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The Future of Work

by Dr Anthon P Botha - TechnoScene


Why do we work? Some of us do it for the money, others for a higher cause to serve upwardly, inwardly and outwardly to mean something for our fellow human beings and ourselvesi. Others work to avoid boredom; others to create; some do it to socialise and some to feel part of a solution. We have grown up with certain paradigms of work, depending on our circumstances, our environments and our culture. A few years ago I drove into the city over lunchtime peak hour traffic with my elderly mother with me in the car. Very surprised, she said: “Where are all these people going – are they not supposed to be at work?” These entrenched paradigms of what work is are changing fast and making many people uncertain, insecure and confused. Let’s face it, work is no more where you go to, work is what you do - and from where you do it is less important. Virtuality is a place without a space.


Future thinking about work

When we practice future thinking, we do not attempt to predict the future. That, we know, is impossible. The future can only be approximated; we look at trends and ask what they mean. We all plan strategically to reduce uncertainty about the future and to be competitive in tomorrow’s markets. When we look at the future, we suggest that we do it in the context of technology trends (not science fiction, but technologies that are recognisable in the research and development phase); the behaviour of people (young and old, both in the workplace and in society) and macro-trends and events that change the world (geopolitical events, natural events, predictable and unpredictable events, avoidable and unavoidable events). In this triangle spanned by technology, behaviour and events, we can see the future unfolding in the form of possible probabilities.

We have to ask the question: what lies beyond strategy? The answer is: The Future. By applying the Events-Technology-Behaviour approach to look at the future, we can see change, which is a function of physical things plus perception plus what is happening. Future thinking is then the integral of all change over time and strategy is the summation of all future thinking.


Future context of work

In asking the question: “What is the future of work?” we must be prepared to accept different answers. The future of work in a modern, industrialised economy is very different from the future of work in a developing economy where poverty is rife and basic human needs are not fulfilled. Or is there no difference? Is there a fundamental difference between virtual workers and “jobless workers”? Are governments not over concerned with creating jobs in their national development agendas instead of creating work? By adopting future thinking on the world of work, we aim to create work opportunities and thus economic opportunities for the jobless. We are not talking about entrepreneurship only, but also about cultivating an environment where purpose of life and human well-being are drivers for engagement in doing something that fulfils self-esteem and ambition, unlocks creativity and, ultimately, provide money for prosperity. Is it possible to reconcile these two apparently opposite extremes?


Technology for future work

There are several emerging technologies that shape the future world of work, bringing disruptive impacts to work as we know it. New industries and business models are created at an astounding pace. Let us review a few of these technologies that are shaping the future world of work.

New ways of manufacturing: In the industrial revolution manual labour was replaced by automation. Workers had to move to a central location where steam and electricity was available and where the driving factors of the old economy, labour and capital, could meet. Mass production became the norm and logistics thrived to bring raw materials to the factory and deliver products from the factory to the market. The information age taught us the principle of “personal everything” - personal computers, personal phones, personal printers, personal software, personal services, personal applications (apps). Probably the most disruptive technology at present is 3D printing or additive manufacturing. This will take us into the era of “personal manufacturing”. The “think it, make it” generation is already with us. From automotive parts that used to be manufactured in a workshop, to prostheses that are made while you wait in a surgery, to living cells being printed into working organs, we are facing the new era of manufacturing-on-the-go. The potential impact of this on institutionalised work is enormous. Factories with rows and rows of workers as we know it will disappear.

Robotics and artificial intelligence: Robotics has already transformed the world of mass manufacturing and has impacted on workers. The focus is now on the re-skilling of workers to take up the masses that become unemployed as a result of automation. From the robotic drill tool at the rock face deep underground in mines, to assembly lines where no human hand is required anymore, to the drones we fly to do remote sensing and metrology, to the nano-satellites launched in space to watch the environment, we are increasingly moving into new paradigms of remote control, safety at work and productivity enhancement. This wave cannot be stopped, whether we live in a developed or developing economy.

Hollywood has exposed us to cyborgs, fictional or hypothetical human beings whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body. Will cyborgs take over from human beings? The question whether Artificial Intelligence can become a threat for knowledge workers has become very relevant. Scientifically, a singularity is a point at which a function takes an infinite value, especially in space-time when matter is infinitely dense, as at the center of a black hole. The technological singularity of Ray Kurzweilii is the hypothesis that accelerating progress in technologies will cause a runaway effect wherein artificial intelligence will exceed human intellectual capacity and control, thus radically changing civilization in an event called the singularity. In 2050, says Kurzweill, a $1 000 computer will have the processing power of all brains of the human race. Highly trained people may become obsolete and hence unemployed.

Connectivity: Everything is getting connected to everything else, communication systems with communication systems, computers with other computers, humans and their machines and computers and “things” in the Internet of Things. Geospatiality gives coordinates for everything, including our data. It places everything on a map so that it is retrievable, connectable and usable. These connected ecosystems fundamentally change the face of work. Telepresence makes travelling for meetings and to work unnecessary, mobile platforms let us make an input into work from where we are at any time. Connectivity drives social media, the most powerful tool we have for making ourselves known, sharing our opinion and contributing our knowledge. It brings us to The Cloud where we can store and share our data and collaborate without being close to others we work with.

Big data: We are increasingly talking about “datafication”iii of the world, where larger and larger quantities of data are generated and become available to use. In our world of work we have to deal not only with the volume of data accumulated until now and generated every second, but also the velocity, or speed of new data that moves around. The variety in the form of different types of data is phenomenal and the veracity of it in terms of its “messiness” and noise value requires clever filtering, decision-making and actioniv. Big data is a reality in national security, large science projects such as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) and Large Hadron Collider (LHC), intensive care units (ICU), environmental studies, artistic performances, social media, pattern recognition and augmented reality amongst others. In one minute, 300 hours of videos are uploaded to YouTubev and 140 000 photos are added to Facebookvi.


The behaviour of people and future work

People, both inside the workspace and in the market place, are behaving drastically different from the long known and set norms for work and consumerism. We review a few of these behavioural changes that impact on how we will work in future.

The generation continuum: Instead of talking about a generation gap, we are facing a future where up to four generations will co-exist in the workspace and the marketplace. These are popularly known as the baby boomers (1945 – 1963), generation X (1964 – 1975), generation Y (1976 – 1999) and generation G (2000 – present) the last two combined are often referred to as the “millennials”. Formally, the first three generations now co-exist in the workspace. They have vastly different value systems and expectations. Whilst many large work environments are still under control of the baby boomers, organisations are now looking at leaders from a younger generation (Generation X) that have lived with the Internet their entire career. Generation Y operates by communicating and sharing, giving a whole new meaning to competitiveness. Generation G is making more money than any generation before them at their age, while not formally working. They will perpetuate this culture into the working world of tomorrow.

In the marketplace, the baby boomers have the buying power, but not the influence any more to steer the market. Although buying power drops from the generation X-ers to the millennials; their influence dictates the market in terms of products and services offered and speed of change. Increasingly the customers are expecting not only that their needs are met, but also that their future needs have to be predicted to maintain their interest.

New values: New values are developing in the workplace. In answering the question “what is work?” the tendency is moving away from interpreting it just in terms of money, towards interesting and creative activities; helping other people; having time to spend with families; sense of achievement and sense of a meaningful life. Since work is becoming virtual, it is so much easier to change work, to migrate rapidly from one workspace to another. This has an effect on loyalty and duration of stay. “A rolling stone gathers no moss” is an expression unbeknown to the younger generation of workers. Professionalism has replaced loyalty. All work is seen as a social activity. Whether in contact or remote, socialising is the essence of knowledge transfer. To be a successful knowledge enterprise in the knowledge economy, one has to realise that knowledge can best be shared by creating a work environment that is conducive to socialising. The trend is to move from single offices to cubicles in open plan office arrangements, to plug-and-play seats to a mobile workforce without an office seat, but connected through social media.

Worker satisfaction and promotion is measured in different terms. Success is defined not by achieving rank or seniority, but by getting what matters to you personally. The “corporate ladder” is now lying flat, bridging gaps among different groups of professionals that are autonomous and operate as sovereign individuals. Self-arranged security replaces corporate security and agility, mobility and independence are driving successful careers.

New leadership: Leading from the side, and not from top-down, is becoming the norm. Responsibility is delegated to the lowest possible levels and autonomy is given for decision making, based on trust that stems from a common culture of openness and sharing. The style of management is shifting from command-and-control to coordinate-and-cultivatevii. Hierarchical organisational structure is making way for a flatness that focuses on professionalism and outcome. Increasingly, leaders are respected for what they know and do and not for the positions they hold. Such respect must originate from person-specific knowledge and the recognition such a person receives in the work environment.

Multiplexing and post-reductionism: There is no space in the future world of work for people that can do only one thing at a time. This is a lesson that generation Y is teaching us. They are the generation that, as students, could listen to music, watch a movie on TV, continuously chat with their friends on social media, lie on their back, drink coffee and study, all at the same time! Reductionism is something of the past. We do not have the luxury to analyse and understand everything before we do; but we learn as we do. No one reads a manual anymore, no one memorises a procedure. You discover while you do, you consult visual help on YouTube or call a friend. The importance of speedy solutions overshadows the quest for ultimate perfection. Quality remains paramount though, but it is often achieved faster by trial-and-error than by teaching/training-and-learning paradigms. Discover-and-do has become the norm. More mistakes may be made, but experience is built faster. Encouraging mistakes, rather than punishing them, is part of the value system and budget processes of the future workspace.


Macro-events that shape the future world of work

To be able to understand the future world of work, one has to take note of a few macro-events that are shaping how we live, work, play and transact.

Open economy: An open economy is one that allows the unrestricted flow of people, capital, goods and services across its borders. A world order of open economy does not exist yet, but there are emerging elements that could lead towards such a dispensation. One of these is open science and another open talent.

Open science, where the opening up of all aspects of scientific research is encouraged, allowing others to follow the process and to collaborate, is becoming part of an “open everything” ecosystem. This includes open data (make data available to anyone and reusable by anyone for further analysis); open access (free availability of literature on the public Internet); open source (software that has its source code made available to others to re-use and build upon); open notebook (making day-to-day lab notes available in real time); and open peer review (where the identity of reviewers is known and comments are published, to make a participative debate possible). Open science introduces citizen science, or crowdsourcing of scientific input (data collection or analysis and synthesis), an emerging and disruptive notion.

An open talent economyviii is “a collaborative, transparent, technology-enabled, rapid-cycle way of doing business”. It is a notion for future work derived from the open source model for software. It relies heavily on crowdsourcing. What is crowdsourcing? Wikipediaix states that crowdsourcing is “the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers”. It is about finding the solution where it exists and not building empires to generate solutions. The inherent power lies within people, their knowledge and experience. The beauty of crowdsourcing is that it is not only harnessing knowledge of people in one organisation or specialist field, but from many fields. The attractor becomes an identified need and in a complex world, the solutions are derived by an extended system that is adaptive to its context and geography. A contributor in a node that provides a critical input to successful solutions or products now replaces the notion of a post or “job”. People in an open talent economy now offer their skills and knowledge as part of the solution and contribute voluntarily and not in a reactive way like in archaic business systems. In transitioning to the open talent economy, organisations are challenged to look at a mix of balance sheet talent (full-time statutory employees); partnership talent (employees that are on related balance sheets in a joint venture); contracted talent (insourced talent in support roles); freelance talent (independent workers for specific but temporary tasks) and open source talent (crowdsourcing of independents that sell their knowledge and skills).

People are getting older: People are living longer and, in some parts of the world, healthier lives. This represents outstanding medical achievements of the last century but also a significant challenge. Longer lives must be planned for. Older people have to work longer in order to afford health insurance and pensions, as well as to keep creatively busy for their own well-being. Such a pool of experienced people is adding to a global brain trust. Forced retirement at a certain age will increasingly be challenged, unless new paradigms of work are found where older people meaningfully contribute to the economy.

Global challenges call for global solutions: Apart from the millennium challenges that are well known in mostly the development context, new challenges are emerging from fast evolving macro-trends. These include increased urbanisation; shortage of natural resources; geopolitical complexity; religious tensions; outdated financial systems; the acceleration of cyber-crime and cyber-warfare and the redefinition of democracy. These challenges know no boundaries and require the combined wisdom of the crowds. In adopting an open economy approach, many of these challenges can be addressed more effectively than when separate, albeit coordinated, approaches were followed. Drawing on the global brain trust that contains a mix of specialisation and experience and allowing people to apply their minds to where it matters most, will create a future world of work where sovereign individuals form part of a global workforce.


The mind of the future

One often hears statements that an individual entering the workspace now will have a multitude of jobs in his or her active working life. You also hear that we are training people at the moment for jobs that do not exist yet, to solve problems that we do not know about yet. How do we prepare the mind of the future? The mind of the future will never stop sharpening itself. Gone are the days that a university education is thought to be the source of a core competence a human being acquires. The quest for tertiary education is important, but it remains the responsibility of higher education institutions to pace the changing world. Needless to say, it is not happening everywhere, and archaic education and training approaches prevail, much to the detriment of the upcoming generation of workers. Not many tertiary institutions declare openly that they provide skillsx required for the future workforce: sense-making; social intelligence; novel and adaptive thinking; cross-cultural competency; computational thinking; new media literacy; trans-disciplinarity; a design mindset; cognitive load management; virtual collaboration; etc. We often see future jobs being described in terms of currently unprecedented titlesxi such as: urban farmers; bitcoin advisers; 3D printing lawyers; galactic architects; human-robot interaction specialists, etc.

The mind of the future is one that believes in own contribution; one that never tires of learning; one that collaborates with other minds; one that remains creative; one that explores; one that risks; one that interfaces with machines; one that shares and one that gets satisfaction from seeing impact made. Once we cultivate such minds and provide an ecosystem for them to be active and productive, we are at the point of creating the workspace of the future.


Jobless workers

Is this an obvious oxymoron? No, in this contradiction lies the future of work for all: not only educated specialists, but also for ordinary, even uneducated, people seeking an income and self-actualisation. People will naturally gravitate to a condition where there is work, even though there are not jobs, since it is human nature to keep busy, to socialise and to react to a challenge. It is the workplace that has to adapt to become a workspace. From indigenous knowledge acquired through stories told in far-away places to the formal higher education platforms of the world that stream knowledge to eager learners, every person has the ability and desire to learn, do work, to contribute, to make a difference and to earn an income. Our paradigms and systemic organisation of work, however, do not allow this behaviour yet. You are seen as unemployed if you do don have a salary slip, if you do not have an address to go and spend eight hours a day, working or not working. If we can change the mindset of people that work is what must be done, that contribution must be volunteered and compensated for and that there are dramatic challenges in the world that could benefit from such an offering, we could win the unemployment crisis in a large part of the world. But to do that, we need a total revolution in the workspace. A new thinking is required to migrate from industrial age thinking to the knowledge economy.


The workspace of the future

The future workspace is one where we will work from wherever we are. New ecosystems will support us by providing us with cross-business networks and relationships. We will use the mobile technologies we carry with us every day to sense, analyse, synthesise, communicate, participate, and contribute, in many cases instantaneously, to solutions and products for which the need arises at an accelerated pace. We will join and depart from virtual teams that are not enterprise bound, geographically bound or philosophically bound and do the task that we can contribute to best. New payment systems will have to be devised, since the payroll will be outdated along with the conventional enterprise of today. Opportunity will beckon for everyone who is connected and can communicate and who is prepared to contribute knowledge and ideas.

The technologies to enable the new world of work are in position and will continue to improve to enable the individual to become part of a virtual workforce. The behavioural changes will take longer to realise, but the adaptability of human nature will make such change possible. New challenges requiring smart action, proactive solutions and fast decision-making are looming over the horizon.

The workspace of the future is already with us. We are on the threshold of a work revolution that will lead to a better world for all of us, employed and unemployed. Those that recognise the opportunity will thrive, those that don’t will be part of history.


Dr Anthon Botha is Managing Director of TechnoScene (Pty) Ltd, a Future Thinking consultancy that operates in the realms of technology management, innovation management and knowledge management. He is also part time academic at the Graduate School of Technology Management at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. For more information on TechnoScene, visit www.technoscene.co.za

Read more about Anthon and his view on being a futurist



  1. John G Miller, “Why we really work, http://qbq.com/why-we-really-work/
  2. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is near – When Humans transcend biology, 2005
  3. Mark Lycett, 'Datafication': Making sense of (big) data in a complex world, European Journal of Information Systems, 22(4), 381 - 386, 2013, http://v-scheiner.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/8110
  4. Bernard Marr, What Really Is Big Data? And Why It Will Change the World, Dashboard Insight, 2013, http://www.dashboardinsight.com/news/news-articles/what-really-big-data-and-why-it-will-change-world.aspx
  5. https://www.youtube.com/yt/press/statistics.html
  6. http://www.quora.com/How-many-photos-are-uploaded-to-Facebook-each-day
  7. Tom Malone, The Future of Work, MIT Sloan School of Management News Briefs, 2005, https://mitsloan.mit.edu/newsroom/newsbriefs-0605-malone.php
  8. The Open Talent Economy – People and work in a borderless workplace, Deloitte, 2013, http://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/human-capital/articles/open-talent-economy1.html
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crowdsourcing
  10. Future Work Skills 2020, Institute for the Future for the University of Phoenix Research Institute, 2011, http://www.iftf.org/futureworkskills/
  11. Skills Development Scotland, http://www.myworldofwork.co.uk/subjectchoices/jobs-of-the-future


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