When most people think about the future of work, they tend to focus on artificial intelligence, automation, and the growing gig economy. Yet these phenomena are only a small part of a much bigger picture, of which we are losing sight.
The nature of work is changing, but work and jobs are two different things. While work describes all labour or effort directed to producing or accomplishing something, a job specifically describes paid work, usually in relation to employment. This is an important distinction to make, because focusing on how something like automation will affect particular jobs puts us at risk of thinking narrowly about these challenges.
‘The most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate. By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.’
— World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs report
The jobs we do reflect the types of labour that we collectively value in society. If we want to plan for the jobs people will be doing in 10 years, we need to start by broadening our scope and asking what forms of labour — both paid and unpaid — might increase in demand or significance in the next 20 to 30 years.
Care work has not featured prominently in future of work discourse, yet its social and economic importance is expected to grow exponentially. Crucially, care work — the actual labour of caring — is arguably impossible to automate. And if you don’t believe me, a study from the Oxford Martin School found care-related jobs, like nursing, are among the least likely to be automated.
In a future where technical automation could make most of the jobs we currently do obsolete, perhaps we should start focusing more on the types of work we all already do, that can’t be replaced.
“But if the future of care work will affect us all, what would that even look like?”
— You, probably
An Experiential Case Study
As a final year Creative Intelligence and Innovation student at UTS, I had the opportunity, with a group of my peers, to contribute to a Future of Work Showcase in partnership with the City of Sydney.
Using evidence-based futures thinking methods, design an 5–10 minute experimental future to provoke questions about future work scenarios in the year 2050.
We started out exploring the idea of ‘unsexy’ work — types of work that don’t create the kind of monetary value that gets management consultants all hot and bothered. We found:
- There is a perceived dichotomy between work that is caring, like raising children, and work that is productive, like managing an office.
- Although it is underrepresented in formal economies, care work helps people do their jobs effectively. For instance, a working parent may rely on their partner or other family members to assist with childcare.
- Automating more-technical forms of work could provoke us to reconnect with intrinsically human qualities, including our capacity to care and nurture.
And so we pivoted, to ask: How might the automation boom give way to a new hierarchy of work? Could the old hierarchy be replaced with a more coherent relationship between caring and productivity? How might the future look if caring supplanted productivity as the goal of having a job?
It was at this point that we shifted our focus from the workplace to a university, as a contributor to the future workforce and incubator for new ideas. The experience we eventually ran was an open day session for a new combined degree at UTS called the Bachelor of Care and Emotional Intelligence (BCEI), modelled on our very own degree.
For those who couldn’t make it, I’ve tried to recreate the experience in the form of an audio story, which you can experience below. The visuals are taken directly from the showcase session.
This next part will take 5–10 minutes to complete, and you’ll need to turn your sound on.
So what does a fake university degree have to do with the future of care work, and why should you start giving a damn?
To be completely honest, I’m not sure I have the answer. There certainly isn’t just one.
The future scenario above only begins to demonstrate the myriad ways we all do some form of care-based labour in our everyday lives, and the invisible foundation this establishes for what normally gets considered when we talk about ‘work’.
The key takeaway here is that the ‘future of work’, as we’ve conceived it thus far, relies on the assumption that the only work of value is that which produces economic value. Thinking about work this way not only limits our capacity to envision potential futures, it also prevents us from effectively addressing important social and economic challenges — including how we will address unemployment and education in an era of mass automation.
As our world becomes increasingly complex, we need to start viewing issues like unemployment, socioeconomic inequity and even climate change from all angles. Reframing the future of work in terms of care work is just a starting point. We need to stop thinking in buzzwords and technological solutions, and start thinking about all the different types of work we do every day to sustain our formal economies.