For the third installment of our series of interviews about the Future of Work, we talk with Jacob Morgan, bestselling author, podcaster, keynote speaker, and futurist. In this wide-ranging discussion, Jacob gives a history of the Future of Work, as well as his interpretation of the term. He also talks about the difference between the death versus the evolution of industries, and why some of the most breathlessly anticipated “futures” fail or never come to pass at all.
Let’s start with something pretty basic. What does the term “the future of work” even mean?
It’s a phrase that’s been used many, many times, and when I talk to people I get so many different definitions of what it means. For me, ultimately I think of the future of work as many futures of work. I don’t think there is one particular future of work, right? Like, you can take it literally or you can take it a little bit more abstractly. Literally, the future of work means what is going to happen to work in the future. But then there’s kind of this abstract way to think about it, which is, “What are the potential scenarios that might happen in the future and how are those scenarios going to impact the way that we think about work?” And that’s kind of where I lean towards. I think about it in terms of, “What’s possible? What can happen? What might happen? How are these different changes going to impact the way that we think about work and even the way that we live?” When I use that phrase, that’s how I’m referring to it.
How do you see your role in this area of the future of work?
Well, I do a couple different things. One of the things that I do is speak. I speak at around 40-50 conferences a year. And I like to share what I see happening and what those potential scenarios might be and what organizations and individuals should be doing to prepare for how the world of work is changing and what it might look like in the coming years. I like to think of myself as an educator, somebody that motivates and inspires and encourages organizations and individuals to take action instead of just kind of sitting idly by and waiting for the future to happen to them. So, through a lot of the interviews that I do, the speaking, the books, the writing, I like to think that I have a pretty good front-row seat into what some of the world’s leading companies and business leaders are doing and thinking about. And my job is to take some of those concepts and ideas, which are often complex and hard to understand, and make it easy for other people to be able to follow and grasp and take some action as a result.
And you of course have a podcast. Tell us about the podcast.
Yeah, the podcast has been quite popular. It’s called The Future of Work Podcast. Every week I interview a senior-level leader at a global company. It can be the chairman of the board of Yahoo!, or it can be like Yuval Harari, who’s the best-selling author of Homo Deus and Sapiens. It can be somebody like the Chief People Officer of Cisco. And these are one-on-one, hour-long-plus conversations where I basically ask these executives things that I’m curious about when it comes to the future of work. What are they thinking about? What are they doing? And each podcast is around a new topic. Could be around workspace design. Could be around AI and automation. Could be around corporate culture. Anything related to the future of work. Through these conversations, I learn a lot. And my hope is that people who listen to the podcast will hear directly from these business leaders what they themselves are thinking about the future. So that’s ultimately what the podcast is for. It’s for me to learn and it’s for other people to learn along with me.
You mentioned a moment ago that we often hear the phrase “the future of work.” How long has that term been in use?
That’s a good question. I wrote my book called The Future of Work in 2014. Hopefully that book helped popularize the concept and the idea. But I can't imagine that that was the first time it was used. I would imagine that “the future of work” is a conversation or a phrase that has probably been around for decades. I don’t know. It took probably a year to write the book, so maybe in 2013 or so I was at least using the concept in some of my talks or speeches. But prior to that, I haven't heard it used often, at least not in my direct network. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used. I’m sure people were using that phrase somewhere.
That’s really only four years ago. Maybe that in itself is an indication of the future of work.
Well, probably if you look on Amazon and type in “the Future of Work,” I’m sure there’s been books that had titles or subtitles like that for probably many years. So I suppose there’s a difference between when the term was first used versus when it became popular. I think it’s probably been used [for] many, many decades, but I think it actually became popular as a concept and a phrase that you would hear in the business landscape within the last few years, for sure.
Do you feel that that phrase is still fresh, or do you think it’s running the risk of becoming overly used and thus losing some of its essence?
I don’t think it’s becoming overused. I feel that we’re at the point now where there’s always going to be a “future of work.” I don’t think that that phrase will get watered down. I think from this point forward, the concept and the phrase “the future of work” will be one that will be used for many years to come.
Is the current interest in the future of work being driven more by businesses or more by individuals – employees and consumers?
Well, I think it’s both. On the individual level, we all want to know what’s going to happen to our careers and jobs and skills that we need. And on the company level, companies themselves are trying to figure out what they should be doing to adapt. How should they be training people? How should they be structuring their companies? What sort of jobs should they offer? How should they think about technology? So that’s probably what makes it unique, is [that] it’s being driven by both sides, not just one. But everybody who has a job has a future of work. So whether you’re a CEO or an entry-level employee or just out of college, that’s part of what I think makes a lot of this so interesting and appealing. It’s relevant to everybody.
On the individual side, how much do you think the curiosity is fear-driven?
There is certainly a part of it that is fear-driven, for sure. I think it would be naive to assume otherwise. But at least [in] a lot of the conversations that I’m hearing, I find that more people are optimistic than they are pessimistic. It doesn’t mean that there is no fear that’s out there. There certainly is. But at least in what I’m hearing, the conversations that I’m having with executives, the questions that I’ve posed in communities that I’ve run, there tend to be more people who are optimistic than there are those who are scared or negative. I think if you are in a position where you have a routine job, where you have a typical day, where you rely on companies and on educational institutions to spoon-feed you everything you need to be successful, yeah, you should be a little bit worried. But if you have that kind of mindset of growth and being a lifelong learner, [you] can be optimistic.
People often talk about some pretty massive changes coming to our work lives in the future, from constant interaction with AI systems to huge restructuring of basic economic arrangements. Do you see such changes as coming incrementally, or do you envision more radical paradigm shifts?
Well, I suppose it depends on the specific area you’re looking at and how far into the future you want to think. I don’t think we’re going to wake up one day and all of a sudden realize, “Hey, where are we?” I don’t think we’re going to be in that kind of a situation. I mean, things take time, and a lot of the stuff we’re seeing is gradual. And there are a lot of things that we’re building on top of, right? It’s not as if everything that we used to be doing in the past is just all of a sudden going to vanish. We build on top of it. It’s more of an evolution that we start to see, as opposed to kind of just waking up and the world is different. But there are significant changes we’re going to see.
What are some of those?
I think there’s going to be significant changes in leadership. I think there’s going to be significant changes in how we use and think about technology and our reliance on technology. I think there are going to be significant changes and impacts that we’ll see in our lives with data. With all these different types of things, there will be significant changes, for sure. But at the same time, like I said, I don’t think it’s going to be one of those things where you wake up and all of a sudden you live in a different world. It’s not like you're going to wake up tomorrow and all of a sudden it’s going to be an autonomous car that’s parked next to you. I mean, we’ve been talking about autonomous cars for over a decade now. It’s gradual.
It’s always interesting to look at phenomena that looked like they were going to be the next big thing but have gone quietly away. What are some examples of things that in the past people were convinced, “This is going to be the future of work,” but haven't really come to pass?
Oh, there are many. A lot of them have to do with technology. By now, everybody thought autonomous cars would be mainstream. People thought 3D printing would the standard. People thought that augmented and virtual reality would be commonplace. People thought that you would walk into a coffee shop and there wouldn’t be any more baristas. It would just be a machine that tureened your coffee.
How do we get things like that wrong?
What tends to happen is we see something that happens on the fringes, and then we quickly extrapolate it in our minds as something that will be in existence all over the world. I live in the Bay Area, and there’s a coffee shop here called Café X where you pay the three or four dollars for your latte and it’s made by a little robotic arm. There’s no people there. And so some people go to that, they see that, and they say, “Oh, my God, baristas at Starbucks everywhere are going to be out of a job!” They see that one example and they immediately extrapolate that to something that’s going to be all over the world. There have even been examples at restaurants, where the food is brought to you on some sort of conveyor belt that runs around the restaurant, not by a server. You go to the airports now, you see tablets everywhere, or you order from a screen instead of a person. We keep seeing all these things and we immediately say, “Oh, my God. People are in trouble. Autonomous cars will be everywhere. We’re just going to be living in a virtual world.” And none of that has happened because we make a lot of very big assumptions about these things. We need to be careful of making these huge assumptions.
And why don’t some of those things catch on the way we’d expect?
For example, does everybody want an autonomous car? Some of us want an experience instead of just getting from point A to point B. When you go to a restaurant, a lot of people want to talk to a person. They want their name written on the cup. We care about experiences. And we oftentimes just make these assumptions that everybody just wants efficiencies and productivity and that’s all we care about. But that’s not the case. So we need to be careful with our assumptions and kind of check those at the door before we make these conclusions about what’s going to happen in the world.
That point about people preferring an experience is interesting, because we live in a world where people have their heads buried in their phones, not interacting with each other. So it could be that we crave some of these human experiences exactly because of some of the choices we’ve made regarding technology, right?
Yeah, that’s the thing. Different people have different preferences and ways that they want to think about this. Overreliance on technology is definitely a concern and a fear that a lot of people have. I think we’re certainly going to need to learn to disconnect and not be on technology 24/7. Especially with the younger generation, where they're consistently glued to things. That is a legitimate fear and a legitimate concern. What happened to playing outside, right? I mean, I used to play hockey in the streets with my friends. You know, is that going to take a backseat and now everyone’s just going to be in this kind of virtual, technology-driven world? We need to remember that the human stuff still matters. That is one of the fears that I have, making sure that we don’t forget that.
And is that something that you think businesses are equally concerned about?
I would hope so, for sure. I think they certainly are. You know, in a technology-driven world, one of the most important skills that we can possess is being human. And I think individuals and organizations who are good at embracing those concepts and ideas will be more successful because that makes you more valuable. So, yeah. I mean, I would hope that that is something that we’re gong to be prioritizing.
So many topics come up when you start talking about the future of work: Technology, transportation, architecture, economics, communication, and lots more. Is there a reasonable limit to what falls under that umbrella?
Well, everything that touches work is a part of the future of work. So, workspace design: Are you going to work in an office? Are you going to have to commute? If you’re going to be commuting, how are you going to be commuting? That’ s a big factor for work. AI is about the type of job that you're going to have. I mean, all these things ultimately come back to the fact that they're going to impact us as humans on an individual level. That’s why there’s so much concern about this. The [work]space impacts you on an individual level. AI impacts you on an individual level. Autonomous cars. All these things impact you on an individual human level, whether you have a job working for Google or whether you work for a pharmaceutical company or a fintech company. All these things come back to the [question] of how are you going to work? How are you going to make an impact? How are you going to provide for yourself? How are you going to provide for your family? What is your quality of life going to be like? Those are things we all need to care about and we all need to think about.
Are we having those conversations often enough, or are there too many business leaders and others who don’t have their eye on the ball?
No, I think the good news is that I don’t think there are many people out there who spend very little time thinking about these concepts. I mean, there may be some who think about it more than others. But, you know, any time you turn on the news, any time you open up a media publication, any time you listen to a radio interview on something like NPR, these conversations on the future of work are everywhere. It’s become very mainstream. Unless you are completely shut off from any kind of connectivity, you have heard some of these concepts and ideas. You are aware. And there’s some sort of little voice in the back of your mind that has that phrase “future of work” floating around in your mind. I think this is a very mainstream and popular topic. Like I said, there are of course some people who spend more time thinking about it than others, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find somebody that is just like, “What are you talking about? What’s AI? What’s technology? What future of work? I’ve never heard of any of this stuff.”
Even if they don’t use that phrase “future of work,” right?
Yeah. You might be thinking about it. You just might not be calling it that. If you're thinking about your job and your career and you're thinking about what job you might have in the future or how to reinvent yourself for the skills that you might need, that’s the future of work. But you might not necessarily call it the future of work. “The future of work” literally just means, “What is the future going to be like? How are we going to work in the future?” It’s almost like saying, “What’s the future of life?”
One of the fears a lot of people have regarding the future is the “death” of their industry. For example, we heard a lot about the death of the music industry, the death of news media, the death of manufacturing. Do you regard such banner statements with a lot of skepticism, viewing this as being just part of a longer journey and evolution? Or do you look at some of these things and think, “Yeah, there really is certain doom for some industries or businesses?”
I look at things more in the terms of evolution. So when I hear “death of the music business,” I think “death of music.” And will there be death of music? No. I don’t think the music business is going to die. But it’s going to change, right? I mean, look at companies like Spotify. Look at companies like Pandora. The music business, depending on how you look at it, is thriving in some areas and struggling in some other areas. Are people buying CDs? No. Are people downloading things on Spotify and growing subscriptions on there and Pandora? Yeah. So it’s changed. Same thing for the newspaper industry. Are people buying newspapers? No. But are people consuming less news? Definitely not. I mean, if anything, we’ve been consuming more news than ever. It’s just the way that we’re consuming and the way that that business is run that is now changed. That is a very big difference than saying “the death of news,” or, “the death of the newspaper.” The delivery of news might change. But the death of news? Everyone will agree [that] is far from the case. Donald Trump creates news almost every day just by sending out a Tweet, right? I mean, 240, 280 characters. And then that all of a sudden gets printed everywhere, it gets shared online everywhere. So news is still alive and well. But the delivery of news is changed. Music, also still alive and well. People go to concerts like crazy. Things are not dying, but the way that we consume music is changing. We’re not buying CDs anymore. So we need to be careful [when] we say the “death” of something. Blockbuster: people used to say “the death of the rental business.” And it evolved into the rise of the streaming business. Does that mean that movies are dead? That we’re only going to movie theaters now? No. I mean, Netflix has never been more popular and there are other services that are out there, as well. So it’s really looking at how these things are changing and what they're evolving into. When Kodak disappeared, people thought, “Oh, the death of the camera business.” Are we taking less pictures? No. I mean, we’re taking more pictures now than we ever have before. On Instagram, on Twitter, all over the place. It’s just the mechanism and the means by which we’re taking those pictures and how we’re sharing it, that’s the aspect that changed. And that’s where organizations are really struggling. Not the death of industries, but the evolutions of how those industries need to think and operate. I think that’s the big difference.
Still, when these evolutions occur, they can bring about very painful changes for a lot of people. To take the music industry as an example, there was a time in the 1990s when a member of a modestly successful underground punk band could sell a certain amount of records, go on tour a few times a year, and pull a working-class lifestyle where you're paying your bills. Then the industry changes and now you're not seeing any money from record sales and you have to be on tour all the time because that’s how you make your money. You can't make an honest day’s work out of it because you have to tend bar on the side. So how do you judge the health of an industry? Do you just look at the top-line revenue figures, or do you judge it by the well-being of the producers, the workers?
You're right. Of course you need to look at both sides. Not just the industry as a whole but also the individuals who are creating the content. It’s a whole ecosystem. You can’t sell music unless you have people that make it. You can't write news unless you have people that give you things to write about or that make news. So you need both.
That concept of an “ecosystem” must be quite valuable in these discussions about the future of work. Instead of just talking about big companies on the one hand and the people on the other, viewing it more as constant interaction and constant transaction in lots of directions.
Yeah. We talked about how all these different concepts fall under the umbrella of the future of work. I mean, it is an ecosystem. One of these things impacts the others. You change one and it impacts the other. I think now we’re definitely seeing that impact more than we’ve seen in the past. When something happens on the AI front, it impacts the workspace design front, it impacts the leadership front, it impacts all these other areas as well. I hope that we are now being much more aware of that ecosystem instead of just viewing them as separate buckets in isolation.
Jacob Morgan is a three-time best-selling author, keynote speaker, and futurist who explores the future of work and employee experience. He is also the founder of The Future Of Work University, an online education and training platform that helps future proof individuals and organizations by teaching them the skills they need to succeed in the future of work. His new book on the future of leadership is coming out in Sept. 2019. Find him at FutureOfWorkUniversity.com.
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