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The Future of Work: Who Will Thrive, and Who Will Not

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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(Photo: RioPatuca/Shutterstock)

(Photo: RioPatuca/Shutterstock)

Predicting workforce trends in the United States is a hazardous business. Today, 40 percent of the GDP relies on business that did not exist 10 years ago. So, were I asked 11 years ago to predict the most important changes affecting work and workers, I would have missed many crucial ones. For example, I would not have predicted that fracking would revive traditional manufacturing (and simultaneously retard progress in clean-tech jobs); that the sharing economy would produce a new breed of part-time workers; or that there would be a generational shift in communications (with older professionals still stuck on email and phones while younger professionals migrate rapidly to SMS and social media).

Jeff Bleich is a former United States ambassador to Australia, special counsel to President Obama, chair of the California State University Board of Trustees, and president of the State Bar of California. He serves on the U.S. Fulbright Scholarship Board as well as several other public and private boards. He is currently a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson, specializing in international disputes and counseling U.S. companies on technology matters.


So, knowing what I don’t know, I will limit my predictions to the implications of technologies that already exist, and that are likely to fundamentally disrupt employment sectors and work-life. Based on these, I think U.S. workers of the future will not drive (and will exploit time and efficiencies from not driving), will perform fewer dull or dangerous activities, will develop more home industries, will find more jobs meeting emotional needs, and will have much longer work lives with new (and distinct) phases of their career.

DRIVERLESS WORKFORCES: Businesses that depend on transportation will thrive, but drivers will not. Autonomous vehicles will displace drivers for many reasons. They will dramatically reduce the risk of accidents—sparing society needless death, injury, and property damage. They will reduce insurance costs and other drags on productivity. They will reduce congestion, and attendant down time and fuel costs. And they will allow people to be productive at a time when they currently are not—namely when they are behind a wheel trying to get places. Eventually, workers will probably move away from owning cars altogether. They will subscribe to driverless services that geo-locate them on demand, take them where they need to go, and run errands for them while they are at work. The net effect will be that businesses that depend on transportation will experience a renaissance. However, vast sectors will see their jobs disappear—bus drivers, truck drivers, cab drivers, forklift operators, heavy equipment operators, etc. will go the way of blacksmiths and keypunch operators. Because of this mass displacement, and the challenges of developing hack-proof autonomous systems, the timeline is hard to predict. But it is hard to imagine that a generation from now, our work force will not be driverless.

HOME INDUSTRY: In the past few years, a new sector of workers has developed in the U.S. A person who would previously have sought a full-time job might today earn her living by renting out space in her home through Airbnb; or transporting Lyft or Uber passengers in her car; or doing odd jobs for neighbors like hanging pictures, picking up groceries, or cleaning windows through Taskrabbit. Thanks to technology, these self-employed contractors can work according to their own schedule and requirements by deploying what they already possess (their home or car, for example) for profit. 3-D printers will allow people to manufacture in their homes. EBay-style sites will allow efficient home trading posts. Algorithms used for electronic currency will let artists, publishers, and collectors run virtual galleries where they authenticate and prevent reproduction of items. The net effect will be a movement away from consolidated working spaces toward a world where workers can adapt their work to fit their schedules and circumstances. Simultaneously, there will be a transformation in how these small businesses are regulated. Instead of depending on regulators to set standards of care and perform inspections, consumers will provide better and more accurate protection by posting reviews and evaluations for others.

A LITTLE MORE CONVERSATION, A LITTLE LESS ACTION: I expect a dramatic move away from work that is dull or dangerous. Today, we can’t imagine letting workers build bridges and skyscrapers without harnesses, nets, and other safety equipment. That trend away from placing workers in harm’s way will accelerate. Jobs that range from national defense to construction to product testing will be performed by machines rather than people. At the same time, traditional factory/assembly line jobs will give way to mechanical solutions. The effect of those jobs disappearing will be to drive more workers into services that can’t be replaced—such as ones that provide emotional gratification and other “softer” skills like personal care, dispute resolution, and counseling.

PRE-RETIREMENT JOBS: Workers will live much longer and thus will have to work longer. Life expectancies in the U.S. are increasing by three months every year. With the development of immunotherapies and other treatments, that seems likely to accelerate at an unprecedented rate. Retirement and associated benefits will need to be deferred and workers will likely have multiple career chapters to address boredom and obsolescence. Unlike a computer- illiterate 60-something today, who may remain in a management position until induced to retire, the next generation of older workers will either need to keep up with technology or move to a whole new career.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.