Future of Work in the Digital World: Preparing for Instability and Opportunity.

Author:Lent, Robert W.

Despite conflicting forecasts about the pace and extent of technological changes that lie ahead, it is difficult to dispute the impact that advances in automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence have already had on work in the United States and globally. Hirschi (2018) provided an excellent discussion of these developments and what they may mean for career clients, practitioners, and researchers. The author aims to complement Hirschi's contribution by (a) amplifying the nature of the challenges faced by workers, both currently and in the foreseeable future, and (b) considering steps that may be taken by career development experts, both individually and collectively, to meet these challenges. These steps include advocacy for displaced workers, participation in dialogues to transform educational institutions, and efforts to extend the range of counseling interventions to prepare clients for a career future that may be far less stable for increasing numbers of workers.

Keywords: technology, work, career preparedness, advocacy, social cognitive career theory


Only a few years ago, I had written that "these are both challenging and exciting times for the field of career development and counseling.... Wrought by sweeping change in such areas as technology, the global economic environment, and demographic and immigration patterns, the work world has become faster paced, more diverse, and less and less predictable for more and more workers" (Lent, 2013, p. 2). This passage had been occasioned by a major economic recession. Yet, despite notable signs of improvement to the U.S. economy, many workers continue to face diminished employment opportunities and stagnant wages, and many more may face an uncertain work future. As practitioners and researchers devoted to career development, we need to be prepared for the changes that have been forecast because of the impact they will have on our ability to both prepare students to enter the workforce and assist workers to adjust to work and adapt to changing economic conditions.

Hirschi (2018) provided an excellent overview of career development problems owing to rapid technological change, along with proposed solutions. In this article, I attempt to build on his foundation, first by considering the current and projected magnitude of the challenges for students and workers and second, by suggesting additional steps that might be taken to better prepare ourselves and our clients for what has been variously called the fourth industrial revolution (Schwab, 2016), the third digital revolution (Gershenfeld, Gershenfeld, & Cutcher-Gershenfeld, 2017), the second machine age (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2014), the age of accelerations (Friedman, 2016), and (with some irony) the robot apocalypse (Mishel & Bivens, 2017). Although some of my proposed solutions are informed by social cognitive career theory (SCCT; Lent & Brown, 2013a; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994), most are intended to be transtheoretical and compatible with common career intervention practices.

Meet the New Economy--Same as the Old Economy?

Although there appears to be general agreement that the economy is in the process of substantial transformation, it is important to acknowledge that economists, technologists, and other writers offer sharply conflicting views on the present and future of work.

Cause for Concern?

There is no shortage of alarming pronouncements about the future of work, with some disturbing trends already apparent. The forces behind these prognostications are multifaceted and include, among others, a rise in the offshoring or migration of certain industries and jobs from one geographic location to another; multinational corporations that can exploit labor and tax opportunities around the world; unequal distribution of wealth and the increasing power of the financial industry; and fierce global competition, leading many companies to employ a smaller, lower paid, and less permanent workforce (Ford, 2015; Friedman, 2016). Intersecting with and abetting these economic trends are a set of technological advances that might be termed the unholy trinity of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. These "brilliant technologies," enabled by exponential improvements in the speed and power of computers, are widely seen as game changers, with the potential to fundamentally disrupt the world of work, in both positive and negative ways, for generations to come (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2014).

The causes for concern about the labor market are not limited to hypothetical or long-term projections. Some economists and journalists have asserted that, especially since the recent economic recession, we are witnessing a "new, less secure labor market" (Samuelson, 2017, para. 2) and a jobless recovery in which many lower and middle-skilled jobs in the United States have been lost and replaced by lower paying and less stable jobs (without health care or other benefits), largely in retail and service (e.g., fast food) industries. Although many businesses have recovered nicely, there has been a reluctance to revert to prerecession workforce sizes, with many corporate leaders expecting greater productivity from their current workers, often aided by automation of tasks that can be performed more cheaply and efficiently by technological means. Although these trends have affected many white- as well as blue-collar workers (Friedman, 2016), special concern has been expressed about "the precariat," that is, those who perform lower skilled and lower paying jobs, often under unpleasant working conditions, and who are most vulnerable to the forces of economic competition and automation (Blustein, Kenny, & Diamond, 2017).

Cause for Optimism?

Mark Twain was famously quoted as having said that "the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." In a similar vein, some writers do not agree with pessimistic forecasts regarding job loss or economic instability. For example, in a recent Washington Post article, Samuelson (2017) observed that the unemployment rate of 4.3% (as of July 2017) was at its lowest point in the past 16 years and argued that "the postwar employment model might make a comeback" (para. 4). Some writers even foresee labor shortages, particularly in certain industries and economic sectors, in the near--and long-term futures. The retirement of members of the massive baby boom generation, for example, could create many job openings and make experienced, competent workers a prized resource--assuming that businesses elect to replace at least some of their retirees. In a careful analysis of economic data, Mishel and Bivens (2017) concluded that "there is no empirical support for the prominent notion that automation is currently accelerating exponentially and leading to a robot apocalypse" (p. 3).

It may be observed that, even while technology displaces some workers, it can enhance the work lives of many people by assisting with completion of routine, dangerous, or unpleasant tasks; it is also making new jobs available and can provide new opportunities for work-life balance. For example, the internet and social media platforms have fueled the rise of an evolving variety of alternative work arrangements. These include the gig economy (i.e., the matching of businesses with workers willing to engage in temporary, contract, and freelance work), the peer economy (online businesses such as TaskRabbit, Uber, and Airbnb that enable workers to provide services directly to consumers), and crowd-sourcing (an online method for distributing complex, labor-intensive projects over large numbers of independent workers; e.g., Mechanical Turk). Owing to the rapid development of these arrangements, writers do not all agree on how to define them or how to classify particular examples, such as Uber. It should also be noted that, although such new work platforms are often touted for their flexibility (e.g., allowing workers to set their own work hours or conditions), they are not without their downsides (e.g., compensation is often modest, and benefits, such as health insurance, are typically not provided by the work distributor/employer). "Fab labs" (fabrication laboratories using computer-controlled tools) and 3-D printing will be able to produce an astounding array of objects (Gershenfeld et al., 2017); however, it remains to be seen whether they can fabricate jobs and new means of economic sustenance--or represent yet another existential threat to current jobs.

What's a Career Counselor to Believe?

It is difficult to choose among these conflicting forecasts. Are we heading toward a postwork or postsalary economy? Will stable work with good compensation and benefits become increasingly elusive? Will "thinking machines," algorithms, and robotics make more and more workers obsolete? Or will the latest digital revolution create new, meaningful work opportunities; bolster local communities; and promote economic and environmental sustainability (Gershenfeld et al., 2017)? Will workers become entrepreneurial free agents--or merely innocents at the mercy of better connected entrepreneurs? Are the new work platforms, such as the gig economy, a boon to freedom and life balance--or a gateway to economic instability? Is the age of accelerations ushering in an age of survival of the fittest?

Odd as it may seem, both the optimistic and pessimistic sets of predictions are plausible. It may depend on the time horizon and, for an individual worker, on one's skill set. Driverless vehicles could render cab drivers and long-haul truckers obsolete in the not-too-distant future. Still, even many white-collar or knowledge workers are unlikely to be immune from automation. How one fares may depend partly on whether one has the skills to work with, complement, or circumvent technology. It may also depend on factors such as how routine one's work tasks are. Regardless of whether they involve cognitive or manual skills, relatively...

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