Future of Work Is Learning
Why This Matters: Where We Are
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the frog and the water. Put a frog into a pot of hot water, and it will jump safely away, recognizing that the water is too warm. But put a frog in cool water and slowly turn up the heat and the frog will sit happily until it finds itself, too late, in a boiling pool.
We’re a bit like that frog when it comes to work. The world is changing, faster than you might think, and most of us are just beginning to get that uncomfortable feeling that something is radically different. In truth, just about everything we know about work is undergoing a gigantic shift. Driven by an exponential rate of change amid a volatile, ambiguous, complex global economy, companies and the people they employ find themselves in the midst of a new reality.
To understand the new reality, however, we need to look back at the underpinnings of work itself.
How We Got Here
Evolution of Work
As industrialization and mass production took hold in America and across the world, the guild system that trained young people to become skilled craftsman was supplanted by public school systems that transferred to students the basic knowledge needed to work effectively in factories and offices. With a foundation in the “3Rs”, millions of young people migrated from rural farms to industrial cities. They got and kept good jobs, bought homes, raised families. The American Middle Class was born.
Massification of Higher Education
By the early 1960s, nascent computing technology had become the midwife of the information age. Knowledge was in demand. Concurrently, the civil and equal rights movements and the GI Bill swelled the ranks of colleges and universities. So much so, in fact, that in the last half of last century, the number of colleges and universities doubled in the United States in order to supply the market with “college educated” young men and women. That university degree was the ticket to social mobility, assuring an ascending professional career and securing ones place in the Middle Class.
The Perils of Short Term Workforce Development Myopia
The surge in college enrollment also served to shift the purpose of education. Once the domain of the elite, who embarked on a university degree in pursuit of knowledge, primarily, and as a path to a comfortable profession, secondarily, the table had turned. Education centered on transferring existing knowledge and predetermined skills to a new set of professionals. In 1983, US News and World Report launched its now-famous “Best” rankings of colleges, universities, and graduate programs to “[help] parents and students find the perfect school”. The rankings heavily weighted starting salaries, turning a higher education into a four-year prep school for a first job. The system worked well when that first job spun into a life-long career and the companies these young graduates worked for provided continuing development and workforce education to shepherd workers up the escalator of advancement.
Now, however, with the educational process almost entirely focused on preparation for the first professional job, elite schools tout their selectivity (the fewer applicants admitted, the higher the stature of the degree) and return on investment (the higher career wages, the more easily justified skyrocketing tuition). That ROI calculation, though, is dangerously untethered to reality. Today, a first job now may last 18 months; the college debt may last 30 years. We live in a world where anything physically or mentally routine and predictable can be achieved by algorithm, yet we still focus on that which is easy to measure: certainty. What is easy to measure is easy to automate.
What Is Happening Now
The Augmentation of Work
As a result, many jobs rooted in certainty, administration, and skills are or will be augmented in whole or in part by computerized labor. The robots that supported and often supplanted factory workers last century are moving into the professional ranks, where computer algorithms analyze reams of data far faster than human workers. Indeed, virtually every job will be computer aided in the not so distant future. This is the augmentation of work.
Atomization Meets Augmentation: Amplifying Trends
Moreover, the discrete tasks of many jobs – particularly those at an entry level - can be atomized into a job fragment. This is the atomization of work. Once a job has been deconstructed into the many tasks and the mentally routine and predictable components digitized and codified, the atomic parts of a job can be parceled out to a global workforce willing to complete a task at the lowest cost until, ultimately, those tasks are captured in algorithms that execute these job parts faster, more predictably, and more efficiently than even the lowest-cost human worker. In short, algorithms augment until they replace many human tasks and skills. This is how atomization and augmentation of work are interconnecting and amplifying the transformation of work.
More troubling, perhaps, is that this augmentation-to-automation process is eroding entry-level professional work. Recent graduates of an education system designed to transfer existing knowledge of the workplace struggle to enter the workforce when the lower rungs of the corporate ladder are missing.
Global Wealth Shifts
Worse still, the offshoring of manufacturing jobs began the income-leveling process across the globe. Workers in developing countries are, if only marginally, better paid while workers in the West see wages stagnate or decline. Platforms from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to the contract work site UpWork have opened new markets for knowledge workers, allowing people around the world to vie for the same work. These transparent marketplaces, on one hand, make explicit the value of work, and, on the other, drive down that value by forcing competition among both skilled and unskilled workers regardless of geography and cost of living. In the near term companies benefit while the middle class in the U.S. erodes.
Rise of the Millennials
Wrapped around these changes are undeniable social shifts. Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) share a distinct set of work and social values, different from the generations that preceded them. Where Baby Boomers valued stable employment with a few companies across a career, Millennials will make a career from a patchwork of jobs with dozens of employers. Millennials have also given rise to the so-called “gig economy” as both providers and consumers of services from ride sharing and couch surfing to meal deliveries and errand running.
In short, the model of transferring a predetermined set of skills to the next generation of professionals no longer guarantees a career onramp. In fact, 48% of college graduates are in jobs that do not require the degree they earned. These Millennials do have one distinct advantage, however: “born digital” and raised in rapid cycles of change and uncertainty, this generation was often witness to their own parents’ struggles with “downsizing” and “right sizing”. As a result, they tend to be more entrepreneurial and resilient. In fact, according to Millennial Magazine, 60 percent of millennials consider themselves entrepreneurs.
So while we should be concerned for the future work of this population, they may be in less stress than older generations. About 20% of working-age adults are have some college credit, but have not completed the degree. In short, they have the education debt but not the education asset.
Where Are We Going From Here?
The Future of Education?
To serve this audience, colleges and universities, as well as many for-profit education companies, purport to offer degree completion by crafting low cost, quick-to-consume, (increasingly) competency-based programs. This market-based approach to education addresses the credential, without necessarily establishing the clear value of the asset. Indeed, competency-based programs are animportant innovation. They are designed to measure learning rather than “seat time”, that is, the time spent in classrooms to obtain a degree. (Ironically, the concept of accumulating credit hours toward a degree in use by most universities was created by the Carnegie Foundation not as a unit of learning, but rather as a measure of a faculty member’s progress towards retirement).
And as we’ve already noted, that which is easy to measure is easy to automate.
The End of Jobs—As We Knew Them
The real concern, then, is the erosion of jobs at both ends of the labor market: Highly-educated, mid-career professionals working in industries that have imploded and the less well-educated laborers in jobs entirely replaced by automation or atomization. Those aged 45 to 60 who need to work for another 15-20 years find themselves trapped.
Millions of U.S. workers saw their jobs washed away by the Great Recession, and a significant portion of those workers, either by choice or circumstance, have not returned to traditional jobs. They have become unbundled from the traditional corporate frameworks. Untethered from meaningful work, and the income, stability, and purpose that accompany it, this segment, for the first time in generations, is experiencing a lifespan decline.
The New Beginning
Yet as harsh, and dare we say disruptive, as this unbundling is for many workers and employers, it is a necessary step on the path to re-imagining a better future of jobs, corporations, and education. We need a new model for work and learning, one that embraces learning agility and entrepreneurial outlook, prioritizing the ability to create new knowledge and new value.
In short, we need a massive reset. We need to explain how we got here in order to find a path forward. We need to rethink jobs and purpose. The jobs of yesterday are not the jobs of the future. The education system that got us here will not get us there.
Companies that are surviving at the moment by exploiting global markets and cheap, on-demand labor will be forced to re-imagine their businesses as platforms that tap into human talent and scale learning, rather than efficiency. As automation and augmentation becomes ubiquitous, the competitive advantage of speed will be shared by all and will, therefore, no longer be an advantage. Companies that survive will be measured by the speed at which they adapt, learn, and create. Workers who thrive will be those who exercise learning agility.
In both instances, we must undergo a massive shift in how we educate the workforce. Explaining this is our moral imperative.
This Book Starts The Conversation About Where To Go From Here
This book sets out to define a new future of work: a new way to think about jobs, learning, innovation, and collaboration. We have synthesized the work of some of the best thought leaders, connecting dots among academics, economists, entrepreneurs, and business leaders to validate many of our own ideas. In the end, we created a collection of building blocks which we believe assemble into a new future of work, corporate structure, and formal and informal learning.
We Value Your Time
Because so much is changing so quickly, we wanted to create a book that you could read and understand quickly, in just an hour or two at a single sitting or in bite-sized sections as you need them over a period of time. Given the amount of content coming at us every day, dwindling attention spans, and our brains’ superior ability to process visual information, we chose to present our case for the future of work in a series of graphic frameworks, each accompanied by brief explanatory essays or illuminating side stories.
We’ve organized the book into three parts, beginning with a Brief History of Work to set the context for what is happening now. In Part 2, we follow the trend lines to better understand why the nature of work is changing and lay out the evidence that makes the case for impact of those trends.
Once we sift through the rubble of a work environment that has be forever disrupted, we shift our focus to the future, and get down to the work of the new work reality. Part 3, then, examines new models for corporate engagement and worker capability development as employers shift from all-encompassing containers for work to open and innovative platforms on which work is done. Finally, in this section, we take a longer view into the future, positing new frameworks for company-worker engagement and recommendations to help you best position yourself for this brave new future.
Throughout these sections, we’ve invited thought-leaders and change-agents to provide their response to our work, challenging our assumptions in some cases and validating our ideas in others. The result, we hope, is a book in which you can identify the challenges you face, regardless of your work, and find new ideas to take your career or organization into the brave new world of work.