing buttons populated the white-collar office.

Needing multiple copies of a document meant using sheets of carbon paper or a smelly mimeograph machine.

An early cellphone, if you could afford one, was the size and heft of a masonry brick.

Not long after, green terminal screens with email messages started appearing on our desktops.

My son started his life at the beginning of the internet of things. Netscape was the browser and bulky CRTs squatted on work desks.

Blackberries and flip phones appeared and soon gave way to the ubiquitous smartphone, the one irreplaceable piece of technology today that keeps us connected in an already hyper-connected world.

Just as the aftermath of two of the seminal events of the 20th century (Great Depression and World War II) created immense changes in the work lives of the nation’s citizens, so, too, is the return to work after the 2019 pandemic. It’s already leading to many disruptions in how and where people will earn a living.

One major change that is manifesting itself is the hybrid world of work that divides employee activity between the office and the home. Also known as remote or telework, it promises to liberate people from the confining space of the office cubicle.

A recent issue of the Economist magazine predicts that better paid knowledge workers will more often be found in a hybrid work world that offers them options.

Essential workers, those who keep everyday life tolerable for the rest of us, will be tied to public spaces and less likely to enjoy the freedoms of remote work. Which world will she work in?

Driverless electric vehicles almost are ready for public use. Will she need to learn to drive a car, possess a driver’s license and own a vehicle?

Some believe that flying cars finally are ready to take off. Will groceries be delivered on her lawn by an Amazon drone?

What happens to personal privacy when government agencies complete the installation of “traffic” cameras on every street corner and employers saturate work spaces with surveillance devices.

Will she live and work in an environment where her every activity is monitored and assessed for social compliance? Is an Orwellian world finally close at hand?

Many futurists also are very worried about the growth of artificial intelligence and its implication for human decision-making.

Will AI algorithms make her life decisions? Will advances in human DNA knowledge eventually determine her career choices and decide what kind of health care she receives?

Transformative technologies and cultural changes, unimaginable to us today, will most certainly make many of current predictions obsolete.

My only hope is that a certain young lady and those inhabiting her working world will be able to pursue careers that brings both joy and satisfaction into their lives.