Dick Bolles On the Future of Work

Technology is reinventing how we earn a living. Here’s what you need to know.

By Dick Bolles

I, a stranger and afraid; In a world I never made. Those lines by poet A.E. Housman perfectly capture the zeitgeist today. It’s how a lot of the vanishing middle class is feeling, as profound change rocks the world of work. That world isn’t just changing — that has been happening since the dawn of history. Now, with the advent of technologies Housman never dreamed of nearly a century ago, the world is reimagining itself, examining connections and disconnections between — well everything.

Things that seemed connected are starting to uncouple. The idea of work is no longer restricted to “a job.” The idea of income is no longer necessarily connected to “a salary.” A high salary is no longer connected to people who have mid-level skills — as was the case for decades in manufacturing.

Parts of the world are reimagining money disconnected from work. A universal basic income, regardless of whether you work, is being talked about in Ireland, Germany, Greece, Finland, Switzerland, Namibia, Brazil, Argentina and Canada, to remedy the fact that some people may never be able to find jobs. Its most prominent advocate here in the U.S. is Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor. The middle class’s loss of viable jobs is but one catalyst for this profound reimagination of work. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times observed in a recent speech, the big news is not change, but the rapidity of change. Look at China, where some 46% of workers were employed in agriculture in the year 2000. By 2011, that number was down to 3%. In 2000, 17% of Chinese workers were employed in industry; by 2011 that figure had risen to 47%.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

The vocabulary of work is the vocabulary of reimagining. If part of that reimagining focuses on disconnections, another part focuses on connections. Things that never used to be connected now are, using such technology as computer programs, Wi-Fi, the internet, centralized computer systems, digital electronics, mobile computers (smartphones), artificial intelligence, integrated circuits and sensors.

On the simplest level, we are all being connected in ways never imagined by our ancestors. Through Facebook, my wife is now in touch with Filipino relatives she had lost track of. Many people find connections to people they have never met through LinkedIn.

But why stop with us humans? Connections between objects are more complicated, but viable.

Can we connect robots so they communicate with other robots, directly or through a central hub? Yes, we can. Amazon already does.

Can we connect cars on the road, so they can communicate and exchange information? Yes, we can.

Can we protect connected cars from being hacked? Yes we can, with Checkpoint and Argus partnering to create an anti-hacking tool.

Can we connect devices — our house lights and security systems, our health-care monitoring, our appliances, our everyday gadgets so that they can communicate with each other? Yes, we can. There are apps to do all of that.

Can we find a way to track all the devices that are connected in your network? Yes, we can. A firm named Forescout is working on this.

Can we eliminate incompatibilities between connected devices? Yes, we can, as we adopt standards for communicating and networking.

Can we find a better way to connect devices than Wi-Fi? Yes, we can. Apple is already experimenting with a light-based system — they call it Li-Fi. This reimagining of our world as hyperconnected isn’t down the road. It is happening now, giving rise to a new field called The Internet of Things with the potential to transform how we communicate with machines and each other. Experts predict that by 2020, 34–50 billion devices will be connected. That’s only four years away. Are there risks to all this connectivity? Yes, indeed. AIG’s recent white paper, The Internet of Things: Evolution or Revolution? observes: “Every object that connects with the Internet is another entry point through which the cyber-criminals can enter…” Questions of privacy, liability and damage also arise. But for most of us, the benefits easily outweigh the risks.

Your ability to survive in this new world depends on understanding how work is being reimagined. Here are two practical steps you can take:

1. The World Out There. Our survival depends on staying ahead of the curve. If you have a computer, search for “Internet of Things” regularly and read the most recent articles. Subscribe to free newsletters dedicated to the subject. Those who make it their business to stay informed are the ones who will thrive.

2. The World Within. If you were hiking in the wilderness and suddenly found a stream swirling around your ankles, you’d find something solid to stand on before you get swept off your feet. In similar fashion, taking an inventory of yourself will give you a foundation in the midst of all this reimagining. Knowing just who you are, what you like and do best, what kindles your brain, and what enables you to do your best work has never been more important. Don’t ignore this step.

PART 2

Four ways to be ready for tomorrow, starting today.

Some of us tremble at the thought of robots. As the world reimagines itself without our consent, we are told by raving futurists that in the not-too-distant future, robots will take away our work, making humans unnecessary to the future of this planet. Yet a research paper from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that only 9 percent of American workers are at high risk of being replaced by automation. Experts at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland predicted that robots will eliminate 5 million jobs worldwide by 2020, but that’s only one tenth of one percent of the global labor pool, which numbers 3 billion. Terrible if one of those jobs is yours, but hardly evidence that robots are taking away all our jobs.

Technology will tackle certain tasks within jobs. Tasks. This means that most jobs will be a collaboration between man and machine. MIT scientists call this partnership “human-machine symbiosis.” I like to call it a partnership between man (or woman) and machine.

Here’s the main question this partnership faces: Is the machine the backup to man? Or is man backup to the machine? Machine as Backup to Man. In Amazon’s largest warehouses there are 15,000 robots. (Forget R2-D2 or the gold-plated C-3PO of Star Wars. These robots look like oversized Roomba self-driving vacuum discs. Amazon’s Kiva robots are 16 inches tall and 320 pounds. At the central computer’s command, they carry shelves of items to workers who are assembling a customer’s order or unpacking and shelving new items. Yet, in a warehouse where 3,000 robots assist, there are 4,000 workers. The machine is backing up the man, helping the workers only with certain tasks.

Man as Backup to the Machine. On the other hand, California just passed a law requiring that in every autonomous self-driving car there must be a human sitting behind the wheel.

Sensors Become the Voice of Objects

Sensors are the “voice” of objects, even when that object is the human body. Today’s smartphones have a handful of sensors: a proximity sensor, an ambient light sensor, an ambient sound sensor, a temperature/humidity sensor, a barometer, an accelerometer, a magnetometer, a gyroscopic sensor, and the like. Sensors generate a vast amount of data. In our world reimagined, this Internet of Things world, 205,000 new gigabytes of data — the equivalent of 150 million books — are being created every second. By connecting objects to the internet and to each other, we have placed ourselves in the middle of a data-driven revolution.

This data eliminates problems that have dogged humankind for decades or even centuries, helping us do things better, or faster, improving performance or customer satisfaction. Consider IBM’s computer system Watson, which can answer questions posed in natural language. Tested against Jeopardy contestants in 2011, Watson won, accessing 200 million pages of content. Watson now gives nurses a large body of knowledge to help them make wiser decisions about lung cancer treatment.

Or consider cars. Automobiles have about 100 computers on board, aiding with ignition, steering, backup warnings, and the like. There is tremendous urgency to create robotic cars because every year 30,000 people are killed in motor-vehicle accidents in the U.S., another 30,000 in Europe, and 400,000 in China and India — the vast majority due to human error. Google has been at the forefront of this effort but Tesla and Ford are not far behind. Ford will have 30 self-driving test vehicles in its fleet by the end of 2016. The U.S. government is getting into the act, too, announcing an investment of $4 billion dollars to develop self-driving cars over the next 10 years.

It is an endless dance between connected objects, sensors, computers, data capture and redesigned user outcomes. Along with the dance comes turbulence as other people reimagine our jobs, our workplace and the world. It is the turbulence that the modern worker sees most keenly, and feels most directly, like the sound of not-so-distant thunder. What happened to our jobs? Well, as we have seen, they are being reimagined as a partnership between man and machine.

So where do you fit in? Here are four guidelines for thriving in the data-driven future:

1. Begin to reimagine your life in the world of work, and get comfortable with the idea of future jobs as a man/machine partnership.

2. Start thinking of machines (particularly robots) as your friend and not as an enemy come to steal your job.

3. If you’ve done a career self-inventory, you may well have thought of a field you would really like to be in, or a job you might really like to do. If so, get permission to shadow a worker for a day or two, to see what that job or field actually involves, in this reimagined world.

4. Become familiar with the actors on this stage, our friends the sensors and the robots: how they are designed, manufactured, operated, maintained and repaired. If you find a part of this that you really like, figure out how to train for it. You will not lack work.

Reimagine your life in this reimagined world. The time to prepare for tomorrow is today.


Dick Bolles, more formally known as Richard Nelson Bolles, is the most widely-read and influential leader in the whole career field. and author of the best-selling job-hunting book in the world, What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers, 2016, (more than 10,000,000 copies sold to date, in annual editions). He is credited with founding the modern career counseling field, and is often described as the field’s #1 celebrity. or “America’s top career expert” (AARP). Dick is listed in Who’s Who In America, and Who’s Who In the World and has been featured in Fortune, Money Magazine, Business Week, The Economist, Fast Company, TIME, Forbes. and Readers Digest. He has appeared numerous times on TV (The Today Show on NBC, CNN, CBS, Fox, ABC) on radio (NPR and PBS), and other media outlets. He is a member of Mensa, and SHRM.