Our own personal views of tomorrow’s workplace have very real consequences on the actual future of work, new research shows.
According to optimists, new technologies will help us work faster and more efficiently. Pessimists, on the other hand, predict a future in which advanced automation will cause jobs to disappear, further increasing the inequality between rich and poor.
Finally, skeptics believe that change will not happen that fast and that the future will still look very much like the present.
So, who is right? The optimists, the pessimists, or the skeptics?
No predictions are objective
As it turns out, many experts believe this is the wrong question to ask, for two reasons. First, it is nearly impossible to make ‘objective’ predictions when there is radical uncertainty about the future. Just consider the rapid evolutions in the field of artificial intelligence.
Therefore, the future should not be understood as a fact, but as a fiction – a diverging set of scenarios that currently exists only in our collective imagination.
Second, experts in the field of scenario planning have already established that tensions between conflicting scenarios trigger people to think more deeply about the future, and arrive at better, more widely supported decisions. Put differently, we believe it is meaningful to agree about these things, when in fact the opposite is true.
Business as usual or robocalypse?
We surveyed 570 people from five stakeholder groups: Engaged citizens, labor market/HR experts, innovation/tech experts, journalists and policymakers/politicians. Rather than making predictions about the future of work, we chose to develop a set of extreme scenarios:
- Business-as-usual (utopian and human-driven)
- Exctinction (dystopian and human-driven)
- Lifelong learning & cobots (utopian and tech-driven)
- Singularity/robocalypse (dystopian and tech-driven)
Our goal? To investigate how different people react when presented with these scenarios and, more importantly, how their reactions influence businesses and industries facing major disruption and change.
We believe what we hear
We found that people rate scenarios as more realistic and closer in time if they are frequently discussed in the media and/or discussed more positively. This reflects an ‘accessibility bias’, where messages that are repeated more often become more accessible to us, influencing our judgment, opinions and decisions.
Interestingly, we found that all five groups considered ‘Business-as-usual’ as the most realistic scenario. However, only engaged citizens and journalists preferred this scenario, while the three other groups favored the ‘Lifelong learning & cobots’ scenario.
This is an interesting finding, as the latter stakeholder groups weigh more on policy than the former.
Our research also showed a significant link between job position, personal characteristics, and ideas about the future. This was especially related to people’s relationship to technology, the extent to which one thinks negatively about humankind, and the degree of imagination and openness to new ideas.
Advice for policymakers, journalists and managers
Our study includes three recommendations for the stakeholder groups involved in shaping the future of work:
- Say yes to mixed messages: We recommend mixing positive and negative scenarios in reporting on the future of work. Audience engagement will be highest when messages attract attention using a negative framing, but these messages should include a positive (more hopeful) nuance. This combination can trigger people’s motivation to avoid dystopian scenarios.
- Train employees for the future: People’s relationship to technology, including the risk of automation, will play a major role in people’s resistance to change. It is crucial to educate young people towards not only their chosen profession, but also for what it will look like tomorrow. Remember, today’s car mechanics will at some point have to be able to repair electronic, self-driving cars!
- Give people a voice: Our findings show the important role of voice, power, and control in public engagement around the future of work. We should therefore encourage people to speak up about the future of work, through polls, think tanks and referendums. These initiatives could potentially engage citizens from all walks of life to have their voices (and imaginaries) about the future heard.
Finally, our study illustrates why ‘objectively’ predicting the future is not possible. Different types of people have completely different ideas of what the future will or should look like. Ultimately, it does not matter whether you are a CEO or an economist, your predictions will always be biased by what type of person you are.
Beckert, J., and Bronk, R. (2018). Uncertain futures: Imaginaries, narratives, and calculation in the economy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Schoemaker, P. J. (2020). ‘How historical analysis can enrich scenario planning’. Futures & Foresight Science, 2(3), e35