For the first in our series of interviews in which we discuss The Future of Work, we sat down with Glen Hiemstra, the founder and CEO of Futurist.com. As an author, consultant, and expert on long-term trends, Glen has a unique and deep understanding of the ever-evolving concept of work, and what that means not only for professionals, but for life in general. In this conversation, Glen gives his views on technology and lifestyle, and offers a surprising twist to the question of automation's impact on the human workforce.
So let’s start with something high level. The phrase “Future of Work” is becoming more and more common. We’re seeing it all over the place. What does it mean to you, “The Future of Work?”
Well, I’m finding that when people use that, they generally mean, “What is the future of certain kinds of work, and will human beings continue to do that work?” That’s sort of what seems to be top-of-mind. I’ll give you two quick examples. I live in Seattle, Washington, where one of the senators is Patty Murray. She had a series of workshops this spring, to which I was invited, around the question, “What is the future of work?” The question is, “What should public policy be about supporting people to transition when or if automation, AI, et cetera are going to replace or impact more human jobs? And what should these human beings be doing?” And that workshop series was kind of coincident with the legislature of the State of Washington passing an appropriation early this year to set up a kind of institute on the future of work and the future of manufacturing. It’s asking the question, “If it’s true, as some forecast, that more work will be replaced by smart machines, whether robots or algorithms, what should public policy be around enhanced retraining, enhanced education?” So in my mind, that’s what people are talking about. Now, I think of the future of work as somewhat of a bigger subject than just, “What will the jobs be that are replaced by automation?” I think of questions like, “What’s the future of how work happens?” You know, does it happen 24/7? Do you work from home? What kinds of skills do you need? How many times do you need to retrain yourself? To me, all of that is part of the future of work, as well. Although, again, I think today’s conversation is mostly about, “Will a robot take your job? And if it does, what will you do?”
Leaning towards your second point about how work happens, you know, it used to be conference rooms and slide projections and things like that, and now all of a sudden we’re in this world of virtual offices and a lot of rapid change involving where you work and the platforms that you’re working on. So much of what we’ve gotten used to has changed. Even sending an attachment is becoming phased out as work is done collaboratively on the cloud.
I would agree. I’ll give you a quick story. In the early 1980s, I was a doctoral student at the University of Washington, and my chosen subject was, “How will computer networks change human communication?” I arranged to go visit some research sites. I was doing what in those days you called “ethnographic studies.” So I was interviewing people and trying to understand how cultures would change. One of the people I was introduced to was a person who worked in a very large law firm in Seattle. And he was very much into computers, back in those early days of computers, the early days of the IBM PC, etcetera. So he invited me to come to his large office in a downtown Seattle skyscraper, into a room in which there were these very large computing machines called Wang word processors. Probably nobody young even knows what those were. And the room was full of people. There were probably 20 or so Wang word processors, and people – I presume mostly women – sitting there typing. And he said, “So this is the future of law and how it’s going to work. We used to have our own assistants and they would do the typing, but now we have them here in this automated thing and we can just dictate what we want.” And he thought that was the future, not realizing that not that many years later he would be doing an awful lot of his own typing because of what the computer revolution really did. And to a very large degree, people in all kinds of businesses had changed the model from where they dictated something into a dictation machine or recorder of some kind and somebody – usually their personal secretary or personal assistant – would type, into this phase of having these word processing rooms. But then what eventually happened is people started typing their own things. And in a sense, it’s a little bit analogous to what you just said about attachments, sending attachments by email. We all had to learn how to do that, and now that becomes more obsolete. If you’re working in teams, then you’re much more likely to have shared documents and shared server space in the cloud. The point is, technology change is not necessarily as much about what people do as how they do it – in law and all kinds of other fields.
So is this a broad-ranging thing that spans all industries and spaces, or do you see it as limited to a few different industries?
That’s a really good question. I would say that it’s pretty hard to name a field that is not being impacted by these technological developments or developments that might be sociocultural developments. For example, agriculture is being heavily impacted by technology in addition to labor shortages and changing attitudes about what is appropriate work and who will do what kinds of work and so on. Manufacturing is obvious. Most white-collar work is fairly obvious, as you think about AI and the potential of certain more intelligent algorithms. I did a series of scenarios a few years ago for the American Institute for CPAs looking at the future of the CPA profession. They were, probably appropriately, convinced that a lot of the basic work of CPAs, kind of doing routine audits and some routine transactions and so on, might over the next decade or so be replaced by automation. So CPAs might shift more toward a consulting role and less toward a sort of auditing/calculations role. And I think they were pretty well right about that, and I think that’s actually been borne out in the profession. I think about transportation and pilotless aircraft. Even service workers, you know, in fast food restaurants. I saw a recent article about the increasing installation of self-ordering kiosks at the counter in McDonalds at various franchises to replace the person taking your order at the counter. So everything is being impacted and it’s very hard to name a field that has zero impact, that’s for sure.
Do you see this as really being a new Industrial Revolution?
That’s actually a complex question. I would say on balance, yes. It’s kind of a technological/social/cultural revolution. Those happen when we change how we make things, where we make things, when we make things, how and when and where we work, how we travel, when we travel, why we travel, how we communicate, when we communicate and so on. If you take that list that I just repeated, most of those are being influenced by what we think of as technology today. Whether it’s the internet or Uber/Lyft, or 24/7 access through social media and computing and so on. And it goes right up to the kinds of things that we might make. So in that sense, I think we’re in a kind of revolution, but there’s one way at least in which it’s dissimilar from the major Industrial Revolution of the early 20th century. At the turn of the 20th Century, the largest category of employment or work that people did in the United States was working in agriculture. And the second-largest was working as a live-in household servant. And the Industrial Revolution of that era certainly changed both of those but it mostly moved people off the farms as we switched to a factory society and mechanized agriculture. The one we’re in now, people are often comparing it to that because they say, “Well, we’re going to see the elimination of clerks at McDonalds. We’re going to see the elimination of pilots in airplanes. We’re going to see the elimination of people working in factories.” And all of those are being impacted. But I read a really interesting piece by Rodney Brooks, who’s one of the pioneers in robotics from MIT. And his argument, which I ascribe to, is that the forecasts that we read frequently right now, with estimates of anywhere from 40% to as high as 60 to 70% of all jobs being replaced by automated processes, are pretty highly exaggerated. I think it is safe to say that most work will be impacted in some way by smarter technology that will enable you to either work differently or modify your job, and in some cases change the job because it won’t be needed. But Brooks’s argument–- which is quite radical in today’s forecasting world–is that if you go out to 2030 or so, it’s more likely that we’ll have a shortage of human workers than a surplus. Because he said there’ll be so much work to be done. Particularly in countries like the US, there’ll generally be a smaller population of available people to do the work. And while it’s true that machines will be doing more than they do today –perhaps in some cases significantly more–there will still be so much work to do that there may actually not be enough people to do everything that could or should be done or needs to be done. I think that’s actually a little more likely to be the case than everybody being out of work because of robots. And so if that is in fact an accurate scenario, then it may be actually a bit less traumatic than the Industrial Revolution of the first three or four decades of the 20th Century in terms of how many people moved across the country and how many people moved off farms. But we’ll see. I mean, there’s a lot unknown yet about how smart the machines will really be. In the same article, by the way, Brooks talks about the manual dexterity, like the fingers of robots. He said that despite all the laboratory videos that we see, they actually haven't improved that much in practice out there in the marketplace in about 40 years. They're really not that much better than they were 40 years ago in spite of these lab demonstrations. Just in simple terms, he said the progress is much slower than the hyperventilating forecasts that we read. You know, in the very long run, of course these things will get smarter and more dexterous and so on, but it’s just a long process. So I don’t think that it may be quite as dramatic in terms of impact on work and particularly on the impact of the obsoleting of jobs as earlier industrial revolutions have been.
If you had to guess, what would be the one industry that you think is going to be rendered almost unrecognizable, is going to be most radically changed, by these technological and cultural changes?
Yeah, that’s a good one. I don’t have an instant reply, so I’m giving this a little bit of thought. You know, I would still say, going right back to Charlie Chaplin and the machines, that it probably still is manufacturing assembly work more than anything else. That is radically transformed in the sense of being almost completely done by machines. Your factories producing thousands, tens of thousands, of X or Y or Z only need a few people operating the machines or monitoring the machines. So it’s really hard to come up with a bigger impact than that. You could say perhaps if the autonomous car revolution really were to happen as envisioned, then driving jobs would be radically reshaped into very few people needing to be around the operation of vehicles. They might mostly be in control centers just as an Air Force pilot might be in a control center in southern Florida controlling drones in Afghanistan. It could be that a small group of “drivers” are monitoring 15 or 20 different long-haul trucks going across the country and making sure that everything is okay and intervening if an intervention is necessary. So it’s hard to come up with a bigger impact than that, because of the elimination of jobs. Although the good news in terms of trucking is that in the US alone, there’s a shortage of about 50,000 truck drivers because people don’t want to do that work anymore.
Speaking of the auto industry, we’re starting to see articles saying that the very idea of cars may be on its way to obsolescence. So that this thing that everyone knew, that everyone enjoyed or relied on, might become a hobbyist’s thing on the level of guitar collectors or wine people. Are we really going to get to a place where it’s just the crazy hobbyist who cares about this thing that used to be so much a part of our identity?
I’m not the only one to use this analogy, but it is not that dissimilar from the horse culture of 110 years ago. Going back to the turn of the 20th Century, a little known fact is that one fourth of US farmland was devoted to feeding horses. Because horses were the primary means of transportation for virtually everything. Virtually all freight was delivered by horse and wagon and trains. You had to have a horse, and most people had horses. There were horse connoisseurs and there was a whole industry around horses. Think of horse culture today. It still exists. People race them for fun. Hobbyists own some. We used to own a horse when our kids were young. We bought some acreage, had a horse. My wife had grown up with horses and loved going horseback riding. But you know, it was very much a hobby thing. On the weekends, you’d go ride your horse. So hobbyists might still own cars, and there might be special roads or road courses and so on set aside for you to go drive your car.
And it’s not just the technology, right? It’s also an economic thing, where people don’t even want to own cars.
Right. There’s two things about the autonomy revolution. Shared cars are part of it. And part of it is dealing with the fact that people are moving into cities. A driving force is the urbanization of life. You know, the forecasts are as much as 70 or 80% of all the world population will be living in cities by 2050. Well, when you’re in a city, if it’s a well-designed city, there’s very little need to have a car to do most of your life. And so that itself is going to be a driver of perhaps people owning fewer cars. Although if you go to a large Chinese city or large European city, they're jammed with cars everywhere you look and they're driving on the sidewalks and so on. So it isn't necessarily true that cities themselves get rid of cars. But I’m doing a lot of study of autonomous cars, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that it takes longer, again, than the popular press would have us believe. It’s not an autonomous driving future in five years or even 10 years. It’s probably more on the order of even 20 years, you know? It’s not one and a half automobile generations. It’s one and a half human generations, before we’re really into an autonomous future, if the technology really all pans out. But at that point, it becomes possible you stop thinking of them as cars. You just think of them as transportation pods or transportation vehicles. And then they don’t need to look like cars anymore. It’s possible to conjure a future where you’re an old grandpa or an old great-grandpa and you’re telling your great-grandkids about the old days of cars and you have to show them pictures of what cars used to look like. The sleek styling and the steering wheel and all that stuff. Those could all be gone, you know? Why don’t they all just look like subway cars? Or minibuses with nothing inside them but benches? Or the kinds of cars you get on when you’re taking the transport system at an airport? Why wouldn’t all cars look like that?
Let’s get back to the concept of the future of work in terms of shaping how we work. Technology has certainly encouraged collaboration and efficiencies. We spend less time on the road now. You used to spend three hours of your day commuting and now you don’t commute at all – and that’s three hours more a day that’s filled with work. The cliché is, “Work smarter, not harder.” But there’s a tails to that coin if that’s the heads side. In past generations, it was standard that you retired at 65 years old. Now the younger generations are coming in and, well, it’s going to be 70 years old. One recent article even said it was 77 years old. There have been countless articles that have questioned whether Millennials and the younger generation will ever be able to retire at all. So here’s this cognitive dissonance, where work is easier than ever and everything is streamlined and we’re doing more with less, and yet we will never be able to retire. We will work ourselves into the grave. As our lifespans increase, that’s just more time to work.
That’s a really good point. I wrote an article as far back as 1995 called “The End of Retirement.” I think it’s still up on Futurist.com. I was relatively young then and I thought about what you just described and I thought, “That sounds cool. Who would want to retire? Why don’t you just keep working? Because work is white-collar work and technology’s going to enable us to do that,” and so on. More people are working longer, there is no doubt about that. You know, retirement is the concept that at some point in your life, you’ve accumulated enough benefits and saving that you can now afford to live your life without working for some period of time, whether that’s seven years as it was back in the 30s or, if you retire now at 65, the odds are you’ll live at least 22 to 25 years. So you add in the Millennial issue, which is largely a financial issue: Can you accumulate enough savings and benefits to make that workable? There are almost no more fixed benefit pensions. Those have pretty much disappeared for anybody entering a workforce today. Social Security is constantly threatened, though it’s never in as much trouble as people think it is. It does put everybody under pressure to do their own savings in the form of 401(k)s and so on. So number one, it’s a financial issue: Can you accumulate enough savings and benefits to retire at that age, whether that’s 65 or 70? And then, number two, do you want to? Maybe your lifespan is not going to be just 20 years after retirement. Maybe we’ll make some big advances in medical technology and health and nutrition and so on, so a Millennial can look forward to a lifespan of maybe an average of 95 or even 100 maybe. How much of that do you want to spend playing golf? That’s the question. Some people will not retire because they can't afford it and some people will not retire because they find work more interesting than the alternatives. What is being put in front of us is very much what I would call a social/cultural/political decision. It’s not a technological issue. To some extent it’s economic, but it’s really, “What kind of society do we want?”
Can you spell that out a little more?
Sure. I was chatting with my daughter, who is a Millennial, a couple weeks ago and she was talking about Denmark. And how in Denmark they have a very robust tax-supported social support system, meaning retirement benefits and healthcare benefits that are much more robust than here in the United States because of a higher tax rate, of course. But they also have developed a culture where after 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, if you’re still working, you’re not viewed as the hero. You’re viewed as kind of aberrant. Like, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you still working? You’re supposed to be home. You’re not supposed to be doing email.” And people don’t send emails, as I understand it, after 4:00 or 5:00, and it isn't business 24/7, the kind of thing that we’ve created here in the famously work-oriented US culture. But that’s kind of a cultural/social/political thing. And I do think that one of the things that happened with the internet revolution is that all the boundaries between work and the rest of your life became very permeable or even disappeared. We all know this, so it’s an obvious point, but now it’s much harder to escape work. So you have to be very deliberate about it. I’ve worked independently as a consultant, but when I was a kid I was a college professor and I left that as I was approaching 40 years old. And I got some advice from another consultant who said, “Well, rule number one is: Don’t work on the weekends.” And I’ve followed that rule pretty religiously. Unless I have to travel on a Sunday or unless I have a major, major project that I’m working on that just requires me to do that, I just shut everything off. And I don’t respond to email. I just don’t do it. So that’s sort of a cultural decision that I made. It’s not available to other people and it’s perhaps a little easier for me as an independent worker than it is for somebody who’s in a firm where they might be told, “Well, you might get an email on Saturday, you’d better answer it.” But your question is an outstanding one because it shows that these are things that are not written in stone. They are decisions that we make as a society. Both as individuals and as a society. And I think technology both enables us to do things but also puts in front of us decisions that we probably actually need to make.
Let’s wrap up with one last very very wide-ranging question. As we’ve seen throughout this conversation, when we talk about the future of work, the dominoes really start to fall. For there to be a future of work, there needs to be a future of education. There has to be a future of retail and a future of consumerism, and a future of all these things. Any time you touch one of these things, it impacts all the others, it just spiderwebs out. So is the future of work really just the future?
Oh, I like the way that’s put. And the answer is yes. Through all of human history, people get up in the morning and they ask themselves, “What am I going to do today so that I can eat? So that I can have some clothing to wear, some shelter to live in?” That’s work. How society is organized, how we conduct society, is very much about work, and work is very much about that. One of my futurist heroes back in the day was the inventor/philosopher/futurist Buckminster Fuller, the geodesic dome guy. He used to say that, given what is going to be possible technologically in the future in terms of producing the goods and services that we need, it’s possible to envision a society in which everyone lives like millionaires (and he’s talking in 1970s language). You know, in some weird way it is possible to imagine that, that you could automate things and create sustainable energy systems and mine the asteroids and do all kinds of things in which all of that comes true. But it’s wrapped up in so many complex decisions about nation versus nation and who should be on top and who should be on the bottom and all of those kinds of things. Which is life. Which is the future. So to talk about the future of work, I think, is very much to talk about what kind of future we ultimately want in terms of the kind of society that we want to live in, the kind of culture that we want to support. Whether that’s one that is more egalitarian or more autocratic. All the kinds of decisions that are very much in the political winds these days. It’s all part of one conversation, which is, “What kind of world do we want to live in in the future?”
Glen Hiemstra is the Founder and CEO of Futurist.com, in Seattle, Washington. An international expert on long-range trends and processes for creating the preferred future, Glen has advised professional, business, and governmental organizations for more than two decades including extensive work on the future of transportation. He has also served as a technical advisor for futuristic television programs. He is author of Turning the Future into Revenue: What Businesses and Individuals Need to Know to Shape Their Future, and co-author of Strategic Leadership and of Millennial City: How a new generation can save the future. Futurist.com is regularly visited by people from over 120 nations. Glen has helped enterprises around the world look as far as 100 years into the future to search for strategic opportunities and preferred futures, including industries as diverse as energy, aerospace, transportation, pharmaceuticals, IT/software, and financial services.
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