The future of work: what the world will look like in 2025
Even with three decades of research into work under my belt, I still find the future of work incredibly difficult to predict. That’s why I created a research consortium designed to tap into ideas and knowledge from across the world.
Each year, my research team and I begin by identifying the five forces that will have the biggest impact on the future of work - these are technology; globalisation; demography and longevity; society; and natural resources. We then go about amassing the hard facts around each of these five forces. The hard facts for each of the five forces are then presented to members of the research consortium. This consortium is perhaps one of the most fascinating experiments ever conducted between management, academics and executives. In a sense, it creates a 'wise crowd' of people. In 2009, for example, more than 200 people participated. They were members of more than 21 companies from around the world including South African bank Absa, Nokia, Nomura, Tata Consulting Group (in India), Thomson Reuters, the Singapore Government’s Ministry of Manpower, together with two not-for-profit organisations, Save the Children and World Vision. In 2010, the number of participating companies had risen to 45, with over 15 from Asia, including SingTel in Singapore; Wipro, Infosys and Mahindra & Mahindra from India and Cisco and Manpower from the USA. The research began in earnest in November 2009 at the London Business School. At this point, we presented the hard facts relating to the five forces and asked executives to construct storylines based on a day-in-the-life of people working in 2025 on the basis of what they had heard. We then went on to repeat this exercise with many more people in Singapore and India. This global research project is still ongoing, but to date it has helped us to identify the three broad career paths which will be of most value (beyond those that are always of value) over the coming decade. These are grassroots advocacy, social entrepreneurship and micro-entrepreneurship. Grassroots advocacy In 2009, the strategists at Shell developed two scenarios about the future of energy resources. What is interesting about the Shell 2050 ‘Blueprint’ scenario is the role that local, regional and global advocates play. They believe that rather than organisations taking a top–down, centralised approach, in an increasingly transparent world, high-profile local actors will influence the national stage. Change will come through the success of many individual initiatives that become linked and amplified around the world and progressively change the character of international debate. These grassroots advocates will become the early developers of experiments, innovative solutions and adopters of proven practice. We can expect to see advocacy rising in any area that people care about – from the education of children in developing countries and the eradication of endemic diseases to the support of small businesses. Expect to see a proliferation of enterprises built around developing and supporting advocacy skills and capabilities. These could be NGOs like Save the Children, which already provides a sophisticated programme of support both to people who want to volunteer to work with them and to those who currently work as advocates on their behalf. Or they could be companies like Projects Abroad, which has sent over 18,500 people to volunteer as interns in fields as diverse as teaching, conservation, medicine and journalism. Social entrepreneurship For some people, advocacy will be about becoming a high-profile local actor who galvanises energy and creates ideas about how to move forward. For others, advocacy will entail using their leadership skills and management know-how to create organisations that serve social needs. At the heart of social entrepreneurship is the will to organise, create and manage a venture to make social change. So while a business enterprise measures performance in profit and return, a social entrepreneur focuses on measuring outcomes in broader ways. All over the world, social entrepreneurial businesses are springing up – NIKA Water Company, for example, which sells bottled water in the US and uses 100% of its profits to bring clean water to those in the developing world. Or Newman’s Own, which donates 100% of its total profits to support various educational charities. But it is not just individuals who are doing the running here. Across Asia and Europe in particular, social entrepreneurs are gathering together in teams, networks and even movements for change. Gen Y is beginning to play a role and we can expect this to gather greater momentum over the coming decades. For example, the Young Social Pioneers group in Australia actively invests in young social entrepreneurs, while Istanbul’s Bilgi Üniversity does the same in Turkey. Micro-entrepreneurship Small businesses have always played a key role in the economy of developed and emerging markets. For example, in 2004, 40% of the working population in the US worked in small businesses, while 47% of the UK working population did the same. But what it means to be a micro-entrepreneur in 2025 will be very different from today. Although we can still expect large companies to exist – and, in fact, there is an argument that these companies will become even larger – proportionally, we can expect more people to work for themselves or with a small group of other people. Many will be employed in ecosystems that operate in the hinterland of these large companies. Like the many thousands of independent people who currently build applications for Apple's iPhone, these people will work on small elements of the value chain. Alternatively, they will be part of a much larger collaboration of many thousands of people who come together to benefit from economies of scale. Whatever the mechanism of coordination, we can expect a greater proportion of the valuable work in companies to be carried out by people who work independently. The main driver, of course, will be the progressively falling price of IT combined with ubiquitous cloud technology, which will enable even the smallest business to use highly sophisticated analytics software to track orders, work with third parties and collect money. What has also become more prevalent and will continue to grow is the ability of the entrepreneurs to use the internet to coordinate funding activity by enabling people to donate or invest in ideas that they think are exciting or profitable.
Beyond these three emerging careers, however, we can also expect to see clusters of skills that become ever more valuable, rare and difficult to imitate. In particular, clusters in the life science and health, energy conservation, creativity and innovation, and coaching and caring will become increasingly important: Life sciences and health Regardless of how good we feel and how long we live, we always want to look better and live longer. As a result, we can expect two important life science and health clusters to emerge. The first will be the creation of what we might call 'health hubs' across the world, which will be designed in part to cater for the needs of the developed world's ageing population. By 2010, a number of these health resorts were already under construction in Europe around the Mediterranean region, echoing the way that North Americans had flocked to Florida and the southern states. Turkey has begun to market itself as a health and spa specialist because of its proximity to a major geothermal belt, while Eastern Europe is preparing itself to accommodate the growing number of baby boomers in search of "Hippocratic holidays". At the same time, clusters around the life sciences will become ever more important as universities, health and pharmaceutical companies, joint ventures and service companies’ work ever more closely together. The Bay Area around San Francisco, and "Gene Town" in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have, for example, emerged as the first biotechnology clusters containing critical masses of academic and industrial institutions in relatively small areas. In Europe, there are three biomedical clusters, in the Oxford–Cambridge–London triangle in the United Kingdom, the French capital of Paris, and in the Medicon cluster corridor between Sweden and Denmark. In Asia, the largest biomedical cluster is in Singapore. Over the next decade, however, we can predict bioclusters to develop further in Kobe and Osaka in Japan. In China, we expect the government to pour resources into the rapid creation of similar clusters. What will these biomedics do? Certainly they will be in demand. In 2010, for example, despite the US recession, biomedical engineering was the fastest growing skill in the country (rates of 72%). Such engineers will, over the next decade, be developing MRI machines, asthma inhalers, and artificial hearts but, by 2025, we can expect even more creative developments. Take the nanomedics, for example. They will be devising subatomic nanoscale healthcare devices, procedures and body inserts, including 'cargo ships' that seek out cancerous cells in the bloodstream. Memory-augmentation surgeons, on the other hand, will be tasked with giving extra memory capacity to people who want to increase their recall ability and helping those suffering from a sensory shutdown. Stem cell research is also already starting to show signs of success and will become a massive industry. Energy conservation There will be enormous potential work in the field of conservation as new industries continue to be built around energy capture. Wind power, solar power and wave power have already emerged as nascent industries. In India, substantial investments are being made in wind power, while in China, energy conservation scientists are pioneering new developments in solar energy. But we can also anticipate a rapid acceleration in the development of conservation skills, driven in part by government mandates for zero emission cars, but also by fiscal incentives to support mass production in the area. These developments will stimulate a surge in electrical transport, powered by batteries, fuel cells or hybrid technologies. Engineers will certainly be in high demand in the sustainable energy sector, but it will also require PR and planning specialists as well as all of the expertise currently employed by more traditional energy players. In fact, over time, the renewable energy sector should create more jobs than the traditional energy industry as the former has been proven to generate more jobs per unit of power, per unit of installed capacity and per pound invested than conventional power generation. These jobs in life science, health and energy conservation will become truly global labour markets. The predicted labour shortages in much of the developed world could potentially be filled by graduates in these hot areas from all over the world. It is also important to bear in mind that location will not always be crucial in accessing these skills. Creativity and innovation Creativity and innovation are in the ascendancy as the mechanisation and automation of the past is replaced by a way of working that is more organic, emergent and creative. These creative industries will flourish and increasingly permeate everyday life. In part because, as experiences become as important as consumption, so those that invent, design and execute experiences will have skills that are considered valuable. All around the world, people are waking up from the tedium of bureaucratic sameness to the colour and richness of creativity. The growing and influential band of people dedicated to creativity and design at work do not accept the default position and are always looking for alternative ways of displaying data and interacting with clients. Although there are many aborted attempts at creative reimaginings, this process is important as it stirs pools that would otherwise become stagnant. We know that this creative class will continue to grow in size and impact in the years to come and the dividing line between creatives and those engaged in managing and working in organisations will become more and more permeable. What can be called art has morphed and flowed into what could be called the aesthetic-intellectual sector. Take a look at the highly successful Californian company IDEO to see how a group of people that started as product designers morphed over the years to become designers and creators of experiences and organisational practices. This scenario illustrates how innovation and creativity have, and will, become increasingly important to the way in which brands are created and reputations made. How many more Tom Fords will there be in 2025 as arbiters of good taste and self-presentation? What will the creative classes do? The German futurist Mathias Horx lists over a hundred possible creative vocations including animators, architects, authors, ceramicists, creative managers, DJs, documentary filmmakers, event-agents, fashion consultants, fitness trainers. Also included are graphic designers, interior designers, media trainers, musicians, muses, painters, photographers, philosophers, preachers, publisher’s readers, rappers, researchers, star cooks, storytellers, stylists, theatre directors, trainers, website developers. Of course, some of these creative roles will fade and morph into allied roles, while others are at the beginning of their trajectory and will grow over the coming decades. But what will the day-to-day working life of these creative people comprise? Perhaps you imagine that they will live a solitary existence – somewhere on a rocky island in the middle of a warm sea. Here they contemplate, consider and of course . . . create. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth and, in all likelihood, such notions will continue to be fallacies. The creative class likes to be near, and I mean really near, to others with the same skills. What’s more, they congregate and cluster in large numbers in particular regions of the world - a scenario that is only likely to increase between now and 2025. Creative clusters are already emerging around the world, populated by people who want to learn from each other and do business with each other. These clusters are being energised and fuelled from the inside out from the ideas and creativity that emerge when people with related but diverse skills and abilities come together. They are becoming what I have called 'hot spots' of innovation and creativity. Coaching and caring In a world that will become increasingly virtual, finding ways to create supportive relationships in order to help people navigate through life, ensure overworked employees continue to feel great and address the challenges of growing time fragmentation, will be key. That’s why the skills around coaching and caring will become ever more important over the next two decades. Some of these services will be delivered virtually. So we can expect to see a plethora of micro-entrepreneurs developing virtual personal coaches that can build and manage personal and professional avatars. They will also ensure that personal brands are working and will monitor and provide advice on how to develop high value networks. Also expect to see virtual and physical service roles addressing the challenge of time fragmentation. These will take the form of virtual-clutter organisers who will help people to organise their complex electronic lives, handling e-mail, storing data and managing identities. They will also include 'narrowcasters' or specialists who work with content providers and advertisers to create personalised content. Like the new creatives, these new caring roles will become absolutely essential to the way that individuals work and live over the coming decades. They are aligned with the principle that, by 2025, many people will choose to focus on having productive experiences rather than undertaking voracious consumption – for it is they who are often the purveyor of such experiences. At the highest end, such experiences will be individually-developed, tailor-made and unique, crafted just for you. As a result, service providers will be vital in helping people tread the often fine line between out-and-out narcissism and a more nuanced presentation and branding of self. They will assist in writing personal blogs, ensuring photographs and avatars are realistic, but more, they will craft CVs and support people in navigating the global jobs market. They will recommend great theatre, come up with wonderful gap years and sabbatical experiences and support personal brands as they take part in hairdressing, massage and fitness activities. We can also anticipate that a particular focus will be on ensuring family wellbeing. Even as families become smaller, 're-assembled' and/or fragmented, we can expect that Generation Y and Z parents will retain a strong desire to do the best for their children and cherish their families. So priority will be given to services that care for, educate and inspire them and generally increase their well-being and happiness. Where will these caring and coaching jobs be located? They will be found wherever potential clients are. If the creative classes cluster together, coaching and caring roles will be there too in order to provide support and ensure that personal services are available for them. As we shall see in the third shift – it could well be the caring and coaching classes who form the backbone of the regenerative communities that will be so crucial to the well being of workers by 2025. Love what you do Making the shift into the future is all about understanding choices, trade-offs and consequences. However, while it is both sensible and possible to make well-grounded guesses about the future, the truth is that they can only ever be guesses. So, in a world where the specifics of the future are difficult to predict with great accuracy, a smart option is to go after what you love and feel passionate about. Perhaps even more than this, if you are going to work until you are 70, you had better find something that you really enjoy doing. How do you know what you love? I believe that at the heart of loving work is seeing meaning and having expertise. It’s hard to love something that you feel is meaningless and it’s also just as hard to fall in love with something you don’t think you are going to be any good at. Assigning meaning to something is intensely personal. Knowledge, creativity and innovation will be the basis on which many of us choose to make our living in future – and all of these outcomes depend on our feelings and attitudes to work.
We cannot be creative if we hate what we do or find it insubstantial or pointless. We cannot coach and care for others if we find our work boring or repetitive. Sure we can do a decent day’s work, but we will not put in that extra energy which comes from loving what we do.
Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School and founder of research and consultancy firm, Hot Spots Movement, which specialises in boosting company performance. Originally published by our sister site, www.TrainingZone.co.uk.