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No More Employees

Updated: Apr 24, 2018

It would seem strange to concern ourselves with the labor participation rate 20 years from now. However, as a practitioner of Strategic Foresight, it is just as important to examine the here and now as it is to explore the trends for the future. This creates a textured picture of what the future may hold and it helps organizations navigate potential disruptions in their future. These disruptions could have an adverse effect on whether an organization is able to reach their preferred future. There is more to an examination of labor than how it may or may not affect industry. The flip side to these discussions is in how it may or may not affect labor itself. I've written several blogs on the subject of the manager-less organization of the future. In doing so, I've had to consider the complete texture of a potential future. Asking “What if” to explore the potentials of the future we are able to imagine disruptions with depth and certain context.

WHAT IF there were fewer employees in the future? What would that look like? What would that mean to industry, education and the economy? These are serious question worth the exploration. In my previous writings I've explored the trends which may create pressure on a future workforce. One particular trend that caught my eye is the result of a prediction I read. In 1989 it was predicted that by the year 2000 there would be less than 50% in full time employment. In 2011, I read a Gallup poll that indicated this number was actually closer to 45% in full time employment.

Playing these trends out another 20 years, we can begin to imagine the year 2034 as it relates to labor. Assuming a trend in which full time employment is 35%, we will find slightly over 128 million individuals employed full time. Considering a near 366 million population in 2034, that leaves over 192 million individuals in part-time, less than full-time or not in the workforce at all.

This is a lot of meat to consume. The bottom line, we will have a whopping 65% of individuals in part time, less than part time or unemployed. What does this mean for industry and what does it mean for labor itself? For industry, it means that they are going to have to do more with less. Technology will play a key role in the organization of the future. From the Internet of everything to automated processes, we are going to see technology continued to grow and influence our future. This will likely mean that the geographic footprint of corporate offices will decrease. In the technology field alone, developers are creating artificial intelligence that can write mundane coding assignments. Software automation is already developing so that it can anticipate how to respond to social media posts. We are looking at a future in which calling a company and expecting to speak to a human will be diminished. We will have more automated attendants and processes to interact with Artificial Intelligence. The manufacturing sector will likely continue to see an increase in automation of mundane tasks as they also drop to a just in time manufacturing within a smaller factory footprint. The advent and improvement of 3 dimensional printing with bring manufacturing of day-to-day objects into the home, making consumers makers.

How will this play out for labor itself? A larger number of individuals will enter into contract, part-time and self-employment. Individuals will begin to form powerful alliances with complementary products and services.  Individuals will no longer be required to travel to a central office to work. Cloud based connections and remote working with be the norm in 20 years. These changes will require more skilled labor than ever before. The future can be viewed as that of a cerebral economy in which labor is more educated and skilled than in previous decades. The workforce is seen as knowledge workers. Geographical boundaries of work related to country of origin will collapse giving rise to a new understanding of the global economy. While governments remain intact, workers will know no boundaries.

A labor shift of this magnitude has many implications. Individuals will need generalist skills in a given industry as well as a deep understanding of technology. This will require access to high speed Internet and other technologies. While there is no guarantee that any of this will come to be; we do know that the trends are moving toward such realities. The question: how will society and organizations deal with a future much different than the one we have today?

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