Looking to the Future of Work

Discussions about the future of work can trigger a range of emotions both positive and negative. Some people are curious and intrigued by the new technologies we associate with the workplace of the future—artificial intelligence, automation, and big data—and they count down the days until the next Consumer Electronics Show. For others, though, thinking about the future of work feels like standing at the edge of a precipice where they are sure they’re going to fall as new technologies eat their jobs. Much of this uncertainty is felt by college students and their parents as well, and it isn’t just rooted in a general fear of change—they wonder about the stability of the future they are working so hard to achieve. Indeed, evidence is mounting that we really will see significant changes in our workplaces, changes that will come regardless of how we feel about them.

A few years ago, The Atlantic Monthly published an article called A World Without Work (Derek Thompson, July/August 2015). The author raised a few key points worth reviewing here. Largely, Thompson anticipated the reduction of work: fewer jobs and fewer things for humans to do as machines take over more functions. He reminded his readers that the continued ascendancy of computing will lead both to economic and social transformations. Not only is wealth likely to continue concentrating at the top of the economy, but the loss of work will lead to a large-scale social transformation as well—what will industrious Americans do without the jobs they value so much?

Thompson reminds us of the many historical predictions that technology would reduce our workload. And there are contemporary counterparts who also say that as some jobs disappear, other better paying jobs will take their place. But the picture of the future that’s emerging isn’t merely a result of technological destruction of jobs—there are other factors at play that aren’t primarily about technology, including:

  • The increasing percentage of prime-age men who are not looking for work
  • Extended adolescence
  • The increasing public skepticism of professional expertise
  • Clustering of new jobs in a handful of cities and the continued destruction of jobs in the former manufacturing hubs
  • Financialization of the economy

Behind what is certainly some hype lie a few truly substantive shifts in the way our economy functions. With these shifts in mind, it’s useful to remember Roy Amara’s adage: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” We probably overestimate the changes that will come to us in the next few years and underestimate the depth of change over time. Our students will continue to be influenced by the dynamics we are observing now, but their children may think of our current economy as truly foreign.

While it’s probably not very productive to engage in extensive speculations about the future, it is important for us to remember that our students and their parents are thinking about these trends. Let’s consider taking time to reflect with our students on how their time at Wheaton—their core and disciplinary education, their expanding skills and knowledge, their emotional development, and perhaps most importantly, their spiritual growth—equips them with the resilience and adaptability they will need in their future work.

Let’s also remember together that we have never been our own providers, not really. God makes the rain fall and causes the trees to produce fruit. So even if the ways in which we’re all accustomed to earning a livelihood go away, still we are confident in the God who provides.

The history of the church offers some direction as well. At another time when the shape of the economy and the availability of decent work was in turmoil—during the Industrial Revolution—churches stepped in to help. They established settlement houses, soup kitchens, hospitals, and other social services. Likewise, when we think about the future of work, perhaps we could move beyond just feeling concern for ourselves and our children. As educators, we might help our students reframe the issue and imagine how they too can serve in the midst of what may be challenging times ahead.

Opus led a discussion group on the future of work in the summer of 2018. Readers who are interested in learning more about this topic are invited to request the reading packet we developed for that discussion group. Contact ben.norquist@wheaton.edu.

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