Demographic change, artificial intelligence and sustainability pose enormous challenges for organizations of all kinds, especially in human resources management. Which professions will still be needed in the future, and which will become less important? And how can employers define a sustainable path for themselves? This is where the perspectives of futurology or foresight can help.
The world of work is undergoing a profound transformation. This observation reads almost banal without a long list of reinforcing adjectives in an age of supply chain problems, skills shortages, inflation, recession, quiet quitting, and mass bankruptcies. Or cynical. How should employers deal with the resulting uncertainty, and strategically long-term important development paths should be taken promptly? Strategic foresight offers possible solutions.
This article briefly looks at the three most important trends related to current and upcoming changes in work. We then look at the implications for employers.
These three megatrends are shaping the professions of the future
The problem is obvious: Employers are no longer finding skilled workers and hardly any personnel for less specialized activities. What in past decades still primarily affected individual industries, as well as companies rather in rural regions, has developed into a conflagration in just a few years. Theoretical work with trends can provide an initial orientation for the existing changes.
Silver society: Retirement boom and longevity
Let’s start “without technology”. Demographic change has pushed labor productivity past its peak in many countries of the Western world. The post-war baby boomers are retiring or retiring, followed by younger generations who cannot fill the gaps in terms of numbers alone. At the same time, people are getting older on average and aging healthier, so they tend to want to experience more. This is fantastic for the elderly and their relatives, but in economic terms, it is quite a disaster for welfare states. No one is sure whether pensions are as secure as labor ministers from Blüm to Heil promise.
It is clear that a relatively shrinking stratum of the working population must finance a relatively growing stratum of the retired population and their state pensions. The calculation only works if the younger majority makes relatively high contributions to social security, which means that they will have less net income in the future, further eroding the middle class and jeopardizing generational cohesion. On average, members of Generation Y (born between 1980 and 1995) can no longer afford a house or a car, Generation Z can’t afford one anyway, and let’s not even get started on Alpha. Fortunately, generations Y and up tend to have a post-materialistic attitude – but travel, sharing models, and virtual assets also cost money.
New jobs in this megatrend complex are clearly focused on the two areas of elder care and AgeTech. On the one hand, there is a shortage of personnel for people in need of care; on the other hand, there is a shortage of meaningful, more efficient care organizations (cf. the “Burtzoorg model” described by Frédéric Laloux). On the other hand, the relatively young Chair of Digital Health at Leibniz University in Hanover, for example, is researching how AgeTech could make life easier for both caregivers and those in need of care; a fully automated car wash for those in need of care could be a reality in just a few years, says Chair Prof. Dr. Florina Speth in the podcast “Im Hier und Morgen”.
On the other side of the labor market, thousands of companies’ livelihoods are threatened. The culprit here is not inflation or recession but poor succession management by business owners and leaders between the ages of 50 and 70. Unfortunately, this is often a homemade problem. Unfortunately, it is also a problem for society as a whole and one with great explosive power for the entire German-speaking SME sector. About ten years ago, I had the privilege of participating in a publicly funded research project at the Hochschule für Wirtschaft und Recht (School of Economics and Law), one of the results of which was the networking platform “Nachfolge in Deutschland” (Succession in Germany).
This means there have never been better opportunities for qualified personnel to find a position as managing director, assuming a willingness to travel or relocate. Conversely, many thousands of workers will inevitably be laid off from companies whose existence is threatened in the coming years; there is already no way around this.
AI and Metaverse
Artificial intelligence (AI) – or rather machine learning – and virtual worlds in the metaverse belong to different trend complexes when viewed more closely, yet there are exciting intersections. After all, the underlying pattern of both megatrends is the progressive miniaturization of transistors in computer chips (see Moore’s Law) with a simultaneous increase in available storage capacities on-site and in the cloud. At the same time, the triumph of so-called social media cannot be explained without AI since the addictive appeal of social media is based less on authentic relationships and satisfactions than on artificially created filter bubbles and related advertisements, seemingly personalized offers, and echo chambers. And here we come full circle to metaverses of all forms: No meaningful offers without AI, no functioning payment architecture, no blockchain decentralization with simultaneous incentive management for consumer product manufacturers.
What can AI do – and what will humans still do in the future?
As things stand today, artificial intelligence can already take over many jobs. The Hiobs statistics about the substitution of up to half of all jobs by 2035 are nonsense at this point. Language models such as GPT-3 (including ChatGPT) can conduct deceptively honest conversations (goodbye Turing test), and create marketing plans or program codes for websites and videos. Image AIs such as Dall-E or Dreamstudio copy artists’ styles and generate masses of graphics, as seen in the example of Michael Jackson’s van Gogh painting. Christopher Ganz, among others, has written extensively about automation on production lines and in department stores (“From Factory Automation to Business Process Automation“).
The question is not which activities can additionally be done “automatically” by AI in a few years – but which cannot. The average expectation from futurology answers this with the core capabilities of human nature: activities based on assessment, evaluation, education, and empathic communication, as well as those that require an essentially ethically based spontaneity.
So much for artificial intelligence.
The triumph of the Metaverse – and new VR professions
In recent months, here and elsewhere, much has been written about the metaverse, or the various metaverses. Many posts and critiques are based on incomplete assumptions about the economic interests of virtual worlds with a very strong focus on Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, and (often overlooked) Oculus. From the perspective of futurology, the third evolutionary stage of the Internet (Web3) with more decentralized network and power structures has been indicated for a long time – the fact that a pandemic and the associated digital maturation of many employees and employers had to happen in fast motion first seems astonishing in retrospect. It is also astonishing that a presumably narcissistic billionaire had to come along and drive one of the most valuable social media companies – in terms of the quantity and quality of data – into the wall before the monopolies on communication flows all over the world could deserve political attention at the highest level.
Regardless of the currently imperfect status of the various metaverse providers, one clear tendency can already be guessed: Services of almost every kind will encounter potent demand in virtual worlds. Whether it’s financial advice, real estate agents or VR hairdressers, the sky’s the limit. Even a VR bank branch will have to be managed, VR customers advised, and VR personnel recruited. From a social perspective, it would be important that the field is not left exclusively to economic players but that both the education sector and the judiciary deal with concrete design options, opportunities, and risks sooner rather than later.
Between AI and metaverse, there is again gigantic potential for mixed realities or augmented/mixed reality (AR). The first marketable applications of Industry 4.0 and advertising concepts in virtual intermediate layers such as a smartphone camera or AR headsets have long been tested and are waiting for corresponding platform logics and their business models – similar to the first smartphones back then, perhaps even with greater capitalization potential for local companies.
Sustainability or regenerative economies
Last but not least, a few words on the most important “trend” of our time, climate change. From a scientific perspective, the need for a regenerative economy is beyond question. What is more interesting is how exactly the path to a circular economy can look like without endangering the living standards of industrialized economies too much, because that would jeopardize the support of the populations.
Irrespective of possibly ideological issues, the economic course for the coming years is relatively clearly mapped out: The expansion of renewable energies must and will boom. The goal of a democratically organized humanity that is viable in the long term is a circular economy that, analogous to the doughnut model, compensates for the weaknesses of early capitalism and the young digital economy and enables more effective redistribution. In which there is no more garbage, but only raw materials; no harmful emissions, but closed systems; less injustice because it is demonstrably bad for business and only good for a few.
But who actually produces the millions of required photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, and energy storage systems, who lay new power lines across continents (!), who maintains the old plants, who helps private households and businesses to phase out fossil fuels, where do all the necessary raw materials come from? And what do the fossil industry and oil-exporting countries have to say about it? It’s hard to overestimate the demand for skilled workers and labor across the value chain, from industry and crafts to services, consulting and marketing.
Accordingly, on the one hand we are heading for gradual mass unemployment as a result of company insolvencies, while on the other hand the need for skilled workers is growing exponentially.
Implications for employers
Around the world, there is a need for more chairs, education providers and professional chambers to educate and retrain tomorrow’s workforce on a sufficient scale. The World Economic Forum coined the term “retraining revolution” back in 2018 as part of the “Great Reset” needed to save humanity. Or at least the part that cannot afford to adapt promptly to the upcoming climate and environmental extremes, which will be the majority and will not “only” affect the global South. In this respect, the training budgets within organizations should be significantly increased, and publicly available funds should be better distributed for this purpose.
Sustainability analysis and future professions
Employers would be well advised to consistently analyze their production and supply chains in the new year to determine which elements will still be compatible with rising ESG standards in three to five years. Many will be surprised at how few remain. Those who need the staff internally to perform this sustainability analysis and monitoring will find it in the booming market of sustainability agencies. We are now talking not about a cosmetic analysis but a survival analysis with appropriate conclusions.
Existing staff in non-regenerative departments and company branches can be retrained with a simple model: Working hours that pay into non-ESG activities are gradually replaced with training first until new tasks can be completed. As a result, productivity decreases only during a short transition period but then increases disproportionately.
Digital personnel marketing as a survival factor
Anyone who does not engage in personnel marketing or employer branding in suitable social media channels today will no longer find sufficient talent. The situation could be similar in a few years with the metaverse. Technology-savvy people in particular are more likely to be found there than via newspaper ads and billboards.
Those who do not search internationally for specialists and include freelancers from other languages in their search criteria and consequently fail to fill important positions have only themselves to blame. Currently, many companies are lacking suitable personnel for the intermediate management level – partly because the image of many employers has suffered from the pandemic, but also because a good portion of the employable population has recognized that the age of waterfall hierarchies is over. As a result, HR management is becoming a tour de force in which many mechanisms function fundamentally differently than before. Job advertisements, for example, need to be less specific about what the employer offers, and instead make it clear that the potential of the personnel is being jointly elicited in order to find the perfect fit for both sides.
The end of the HR department
From an organizational perspective, this squaring the circle. The organizations we know – typically primarily private companies and government agencies – still basically function like armies with corresponding communication and power distribution. And by now, mostly without ties and formal salutations. The path to a truly agile organization focused on competence and informal value-added generation as well as synergy effects between individuals is a long one that breaks with pretty much everything that the human capital-focused HR of the past preached. In this respect, the end of HR is slowly looming, as I have already described in the whitepaper of the same name published in 2019 (German Publication).
From “Bullshit Jobs” to Solopreneurial Chaos
Last but not least, I expect a further increase in self-employed forms of employment. Up to half of the workforce could also be earning income from self-employment in 2030, to use a tax office-compliant phrase. In their primary occupation, a service relationship with an employer remains essential, but these solopreneurs spend the remaining 20-60 percent of their own lifetime engaged in their own professionalized hobbies, earning some money and, above all, feeling what has become increasingly important in recent years: purpose.
In the 2000s and 2010s, the percentage of so-called bullshit jobs increased to a level that the countermovement, Quiet Quitting, was not long in coming but was only noticed much later (often too late) by employers. Bullshit jobs refer to occupations that perform essentially meaningless functions for an ever-increasing proportion of their time, so that staff feel useless and are in fact increasingly affected by boreout, the opposite of burnout. Employees give thanks by Quiet Quitting, which means that they now only perform the tasks actually agreed upon in the employment contract, which usually requires a small proportion of working time, and the rest of the time Instagram and Tiktok are running hot – and/or the foundations for their own “part-time” self-employment.
This trend could lead to chaos: If freelancer turnover exceeds a critical threshold and staffing becomes too burdensome (= expensive), employers could perish overwhelmed and understaffed, if only in the face of ambivalent staffing levels. On the other hand, placement platforms are already at the beginning of a golden age, which is why the professional network XING is also shifting its focus from events to HR matching. Freelancers themselves could suffer from the challenges of an exclusively self-organized professional biography and find it difficult to find a permanent position after decades of “precarious” employment.
For employers, this forecast is virtually a battle cry. Many larger companies naturally work with freelancers and the agencies or headhunters that place them. Especially in IT-related fields of activity, it is already common practice to employ entire hordes of globally distributed freelancers – which is in line with the spirit of digital globalization, takes into account the shortage of skilled workers and is necessary for survival. But other areas will follow, led by legal and organizational consulting services and C-level advisory, followed by highly specialized engineering, medical and financial professions.
Conclusion: Complete reversal and liberalization
From the perspective of futurology, i.e., with a systemic, historical-futuristic view of macro developments, a complete reversal of the labor market has occurred in recent years. Where previously employers had the longer leverage, it is now the better than ever organized workforce (with a few exceptions that will follow suit). Average education levels have improved significantly worldwide (contrary to what one might assume when reading public comments on the “social web”), increasing the value of labor as a commodity, often even internationally and still from the work location of choice.
In short, the worker demand market has been diametrically reversed, with the effects permeating all sectors of the economy in the coming years.
The term liberalization, borrowed for decades from economic liberalism and a more employer-centric reading of the economy (neoliberalism), is returning to the employee side with current trends. Employees enjoy more freedom and increasingly have many choices for shaping their employment biographies.
Future-proof employers have already thought about which job descriptions and areas of activity are creeping into anachronisms in their organization – and have defined clear job development paths as well as the appropriate retraining concepts. With the move away from analog work processes where it makes sense, and the goal of a decarbonized, defossilized global economy, it’s no wonder that decision-makers in organizations of all kinds find themselves in a tsunami of daily policy decisions. And daily greets the crisis groundhog.
This article is based on the author’s lecture “The Future of the World of Work” and its edited volume “Arbeitswelt und KI 2030” (Springer Gabler, 2021).