The Future of Work vs. the Future of Jobs

Kate O'Neill
Jan 9 · 10 min read

While business tends to focus on the future of work and humans tend to focus on the future of jobs, the real potential for the future is in aligning them.

a baby interacting with Pepper the robot, taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeena/37017614286/
a baby interacting with Pepper the robot, taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeena/37017614286/
A baby interacting with Pepper the robot, taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeena/37017614286/ (CC BY 2.0)

When I speak with groups of executives about emerging technology, digital transformation, and the future of human experiences, every group eventually tends to ask the same questions about the future of work. They wonder what work as an organizational force looks like in the future, how workforces will function across distributed locations and with increasingly automated components, and so on. Some wonder what difference place will make in an increasingly connected world, how to hire, how to manage remote teams with a coherent sense of culture, how to scale with automation, how to deal with tech talent shortages, increasing requirements for diversity and inclusion, increased need for sensitivity and cooperation among an increasingly diverse staff, how to deal with a more complex mix of labor types, and so on.

Meanwhile, every individual I speak with about the future of work is actually more concerned with the future of jobs: what will we each be doing in 5, 10, 20 years? What skills do we need to compete within an increasingly global not to mention increasingly automated workforce? How can we ensure that robots won’t take our jobs? Or if they do, how can we ensure that there won’t be millions of people left to face joblessness, homelessness, and hunger? Or that we won’t — and we all know it sounds bananas but we have to ask — end up as slaves to robots?

When I speak with executives, every group eventually tends to ask the same questions about the future of work. Meanwhile, every individual I speak with about the future of work is actually more concerned with the future of jobs.

There’s a lot to unpack in the increasingly anxious questions humans ask about the future, but the key thing first is the difference between how we consider the future of work and the future of jobs.

The future of work has to do with the way companies will achieve productivity in an increasingly automated ecosystem. The future of jobs, meanwhile, has to do with the way human beings will make their living, or in a theoretical system where resources are provided, how human beings will carve out their identity, which they have traditionally done at least in part through their chosen occupations.

The future of work has to do with the way companies will achieve productivity in an increasingly automated ecosystem. The future of jobs, meanwhile, has to do with the way human beings will make their living.

Another way to look at it is that work is the abstract collective noun for the marketplace in which jobs exist. So let’s start by unpacking the future of work.

The Future of Work

The discussions about the future of work have mostly to do with what employment looks like from an employer-oriented lens: what are the roles, how much of it is done remotely, what kinds of benefits will people expect, and so on.

In pursuit of greater profits and greater revenues, companies will continually invest in more efficient methods of achieving results. If that means offshoring to regions where cost of living is significantly lower so that the company can pay significantly less, the thought has been: so be it. And if that means replacing huge chunks of human labor with robots and other automation, this mindset again suggests: so be it.

Except that last August, Business Roundtable put out a statement saying that the purpose of a company is not just to make profit, but rather that they “share a fundamental commitment to all of [its] stakeholders” — which is a position I’ve argued for a long time.

And except that many leaders I meet tell me that they harbor concerns about the impact of replacing so many human workers with automated systems.

As we look ahead in the near term, one thing is clear: there are going to need to be emerging skills in the workplace for managing combined teams of humans and machines.

There are going to need to be emerging skills in the workplace for managing combined teams of humans and machines.

If we look at the workplace as a marketplace not only of jobs to be done, but value to be added, it becomes clearer where humans have a future. Jobs to be done are identifiable, discrete units of labor that can be executed by anyone or anything, so we can expect that type of work to be easily automated. But the judgment it takes to size up a situation and break it into its component jobs to be done is often more complex, more subjective, and more nuanced — traits which are, for the time being, more squarely in line with human capabilities than machine. And moreover, there is arguably always more value that can be added to a function by imbuing it with meaning, which is again something humans are right now better poised to do than machines.

The Future of Jobs

The discussions about the future of jobs, on the other hand, express the angst of humans who are accustomed to earning a living.

It no longer sounds alarmist to say that at least some parts of our jobs are probably going to be replaced by automation and/or by cognitive computing. Depending on which forecast you consult, as many as half of all job categories risk complete replacement by machines. There are certainly going to be impacts on the economy, on production, on efficiencies of scale, and on innovation.

It no longer sounds alarmist to say that at least some parts of our jobs are probably going to be replaced by automation and/or by cognitive computing. But as machines augment human jobs, we will also create new and sometimes more interesting human jobs.

It is important to note that automation and the workforce doesn’t necessarily mean jobs become eliminated. It means machines will continue to augment human jobs, just as they’ve done ever since there have been machines, and it means that the jobs that we do change. Take factory jobs, for example, and let’s think things through:
• Robots are doing some tasks, and humans are doing other tasks.
• So the the main impact of automation and robots in the workplace is augmentation —in other words, change of the jobs that humans perform.
But truly the capabilities of automation are making it increasingly possible to displace and replace human workers.
But as machines augment human jobs, we will also create new and sometimes more interesting human jobs.

That last point is something that we don’t talk about often enough, because it’s hard to envision what those jobs look like, what skills and training they may require, and who will be best poised to fill them.

What if the future of work, from a business standpoint, is automation and robots and algorithmic optimization, and human involvement is tuning, improving, aligning — what does that look like in practice?

The overall direction of the concerns is reasonable but it’s more nuanced than “robots are taking our jobs;” emerging technology creates new jobs, too. But it’s going to take some new skills in new combinations for humans to adapt and thrive in the emerging landscape.

For business leaders, it’s worth thinking about how your organization offers training and development; what it means to recruit qualified people when skills are new; it’s worth thinking about your own professional development path should be.

Human Experiences Beyond the Workplace

It’s delightful science fantasy to imagine a world in which no human has to work in meaningless jobs.

But jobs mean more to humans than money. A job has historically been about your identity. Beyond the economic impacts, how will this shift our human understanding of meaningful work, of accomplishment, of achievement?

What matters in all of this is that humans have the opportunity for meaningful experiences in the future, whether they derive from work or not.

One concern I have is that as experiences become increasingly automated and are often selected for automation by how mundane they are, that we will be increasingly surrounded by meaningless experiences. It is important that we now, in the early stages of automating human experiences, encode them with all the enlightenment, all the equity, all the evolved thinking we can.

What matters in all of this is that humans have the opportunity for meaningful experiences in the future, whether they derive from work or not.

Meanwhile, what I research, write about, and speak about is the future of human meaning: what makes humans human, and what do we need from our surroundings, from our activities, from our interactions with each other, in order to feel a sense of purpose and connectedness? There’s a lot more work to do here.

What Is The Answer? Is It UBI?

I’m not sure there is one answer. Universal Basic Income is the bandage people often suggest, and I think it is a necessary experiment, but it doesn’t seem like the all-in-one answer. If we move to a Universal Basic Income model, businesses will continue to accelerate and grow capacity and scale due to automation and AI and will become ever bigger and more powerful, while individuals increasingly do not work and do not earn a piece of this wealth. Intelligent automation could increase production and profits so significantly that trillion-dollar businesses are commonplace. All the while, they employ more machines and fewer people, and people depend completely on the government or corporate distribution of income.

Thus, Universal Basic Income stands to deepen the inequality between those who control the wealth and the distribution of it, and those who merely receive their allotment. There’s no evident opportunity for growth within that setup, or any obvious way for a powerless person to gain power.

Universal Basic Income stands to deepen the inequality between those who control the wealth and the distribution of it, and those who merely receive their allotment.

There’s a certain sector of politically conservative people who like to rail against “government handouts,” which is a way of shaming anyone who receives any kind of socialized assistance. But what does it mean when the vast majority of people necessarily receive assistance?

We’re going to need creative solutions across an array of social, economic, cultural, and governmental fields.

The Responsibility of Companies

Business is largely responsible for driving technology forward, so the only way to create a human-centric tech-driven future is for business to operate from a place of as much alignment as possible between corporate objectives and human interests. One way to do that is to set strategy from a clear organizational purpose — an articulated sense of what problem the company solves in the world.

The only way to create a human-centric tech-driven future is for business to operate from a place of as much alignment as possible between corporate objectives and human interests.

As I wrote in Tech Humanist,

The best way to know what tech to invest in is by thinking about your own organizational purpose and what emerging tech applications align with it and would amplify it to create a more meaningful experience for your customer.

Business Skills for the Next Era

  • Make values clear
  • Make it easy for people to get up to speed quickly and add value in ad hoc ways
  • Build a culture of teamwork and collaboration
  • Cultivate leadership and judgment skills up and down and across the organization
  • Embrace change, embrace diversity, embrace the future

Digital transformation is about transforming business models and practices to align with data-centered commerce and optimization. Part of that is workplace transformation — readying the organization, infrastructure, etc to deal with remote, contract, robots, virtual, etc. And part is job transformation — recognizing the evolution of roles and job scopes, and preparing the people on your team to be ready for the work ahead.

The Responsibility of Tech Providers and Platforms

Once we start scratching the surface, it becomes apparent that our tech-driven future is really a data-driven future, and that data, by and large, comes from us. So as we look toward future models, future economies, even around jobs and work, we need to recognize that data — human data — must be treated with utmost respect and protection.

The Responsibility of Government

Government has a role to play in ensuring that people are safe, so the evolving set of policies and regulations we are sure to see must ensure that overreach and mishandling of human data is fined and strongly disincentivized.

It may be better suited for smaller governments to form partnerships with organizations that can run nimble experiments with approaches like Universal Basic Income and other macroeconomic programs that could work as a safety net, and design these experiments to gain insights about how the programs will run at scale.

At all levels, government needs informed advisory from experts about how to craft appropriate protections for people in this changing economic model.

The Responsibility of People

Easiest of all to overlook: we have to keep ourselves educated about the state of the world around us.

We need to become savvier about what we read, what we share, what we believe. We need to familiarize ourselves with the evolving landscape of the changing workplace and not become aliens in our own land.

Human Skills for the Next Era

  • Demonstrate good judgment, nuance, pattern recognition, cooperation, delegation, organization, project management
  • Develop digital literacy, media literacy, general savvy and sophistication around algorithmic systems
  • Develop general technology familiarity
  • Embrace learning and change, embrace fluidity in your work, embrace the future

And try to learn some grounding concepts from at least one of the following:

  • programming fundamentals: object orientation, inheritance, APIs, etc
  • AI fundamentals: familiarity with basic machine learning models
  • robotic fundamentals: electronics, electrical engineering

We’re All in This Together

The more we ensure that business objectives and human objectives are as aligned as possible, the greater the chances that as automated experiences scale, they scale human values with them. In other words, make it possible that as business succeeds, it brings humanity with it. And by doing so, we are more likely to scale a sense of what is meaningful to humans rather than surrounding ourselves with meaninglessness.

When more companies follow this approach, we may really have a chance to enjoy, as I propose in Tech Humanist, the best futures for the most people.

Here’s to the meaningful experiences of the future for all of us.


Thank you for reading. Please “clap” if you found this piece interesting or meaningful. And please feel free to share widely.

Kate O’Neill, founder of KO Insights, is an author and speaker focused on helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future, and making technology better for business and for humans. Much of her work explores digital transformation from a human-centric approach, as well as how data and technology are shaping the future of meaningful human experiences. Her latest books are Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans (2018) and Pixels and Place: Connecting Human Experience Across Digital and Physical Spaces (2016).

Kate O'Neill

Written by

Speaker, author, expert on better tech for business & people, & transformation—digital & otherwise. @kateo. http://www.koinsights.com/about/about-kate-oneill/.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade