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Business In The 2050s: How The Future Of Work Might Look

9 min read
Business In The 2050s: How The Future Of Work Might Look

Predictions of the future are often wildly inaccurate.

For example, Back To The Future promised us hoverboards, while almost everyone who saw Blade Runner couldn’t wait to get their hands on a flying car. Unfortunately, neither are readily available to the general public yet, which is a crying shame.

Casting an eye into the future and speculating how the world may look at that time, is never an easy task – there are simply too many variables involved. New technologies which no-one saw coming may be pulled from the aether, while existing fields which have substantial growth potential, may fail to develop as expected. A good example of this is 3D films; time and again they’ve been touted as the future of the film industry because production companies have thought consumers would jump at the chance to become more immersed in the worlds that films create.

While this is true to an extent, the popularity of 3D films is currently declining quite significantly – as it has done several times before. Instead, consumers seem far keener to increase the resolution they can watch their 2D content on, which is seen in the meteoric rise of 4K and UHD televisions over recent years.

Personally, I always enjoy looking at current trends and ideas, and considering how they may progress over time, so I can form a mental picture of how the future might look if things continue on their current path.

Applying this approach to the workplace is simple enough to do, because recently there have been a great many new ideas and perspectives on how the world of work should develop over coming decades, proposed by politicians, academics, think tanks and business leaders, among others.

By considering these new ideas, and taking the changes which have already happened in the workplace over recent years one step further, this is how the workplace of the 2050s might look…

Remote Working – The New Normal?

Remote working is rapidly on the rise all over the world, and the stats are striking. For example, a 2019 study by Forbes found that there has been a 159% rise in remote working in the USA since 2007, while the same study estimates that before 2020 is over, 50% of the UK workforce will work remotely, at least part of the time.

Allied to this development, is the decline across much of the western world of the traditional ‘job for life’, whereby employees stayed with same employer throughout their working life, and their concept of career progression was seeking a promotion within the same company.

The reasons for this decline are complex and multifaceted, but it is something which has arisen in part due to the desires of both employers – who responded to economic recessions by calling for greater flexibility with regards to labour rights – and employees – who responded to a decades-long period of wage stagnation by becoming more willing to switch employers (or even careers) in search of greater opportunities and better working conditions.

As well as the decay of the ‘job for life’ contributing to greater flexibility for both employers and employees, it has caused a substantial increase in the number of people who have become self-employed, work multiple jobs, have a side-business on top of their day job, or take on freelance work in their spare time.

All these factors are combining to produce a vast number of highly productive, well trained and well-educated workers, who do not need to be physically present at the office of a primary employer between the hours of 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday.

However, many people who enjoy working from home do not enjoy working alone, and this has caused a massive rise in co-working over recent years.

The growth of co-working spaces looks well-set to continue into the 2050s and beyond if, as expected, more and more of the workforce begin working remotely. Indeed, as co-working spaces become busy activity hubs populated by skilled and enterprising people from a variety of different backgrounds, it is only natural that these people connect, network and synergise with each other – all of which means co-working spaces could become a fertile source of fresh innovations and vibrant new startups all over the world, not just Silicon Valley.

The 4 Day Workweek

Even for those people who have jobs where remote working is not an option, changes in their working patterns may be afoot, as the idea of switching to a 4 day workweek has been suggested by a range of academics, think tanks and employers.

For example, the Exeter-based travel company STC Expeditions recently completed a 12 week trial of the 4 day workweek, while during the 2019 UK General Election, the Labour Party had an official policy to make the 4 day workweek the UK’s standard schedule, before 2030.

The logic behind working 4 days a week instead of 5, is that several studies have shown peoples’ productivity tends to decline after about 32 hours work per week, meaning that the other 8 hours of the 40 hour workweek could be given back to the employee with little, if any, loss of productivity. In fact, a 2019 study by Microsoft Japan found that employee productivity actually increased by a staggering 40% when they trialled a 4 day workweek for the duration of the summer.

Whether a 4 day workweek is sustainable in the long-term, not just over a limited period of time, and to what extent Thursday afternoons become the new Friday afternoons with regards to productivity, are issues which will need to be investigated over the coming years, and by the 2050s, we will likely have our answer.

The Robots Are Coming For Us All

And there’s no escape! Like it or not, automation and technological advances mean that sooner or later, our jobs will be done by robots who can complete the work quicker, cheaper and to a better standard than we ever could.

This is not a change which will take place overnight, but by the 2050s, across an enormous range of industries and workplaces, highly skilled custom-made robots will be doing the jobs humans used to do.

This is not a new idea, nor is it a new phenomenon. Consider the industrial revolution, when vast numbers of textile workers found themselves surplus to requirements due to the invention of machines which could do their jobs without requesting break periods, days off or overtime pay.

In more modern times, think of self-checkout machines in the supermarket, where a dozen or more self-checkouts can be available for customers to use, with only one or two store assistants being present to supervise.

The process of specially made robots replacing people in their job roles is called automation, and you’re going to be hearing a lot more about it in future, because right now in a number of very large and very important industries, robots are being developed which, by the 2050s, will have taken the jobs of hundreds of millions of people.

For example, in the USA one of the largest sources of employment for non-college educated men is vehicle driving; either as a truck driver, taxi driver, Uber driver, courier, or something else along a similar line. Even today, self-driving cars are semi-operational, and with the amount of research funding that is currently being invested into making fully functional self-driving vehicles not just a reality, but the norm, sooner rather than later, it seems logical to suggest that by the 2050s the vast majority of driving jobs will be done by robots, not humans.

No-One Is Safe!

By no means is this a phenomenon which is unique to the automotive industry. Across all industries and all walks of life, the expectation is that robots will be doing the jobs that people currently do, within the next few decades.

For example, a 2019 study by Oxford Economics found that 20 million jobs in the manufacturing industry alone could be automated away before 2030, and that many of the people working these jobs would then tend to seek employment in related industries which are also highly vulnerable to automation.

In truth, this scenario of widespread global job losses is not as cataclysmic as it may appear, because ever since capitalism has become the primary method by which human societies have organised their economies, innovations and technological advancements have created new employment opportunities, as well as eliminating existing ones.

A commonly cited example of this, is how the invention of social media platforms has created the job of Social Media Manager, which is a position that would not have been close to existing even 20 years ago. And returning to the example of the industrial revolution – this is a development which created an enormous number of new employment opportunities in factories and mills, while eradicating many of the existing jobs in farming and agriculture.

However, the sheer scale of the automations which will almost certainly come over the next few decades, may present a challenge of the like we have not seen before. For example, a 2015 study by the Bank of England estimated that nearly 50% of the UK’s workforce risk having their job automated away, with those most vulnerable working in admin, manufacturing, clerical, care, and customer service jobs.

Crisis Management and Free Money For All

With so many people at risk of having not just their jobs, but their careers, automated away, the next question that arises is, ‘how do we respond to this?’

One potential solution which has gained support from people on all sides of the political spectrum, is the idea of a universal basic income (UBI). UBI can be defined as, ‘a model for providing all citizens of a country or other geographic area with a given sum of money, regardless of their income, resources or employment status,’ while the essential principle behind UBI is the idea that ‘all citizens are entitled to a livable income, whether or not they contribute to production.’

In short, in a world where huge numbers of people will have their livelihoods and skillsets automated away, leaving them unable to compete against robots in a free-market economy, how can we ensure that these people are still able to have a standard of living which affords them some dignity?

Many brilliant minds both past and present have supported the concept of a UBI because (among other reasons) it could present a solution to this problem. Some of the more well-known supporters of UBI include: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Bertrand Russell, Franklin Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Martin Luther King, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

It is also important to note that support for UBI has come from groups of people who would normally have diametrically opposed political views. For example, one of the best known modern proponents of UBI is Andrew Yang, an American tech entrepreneur who recently ran to be the Democratic nominee for the 2020 presidential election, while on the other side of the political divide, support for UBI has come from the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman, and the political scientist Charles Murray, whose views on the issue of race relations could generously be described as ‘controversial’.

It is also worth noting that the American state of Alaska, which is heavily conservative, has had a form of UBI since 1982. Every year, residents of Alaska receive up to $2000 simply for living there, with barely any conditions attached. What’s more, studies have shown that Alaska’s UBI program has helped to wipe out extreme poverty in the state, without increasing unemployment.

Releasing The Shackles

The relative merits of UBI, and how it should be implemented, are issues which require serious studying and many more words of explanation than I am afforded for this article, but there is one more point which is vital to understand in the context of UBI and how it may affect business in the 2050s.

Consider for a second how many frustrated entrepreneurs you know. How many people in your life would love to start a business if only they weren’t so beholden to the everyday pressures of working long hours to pay the bills and support their families?

If by the 2050s, UBI has been successfully implemented in a number of countries, how many people across the world would have been able to use the extra freedoms afforded to them in terms of both time and finances, to start businesses and pursue their true calling?

With some of the pressure to pay household bills and expenses relieved, how many bold new services and groundbreaking products would be developed by skilled and educated individuals, who all of a sudden had more time to work on their passion projects?

The Future Is Yours

Whatever your views are on any of the ideas I’ve presented in this article, it’s worth remembering that nothing is inevitable, and that the world of the 2050s will be shaped by the actions and desires of ordinary people, all across the world.

As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘the best way to predict the future is to create it.’

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