As I See It: Eight Years From Now
September 22, 2014 Victor Rozek
“What’s next?” It’s a question best left to deities and fortunetellers because our current pace of change tends to pour havoc on the prediction business. These days stability, to the degree it exists at all, is of the high-wire variety, always vulnerable to the next gust of wind. Even the near future can be elusive since drastic changes often occur in modest timeframes. Someone observing the American scene in this century, for example, might well be surprised to find how quickly social media came to dominate the collective consciousness. Or, for that matter, that Janay Palmer actually married Ray Rice.
So when Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) wanted to peer eight years ahead to see how working conditions and employment prospects might evolve, they decided to limit predictions in favor of consensus. Beginning in 2007, a team from PwC and the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization at the Said Business School in Oxford surveyed 10,000 people in China, India, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Then, for good measure, they queried almost 500 HR professionals, just in case the other 10,000 got it wrong.
Still, PwC couldn’t resist offering a few guesses. On the good-news side of the ledger, by 2016 PwC predicts a $10 computer tablet will hit the market. (Put me down for two.) On the get-ready-to-freak-out side, by 2017, selected employees will be required to wear sensors to gauge their concentration, work rate, and frame of mind. Who would have guessed mood rings would make a comeback? Just don’t give into the temptation to wear them on your middle finger.
By 2022, driving will be a nostalgic memory as cars zip around unaided, and the first fully automated, robot-staffed hotel will open. Shortly thereafter, Dominique Strauss-Kahn will be the first man arrested for sexually assaulting a robotic maid.
For job creation, people will continue to rely on technology. Some 64 percent trust that it will improve their employment prospects. It’s not clear what the other 36 percent will rely on to perk up their prospects. But PwC thinks the extensive use of testing, metrics, and analytics may pigeonhole workers into sub-specialties that use only their strongest skill. This will create a paradox. Workers will need to be flexible to be prepared for continuous change, but may be discarded if persistent monitoring shows a drop in performance.
Human skill and artificial intelligence will increasingly partner, but which will get top billing is yet to be determined. The problem inherent in swimming with a whale is that you may get swallowed.
In 2022, the working landscape, as PwC sees it, will be divided into three broad groupings: Blue World, Green World, and Orange World. Like workplace Disney but without the fun. In Blue World, says PwC, big company capitalism reigns supreme. In other words, not much will change. As governments become increasingly unable to solve urgent problems and slowly lose relevance, corporations will fill the vacuum. They will claim state-like powers without assuming corresponding responsibilities.
Data will be the coin of the realm. When employees sign a Blue World contract not only will they be expected to hand over their talents, but the minutia of their lives as well. High pay, job security, and healthcare benefits will be the attractors. If job applicants bite, the price will be 24/7 monitoring and the release of all personal data. Some 30 percent of those surveyed said they would be happy to metaphorically strip for their employer. Apparently none stopped to consider that job security is a fiction. And while jobs may be reorganized, offshored, outsourced, or otherwise lost, privacy is not easily reclaimed.
In Blue World, resource limitations will dominate corporate concerns. And although PwC doesn’t suggest anything of the sort, it will likely mean a continued abundance of small-scale wars for control of critical raw materials. Water resources, for example, so vital to power generation, agriculture, manufacturing, and life itself, will become a flashpoint.
The softer flank of capitalism is represented by Green World, a place where, according to PwC, “companies care.” In Green World, change is driven from the bottom-up as angry consumers and disillusioned employees demand companies that demonstrate ethical behavior and environmental concern. (Apparently no one expects ethics in Blue World any longer.) But in Green World, companies feature “a powerful social conscience and green sense of responsibility.” The agendas of business align with the health of the planet and the greater good of society.
No monitoring and mood sensors here. Green World companies are predicted to be “open, trusting, and collaborative.” They are often local and inclined to reinvest profits in their community. They actually pay taxes. Mutual loyalty is driven by shared vision and the desire to achieve “a positive social and environmental impact.” And 65 percent of people surveyed said they wanted to work for a company with a “powerful social conscience.” What that longing says about their current employer is a matter of some speculation.
Orange World is what happens (or should happen) when Big becomes Bad. Global companies fragment, and in their place small, nimble, high-tech, low-impact ventures prosper. The T-Rexes of the world are still formidable, but niche-dwellers are too numerous to subdue, too quick to catch, and too independent to control. A core group runs the enterprise while additional employees are hired on a project-by-project basis. Technology provides the bridges and connections commonly tended by staff. Virtual collaboration becomes the norm.
Happily, there’s no reason to believe that 2022 will be the dawn of a monolithic world, unless this ISIS thing goes terribly wrong. One thing we know with certainty is that the world is multifaceted, unpredictable, and often confusing. An HR manager in India echoing that thought believes that “managing complexity and ambiguity” will be the biggest challenge of the next decade. But that’s a pretty ambiguous statement.
The wild card in any predictive efforts is climate change. Evidence suggests that global warming has reached a tipping point and will continue with or without our participation. If the climate turns apocalyptic, Blue World will be busy staking its claim to resources, Orange World will be too small to force consequential change (except perhaps through the creation of breakthrough technology), and Green World may discover that good intentions make for a fine breakfast, but a poor supper.
Hopefully, most of us will be around in 2022 to make our own determinations. And whatever grouping we fall into, Blue, Green, Orange, or None of the Above, it will be technology that binds and propels us forward. The destination may not be clear, but the force fueling the journey was never in dou