The future of work TEDX script

Below is the script for the talk I planned to give at TEDX Columbus on Friday (Oct 5 2012). Inevitably, it came out somewhat differently on stage. (The videoed on-stage version will be on You Tube in the next week or so). And this is the last installment of TEDX stuff.
The poet, Ben Okri, commands the workers of the world to 're-make the world', 'delight the future', and 'create happy outcomes'. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could 'delight the future' and create happy outcomes in working for pay? Let's consider the likelihood of this and see what we would need to do to achieve that outcome.

First though let's look at what we think of as 'work'. Some think of it as paid employment because we need to earn our living, while others think of it, more generally, as an activity that requires effort. And many activities can fall into either category. For example if you do the ironing then it's unpaid 'work' and if you pay someone to do it for you it is that person's paid employment.

The focus in this discussion is on paid employment – money earned by working. I'll cover three types of work and give one example of each plus an associated trend. I'll move on to look at three age groups in the workforce, and suggest three capabilities for each that will help these workers meet their work futures confidently given that trends are not predictions and we cannot say what the future will actually be.

First, think about work in three categories, albeit overlapping ones.

• Routine work: repetitive, assembly line sorts of things
• In person work: like doctors, teachers, shop assistants
• Data manipulation: like problem solving, information analysis, coding.

Routine work. When I was 18 I spent a summer in France working on an assembly line where bottled fruit in cognac came down the line and my task was to wrap and knot a gold thread around the neck of the bottles. I could not have predicted that assembly line work like this would be increasingly mechanized to the point that now we're seeing the accelerating use of robots to do this type of work. What does this increasing roboticization mean for assembly line workers? Trends suggest new types of jobs emerging that involve machine human supervision and interaction, requiring completely different skill sets from those required in the past and those currently required.

In person work is similarly changing – for much of my life I've been a teacher or trainer. This used to mean being with people face to face in a classroom. It still does but things are rapidly changing. For example, I now teach for Capella University. It is totally on line and the people I teach I've never met face to face. I talk with them on the phone, I email them, work with them in a virtual classroom, and grade their assignments. Increasingly the face of traditional education is changing. Trends here suggest many different forms of self-education, free education, and on-line collaborative education – this means a dramatic change in jobs related to teaching and learning.

The third form of work – data manipulation of all types has also seen massive changes. When I started work the internet did not exist. Data manipulation for me meant learning shorthand, looking at physical encyclopedias, and getting very excited when I got a calculator to replace my slide rule. Now we are flooded with data and manipulating what is called 'big data' has become big business. Again trends suggest that this whole field of data availability and new jobs associated with emerging fields will grow exponentially.

So back to the question is it possible for workers of the world to remake it, delighting the future, and creating happy outcomes where trends are suggesting very different and rapidly changing work. Given the impossibility of accurately predicting the jobs let's consider what capabilities people need to develop to meet more or less any future of work.

I'll talk about three different age groups and what capabilities the members of each need to continuously meet the future of work.

Luke, aged 11, is typical of his age group. He enjoys playing Minecraft. It's a data manipulation game and can involve interaction with other players – though not in-person. He's been playing it a couple of years now and is getting progressively more skilled at it. His father, however, is continuously on at Luke to do his regular homework. But, is there an argument to suggest that playing Minecraft might teach skills more suited to future work, than traditional schoolwork? I think so and people who will enter the workforce in 8 or so years from now are going to need all the skills they can muster.

Look at current figures: 81 million unemployed youth worldwide, 3 times more likely to be unemployed than adults, of the employed youth a quarter earn less than $1.25 per day. It doesn't seem that it's going to be easy to create a happy future out of this situation even with the new types of jobs that are likely to emerge. The future of work for the world's youth looks bleak – what will enable them to have some hopes of creating the happy outcomes? From my experience helping young people develop resilience, resourcefulness, and responsibility will take them a good way in the future. Coincidentally these are attributes that many of the serious computer games help build, but I'm not sure whether a traditional school education does – perhaps a controversial view but worth examining.

Women in their thirties are another interesting group to look at. Traditionally clustered in in-person work – when I was entering the workforce I was more or less choosing between nurse, teacher, or secretary. Things have changed in that women are represented in a much broader range of jobs but the expectations of employees in the workforce have not changed that much. It is still the case (although a luxury for some) that women are more or less deciding between a family and a career. It is incredibly hard to balance a career up a traditional corporate ladder with child rearing. Current figures illustrate. Of US women in the workforce 28% hold senior management positions, 14% hold seats on executive committees, and 3% are CEOs. Of these the women are much more likely to be single and much less likely to have children than their male counterparts.

Sadly, right now this hasn't changed much since I was in my thirties making the decision to have children whilst keeping a career going. In my case, and in particular circumstance, I made the agonizing decision to leave my children with my now ex-husband. In the face of all social norms of the time I became the weekend parent and he the single parent.

However, for women in their thirties today there are grounds for optimism – they may well be able to delight the future and create happy outcomes. How? Well, enabled by the opportunities digitization, technology, and the internet offer the trends are towards women owning their own careers – rather than trying to fit into a corporate mold -self-employment, and flexible working. And they're aided in this by men who also want to be a part of their children's daily lives, and are similarly seeking more work autonomy and a better work life balance than usually found in organizations. So I do see the work of current thirty somethings as having a positive effect on the future of work, albeit outside the world of traditional organizations.

But what capabilities do they need to keep going on this track? In my experience three stand out: a really clear definition or redefinition of their values: what matters to them. A willingness to challenge norms, and perseverance. All three are enduring capabilities and necessary to create a future of happy outcomes.
The third group I'd like to look at are the 60+ – those of pensionable age. Many of these, for various reasons, are rejecting notions of typical retirement – that is giving up paid employment to play golf, garden, or just sit in a chair. My father was typical of this age group. He died aged 85 still working – not for high pay but for a stipend. He was one of the founders of the Native Prairie Association of Texas and he founded the Dallas Nature Center, now run by the Audubon Society as the Cedar Ridge Preserve.

He was in the vanguard as the numbers of older people in the workforce started to increase. Current figures show that in 2010 3% of the UK workforce was over 65, and of these 63% have been with their employers more than 10 years, 66% work part time, while 50% work for companies which employ fewer than 25 people. This is more or less the situation of my father. Although in the US, he worked part time for a small organization and had been there over 20 years when he died.

The numbers of pensionable age people staying in the workforce looks set to continue to increase into the future. Will this be a delight and create happy outcomes? It's a double edged sword – for older workers maintaining a reasonable income is essential – pensions are not necessarily enough to live on. But there is an argument that in some countries older workers staying in the workforce preclude younger workers from getting jobs. For organizations keeping the knowledge gained over, say ten years, is often a big plus, particularly when methods of knowledge sharing are weak. But salaries can be an issue – an older full time worker may be much more expensive than a younger one which can make older people vulnerable to lay-off.

What capabilities will people over 60 have to hone to keep themselves earning as work changes. Three stand out: staying in the world, that is being curious, learning new things, keeping up with technology. Living with precarity – elders are often in precarious situations economically, health-wise, and socially Staying fit. The fitter someone is the easier it is to hold onto work.

As discussed and illustrated the trends emerging show the future of work looking like:
• New jobs and new types of work in all three aspects of routine, in-person, and data manipulation
• New work patterns in terms of work-life balance, self-employment, and flexible working
• High tension between young people trying to enter the workforce and those of pensionable age trying to stay in it.

So can we workers today remake the world, delight the future, and create happy outcomes? I think so but with a caveat – we can develop ourselves to do so and as I've shown this preparation includes each of us developing certain capabilities. But as well as this it will take the majority of our educational, corporate, and political systems to make parallel major changes in their design and operation – and this is I contend is a bigger challenge . So I close with the question; what can and should we workers of the world do, beyond developing our own capabilities, to delight the future and create happy outcomes?