What is the Future of Work?

When I was young, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I knew nothing about the training I would have to undergo or about what the day to day work of a veterinarian might be, but I knew I liked dogs, and wanted to spend as much time around them as possible. I had friends who wanted to be doctors and dancers and firemen. Today, one of my kids wants to be a fireman, another a dancer and the third wants to “give away money to help people.” These are kids born in a post-smartphone world who have clothes from Thredup, toys from Etsy, stay in Airbnbs and ride in Ubers — none of which was even imagined when I was a kid. Even so, they see themselves contributing to society and earning a living in a way that has nothing to do with technology or the sharing economy. I encourage their dreams of course — and am also making sure that they learn to code anyway…just in case.

I am part of a team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that has been charged with anticipating the future. We explore emerging trends that have the potential to help or hinder our efforts to build a Culture of Health and experiment with ideas that may enhance the good and mitigate the bad effects of these trends.

We have our eyes on an important emerging trend: Our economy and the way we work are rapidly shifting. The “9-to-5” workday is quickly becoming a thing of the past for many Americans. Terms like “on-demand economy” and “gig economy” dominate public discourse.

As the number of people working in freelance and contract work increases, and the landscape around the sharing, gift and bartering economies evolves, the role of work, the work-day and the employer is changing––with various health implications. We’d like to learn more about what these implications might be — good or bad — and how we can support a path toward a future that helps us all live our healthiest lives and we’d like your ideas and funding proposals.

We are (obviously) not the first to be thinking about this issue, and as part of our early exploration we reached out to some thought leaders, researchers and entrepreneurs for their perspective on the future of work. We asked them to share their predictions and advice — and have captured some of their thoughts here:

These are just a few thought-provoking comments from experts close to this topic. We know there are many more of you out there who have also been thinking about/studying issues related to the future of work. Please send us your thoughts, ideas and proposals for funding.

We are also interested in hearing from those of you for whom this might be a new field of inquiry. Maybe you have theories about the positive benefits on health from the technologies you see emerging. Maybe you have slow hunches about how your life is changing — or the life of your friend or family member––that you think could be a more widespread phenomenon.

I wonder about how changes in technology and norms will affect the sleep Americans are able to get. I wonder how emerging Artificial Intelligence driven decision supports will enable people to do more at their jobs and I also worry that they will eliminate positions for those who really need a job. Would it be great if technologies meant fewer people have to take the night shift?

What do you wonder? How might you test that theory? Think about it, talk to others about it, and then consider submitting a funding proposal through the RWJF website by September 15.

The future of work is one the many areas we’re exploring to help us anticipate the future and consider new and unconventional perspectives and approaches to building a Culture of Health. We welcome brief proposals that explore the ideas and trends that will influence the trajectory and future of health throughout the year.

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