The Future of Working Life

Lynda Gratton, The London Business School professor and top 50 management thinker describes the possible ups and downs of the future of work

By Karen Christensen
Published: Mar 13, 2013

You have said that we cannot imagine the future simply by extrapolating from the past. How, then, can we imagine it?

The story of the future is a ‘joined up’ story that can only be told from a global perspective, and as a result, the best way to go about imagining it is to look at trends.  In our research, my colleagues and I are carefully following 32 distinct trends that cover different aspects of how the future could be shaped.  While understanding these trends is important, it is equally important to think about how they interrelate with each other.  Often, it’s the relationships between things like demography and technology that really make a difference.   We also have access to 60 multinational companies that we talk to on a regular basis, to see what their leaders are thinking about.  If we want to know about what might happen next with oil, we talk to our contact at Shell, and if we want to know what’s going to happen next with technology, we talk to Cisco or Microsoft.  So in addition to tracking the trends, we regularly seek input from some of the wisest people in these organizations.

Lynda Gratton is a professor of Management Practice at London Business School
Lynda Gratton is a professor of Management Practice at London Business School
The 32 trends you are following fall under five broad ‘forces’ that you believe will shape our future. Please describe them.
The first is technology, which is obviously a huge part of the future of work.  It is predicted that five billion people will be connected  by 2020.  We also know that handheld devices are becoming much less expensive, which means people around the world can use them, and that knowledge is becoming much more abundant and free.  These three elements create a hugely important nexus that influences where we see new talents pools emerging. For example, Rwanda has had a very rocky history, but it is now putting a computer into the hands of every single child. Imagine what that will do for the country.

The second force is globalization.  Work-wise, probably the biggest story here is the emergence onto the world’s manufacturing and trading stage of China, India and Brazil, which are rewriting the rules of global trade.  As the goods and services created by workers in these countries move up the value chain, so too will the global aspirations of their companies.

The third force is demography and longevity.  One interesting question is, What kind of leadership will emerge from Generation Y?  And what about the generation that comes after them – Generation  Z? How impacted will they be by their use of technology at such an early age?  Then of course, there is the whole question of aging. It seems that 70 has become the new 50, and people really want to continue to develop and to do meaningful work well into their 60s and 70s.  

The fourth force is society.  It would be a mistake to imagine that we humans will remain the same as the forces of technology, globalization and demography swirl around us.  Changes will come.  For instance, we predict that as work groups become more diverse, people will begin to think more deeply about what is important to them as individuals and the lives they want to construct.

The fifth and final force is energy resources.  The way we work in the future is intimately wrapped up with our access to energy and the impact this access has on the environment.  Of the five forces, the people we have spoken to feel the most concerned, yet the most powerless, about this one.

In your view, which of the five forces will have the single greatest impact on our working lives?
As indicated, it is the intersections between these forces that will make a real difference.  But if you look at North America or Europe, the thing that’s making the biggest difference so far is the intersection between technology and globalization.  There is this ‘hollowing out’ of work happening -- by which I mean that work is increasingly being done by technology, or is being outsourced to lower-cost countries.  As a result, we are seeing a fundamental restructuring of working patterns around the world, and this has had a profound effect on work in the West.  There will be winners and losers in the coming decades; and sadly, not everyone in the West is going to be a winner.

In your view, the dark side of the future could involve “the death of easy companionship”.  Please describe this.
I’m not the only person who’s talked about this; Sociologist Robert Putnam, who wrote Bowling Alone, said the same thing, really, which is that much more work is being done virtually, and that this leads to isolation.  What might well be missing from your working life in the future is the simple ability to stick your head through someone’s open door and say, ‘Hi’, or to wander down the corridor and run into co-workers.  Perhaps humanity will adjust to ‘cyber relationships’ to such an extent that they will bring the same positive effect that face-to-face relationships do now; if it doesn’t, we face the prospect of widespread loneliness and isolation.

Interestingly, when we ask companies which areas they need to build capability in over the next ten years, the thing they talk about most is virtual work.  More and more work is being done by people who are not in the same office -- or even the same geographic area.  Add to that the growing understanding that the nine-to-five way of working is rapidly breaking down, in part because people want more flexible lifestyles.  At Unilever, for example, when they looked at reducing their carbon footprint, they found that quite a lot of it comes from moving people back and forth from their homes to the office and putting them on planes to travel to other offices.  As a result, there is no way around it: people will be working from home a lot more than they do now. 

You paint a dismal picture of what life will be like for the uneducated; please describe what you call ‘the shifting axis of exclusion’.
I was born in 1955, at a time when being born in a wealthy country like the UK or Canada meant that your positional advantage was strong, and you could pretty much assume that you’d grow up and get a decent job.  That is changing very rapidly.  The globalization of talent pools means that if you are not educated sufficiently to do work that is increasingly technically sophisticated, it is going to be very difficult to join the labour market.  We’re already seeing this in the U.S.  If you compare the number of unemployed with the number of job vacancies, you see a big skill gap, and that is extremely worrying in the West.  At the same time, if you look at China and India, a very large focus -- particularly in China -- is being placed on educating the young generation, many of whom are learning to speak English at a very young age and will have very high levels of education.

As a result of all this, education is going to be increasingly important in the future, and governments in the West should be cognizant of that.  They have to think more innovatively about how we educate people, particularly in terms of what you might call ‘work-ready skills’.  In addition, we need to consider how we can educate people so that they play a productive and meaningful role in their communities.

On the bright side, you believe the future of work could include things like co-creation, social engagement and increased empathy. Please elaborate on this sunnier scenario.

The fact is, for people who want to lead productive working lives, the possibilities are just extraordinary.  Just look at a platform like InnoCentive, which allows people from around the world to share ideas and solve problems. There are huge opportunities for people to link up with others who share the same area of interest, anywhere in the world, and potentially build a business, have a conversation, or solve something.  I think this opportunity for us to move back to ‘crafting’ -- to making things -- is very important in terms of human meaning.  In addition, due to widespread access to technology and online networks, people in developing countries will get the chance to participate and share their ideas and they will not be held back by their geographic or economic status.  So the future does present some extremely positive possibilities; but for those of us in the West who thought our positional advantage was always going to be with us, there is a pretty strong wake-up call happening.

Based on your research, which skills will be most valued 20 years from now?
The ability to collaborate across boundaries will become increasingly important, because that is how innovation happens.  Clearly, the capacity to work virtually will become a core skill, both for individuals and institutions.  As indicated, some of the companies we’re observing are already putting a lot of emphasis on that.  Creativity is going to be crucial, because it leads to innovation and value creation. Skill areas that will be important as a result of the five forces include life sciences and health; energy conservation; coaching and caring; and social entrepreneurship.

In terms of personal characteristics, there’s a great deal of talk at the moment about authenticity.  In a world where more and more people are acknowledging their diversity rather than trying to fit into a corporate stereotype, there is an opportunity to be more authentic about who you are.  This has implications for how individuals learn and develop, and also for how they learn to work with others who may be different from themselves.

For those who want to encourage the more positive aspects of the future of work, what can be done?
Based on what we have learned to date, we have pinpointed   three key shifts taking place in the world of work, and embracing them is likely to lead towards a more positive future.

The first is the shift from a workforce of ‘shallow generalists’ to one of ‘serial masters’, who have in-depth knowledge and competencies in a number of domains.  People will need to understand the competencies that will be most valuable (and therefore worth investing in), and to think carefully about the types of careers that will be in the ascendant, together with the knowledge areas that accompany them.  One thing is certain: people will need to keep  learning right through their lives.  

The second shift is from ‘isolated competitors’ to ‘innovative connectors’.  People need to work very hard to build their networks.  For instance, everybody will need a ‘posse’ – people who have the same sort of skill sets as you have -- and everyone will need to be connected to a ‘big ideas’ crowd of  diverse and interesting people.  Last but not least, everybody needs close connections to a ‘regenerative community’ – people who love you and who you can build friendships with.  

The third shift is from ‘voracious consumer’ to ‘impassioned producer’. This includes a shift towards work that is more meaningful, where you can ‘make things’ rather than just seeing work as a place to earn money.  This third shift underpins much of what I believe the future of work could – and should – be about.  It is the shift from work that is all-consuming to a more balanced and meaningful way of working.  

The bottom line is that we live in very exciting times. Our world is at the apex of an enormously creative and innovative shift that will result in profound changes to the everyday lives of people around the world.

Lynda Gratton is a professor of Management Practice at London Business School, director of the Future of Work Consortium and founder of the Hot Spots Movement.  She is the author of seven books, most recently The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here (Collins 2012). A member of the Thinkers50 list of the world’s most influential management thinkers, she is considered one of the world's authorities on people in organizations.

Figure One: Five Forces and 32 Trends
•    Technological capability increases exponentially
•    Five billion become connected
•    The Cloud becomes ubiquitous
•    Continuous productivity gains
•    Social participation increases
•    The world’s knowledge becomes digitalized
•    Mega-companies and micro-entrepreneurs emerge
•    Ever-present avatars and virtual worlds
•    The rise of cognitive assistants
•    Technology replaces jobs

•    24/7 and the global world
•    The emerging economies
•    China and India’s decades of growth
•    Frugal innovation
•    The global educational powerhouses
•    The world becomes urban
•    Continued bubbles and crashes
•    The regional underclass emerge

•    The ascendance of Gen Y
•    Increasing longevity
•    Some Baby Boomers grow old poor
•    Global migration increases

•    Families become rearranged
•    The rise of reflexivity
•    The role of powerful women
•    The balanced man
•    Growing distrust of institutions
•    The decline of happiness
•    Passive leisure increases

Energy Resources

•    Energy prices increase
•    Environmental catastrophes displace people
•    A culture of sustainability begins to emerge

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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