The Future of Work 2025
There’s no idea more tantalizingly and distressingly futuristic than the promise that someday, robots will replace all human labor. It’s a story we’ve been telling ourselves for so long that it has come to occupy the same territory as jetpacks and flying cars in our cultural imagination. But — perhaps appropriately to the present mood — it’s the dystopian version of this future that looms large.
Today, we are surrounded by robots in every corner of our lives. Advancements in automation and manufacturing have produced vast cathedrals of machinery to satisfy our global appetite for consumer goods, cheap food, and even housing.
And yet, through all of this, humans are still working. In most of the industrialized world, in fact, it seems like we’re working harder than ever, with longer hours and fewer vacations. Prognosticators have been foretelling the end of human workers since the Industrial Revolution, but for every job lost to history, entrepreneurs and innovators have always discovered new opportunities and markets to fill the gap. Why should this time be any different?
To understand the real disruption facing the modern workforce, we first need to understand CamFind.
CamFind is an iPhone app, one of many new businesses made possible by the sudden ubiquity of smartphones and high speed wireless networks. Point your phone’s camera at any object, and CamFind will identify it, or at least describe its physical appearance. What’s interesting about this app isn’t so much its functionality, but the fact that identifying objects like this is actually beyond the current reach of computer science. And behind CamFind’s unassuming interface lies the precarious future of the human worker.
When CamFind takes a picture, that photo is quietly sent through the Internet to a human, one of several hundred employees working out of a data center in the Philippines. That person identifies the object and provides relevant information through a google search, which is then sent immediately back to the phone. The entire process takes only seconds, during which time the user has no reason to believe that they have just been in dialogue with someone thousands of miles away. CamFind’s costs are low enough that the app is free to use. Rather than make profit today, they are betting that their API will become an essential tool of the networked world, a fast and convenient resource for any person, program, or smart appliance that needs images to be identified quickly and reliably.
But what does this dance between seemingly automated services and an on-demand army of microworkers tell us? How much work can we actually accomplish this way?
Elance-ODesk is the world’s largest market for freelance microwork, and allows anyone with a laptop to quickly hire workers – or be hired themselves – from anywhere on the planet. Tasks can range from just a few seconds worth of effort, like the the people describing photos on CamFind, to multi-year-long projects, spanning sectors as varied as application development, sales and marketing, and virtual administrative assistants. In 2014, over nine million freelancers across 180 countries generated close to a billion dollars of activity through the platform. By 2018, that number is expected to reach $5 billion or higher.
While lower wages in the developing world provide new opportunities for workers, the microwork story is unfolding a little differently in industrialized countries like the United States.
The Sharing Economy has been heralded as a transformative new value proposition for advanced societies. It provides a platform for individuals to turn their underused assets – such as a car or a few minutes’ worth of labor – into effective small businesses. As of 2015. Uber vehicles have already exceeded yellow taxis in New York City, a milestone reached just five years after the company’s founding. AirBnB, founded one year earlier, is now valued higher than the Wyndham and Hyatt hotel chains, both giant American institutions with decades of business experience and billions of dollars of dedicated infrastructure.
These companies, and companies like them, take advantage of the same network technologies as CamFind and Elance-ODesk, replacing traditional industry with software platforms, and exchanging middle management for sophisticated APIs that can distribute tasks to an army of on-demand workers.
From a traditional business perspective, these post-modern networked innovations allow for efficiencies previously unseen in the modern era. But for the contracted freelancers, the so-called “below-the-API” workers, the advantages of microwork begin to disappear when these part-time gigs become the only work that’s available.
The United States reported strong job growth through the first half of this decade, but hidden in these numbers, the changing nature of the workforce was already evident. Of the 7.5 million jobs lost during the recession of 2008, half paid traditionally middle-class wages, between $38,000 and $68,000 in annual income. Of the jobs created between 2009 and 2015, however, only 2% came from equivalent mid-pay industries. Seventy percent of these new jobs paid less than $38,000 a year, while the remaining third represented high-skill roles in the booming industries of finance and technology.
For every Instagram, which sold for $1 billion in 2013 with only 13 employees, there are hundreds of thousands of displaced laborers, content creators, and middle managers who are working hard to cobble together an income from the fickle and ever-changing work streams of the networked economy. In the near future, many well-educated, formerly middle-class workers will find themselves living three business card lives, delivering groceries for Instacart and renting out the couch on AirBnB, while trying to get their hand-crafted furniture business off the ground on Etsy.
Many will find themselves competing not just with their neighbours, but with their lower-cost peers in other countries. As the decade unfolds, they will face increased competition from the machine learning algorithms and self-driving cars that speak API as their native language. And while highly-skilled professions may seem safe from being “Ubered” today – too complex, too important – intelligent agents like IBM’s Watson promise to soon tackle the expertise of lawyers, doctors, and even corporate executives.
As more complex services expose themselves as APIs, computer scientists and entrepreneurs are beginning to design software algorithms that act as a kind of “self-driving supply chain”, weaving together these services to create entire end-to-end processes. By following a blueprint of organizational goals and workflows, these algorithms can break down complex projects into a series of discrete tasks, which are then distributed across platforms to microworkers, robots, or other algorithms. The table is being set for these software-based organizations to do everything from generating ideas for new offerings, to hiring and activating entire sales teams, to manufacturing and distributing final products.
Where does this road take us?
There are bold conversations happening today in the Bitcoin community that imagine a new era in business, heralded by the birth of the so-called “decentralized autonomous corporation”. These DACs are made possible by the blockchain, the foundational technology that allows Bitcoin to securely hold and exchange currency across the globe. As imagined,
such algorithmic organizations could exist entirely in the cloud, attracting investors through robust and transparent “smart contracts” that might provide the same effective financial security as a national bank, without any of the legal or tax implications — or any of the protections — of a national government. They would be both everywhere and nowhere, accessible from anywhere on the planet, but trying to push beyond the reach of traditional authorities and institutions.
This future may seem dark, and the forces shaping it are real, but the early disruptions we see today are far from the only direction the networked world can take us.
If these super efficient, easy-to-scale, hyper-connected services can be steered towards value flows that benefit everyone, the work streams of the future hold incredible promise. Immersive wearable technologies like Microsoft’s Hololens will piggyback on high-speed networks to offer rich virtual environments for humans to create and collaborate like never before. We will blend the digital and physical worlds at our convenience, projecting the human imagination onto entirely new media that invite us to model and simulate complex real-world systems, share productive workspaces across great distances, and print elaborate creations at the touch of a button.
The future of work is a work in a progress. But as has always been the case, it’s not the robots we need to negotiate with – it’s each other. For now.