Why predicting the future of work is a fools errand

futureThere is undoubtedly a great deal of change afoot in how we work, and indeed the very nature of work.  A wide range of technologies, globalization and even business models are having a profound impact on the labor market.

These influences have inspired any number of predictions as to how these influences will shape the workplace of the future, many of them following in the panic laden footsteps of the original Luddites during the Industrial Revolution.

What makes today any different?  Indeed, is it any different?  That’s the question posed by a recent paper that was one of three produced for the Journal of Economic Perspectives on the topic.

The paper, which explored three century’s worth of technological projections, identified three kinds of technological anxiety:

  1. that technology will substitute for labor, leading to large unemployment and inequality
  2. a concern about the moral implications of technological process on human welfare
  3. that technological advances are grounding to a halt, with the big developments largely behind us

These concerns have been remarkably consistent throughout the last few centuries, with thinkers ranging from Mill to Marx all writing worryingly about the impact technology has on the human condition.

Many contemporary thinkers firmly believe that this time, it’s different and technology will lead to a hollowing out of work and greater inequality.  Yet the paper does a good job of reminding us that such fears have been commonplace throughout human history.

“From our perspective, the more extreme of modern anxieties about long-term, ineradicable technological unemployment, or a widespread lack of meaning because of changes in work patterns seem highly unlikely to come to pass. As has been true now for more than two centuries, technological advance will continue to improve the standard of living in many dramatic and unforeseeable ways,” the authors note.

The authors don’t dispute that people will be disrupted by changes, as is inevitable in any transition, they contend that modern societies are infinitely better equipped to offer support to those affected than those in say, the Industrial Revolution.

So what should you do?

Suffice to say, I wouldn’t advocate burying ones head in the sand, but equally, paying too much heed to predictions of the future is something that is unlikely to yield good results either, simply because so many predictions turn out to be wrong.

It would seem better, therefore, to monitor what is going on as ably as you can, and adapt to the changes that you’re observing to the best of your ability.

Or as John Maynard Keynes put it in 1930, “Meanwhile there will be no harm in making mild preparations for our destiny, in encouraging, and experimenting in, the arts of life as well as the activities of purpose.”



4 thoughts on “Why predicting the future of work is a fools errand

  1. With our track record with predictions being so dire, it's quite a feat that so many people still both make them and are taken in by them.

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