The Future of Work | EMPATHY

With the world of work changing at such a rapid rate, we’re quickly approaching a fork in the road that’s bound to determine the future of humanity’s relationship with work. For those of us raised on Aldous Huxley and Suzanne Collins, the challenges presented by the world yet-to-come are endlessly fascinating.

How can we get a headstart on these coming problems? What are the most important skills for young professionals to develop right now? Should we be prepping our torches and pitchforks for the artificial intelligence of the future, or should we be more concerned about stagnant wages, discrimination and rising inequality?

In this series, based on Matthew Taylor and Fabian Wallace-Stephens’ research for the RSA, using detailed scenario modelling with leading engineers Arup, we’re going to examine the crossroads on the horizon, and explore a few threads from the multiverse of potential futures.

Last week we took a tour of a potential future defined by hyper-surveillance, where society learns to lean more heavily on algorithms than automation. It wasn’t great. But what would the world look like if rather than squeezing, pressuring and scrutinising workers we use developing technology to augment the things human workers can do that robots simply can’t? 

In an Empathy economy, technology continues to develop fast, and things progress in a similar way to the Big Tech economy. Automated tech insinuates itself into every sector, especially hospitality and healthcare, and as a result our society benefits from higher quality in public services – but eyebrows are raised when unemployment begins to creep upwards, and the Silicon Valley titans break into new sectors, transferring their profits oversees. The dissenters who were kept underfoot in the Big Tech economy make more noise, and public attitudes sour.

Tech companies make the decision to self-regulate, and automation is consciously contained when businesses start to work with unions to develop technology that can be adopted on mutually beneficial terms. Wearable tech and virtual reality are weaved into existing jobs, but without the Orwellian after-taste present in the Precision Economy.

Instead, technology and algorithms are used to help workers develop high-touch skills – retail workers are encouraged to role-play customer interactions using virtual reality scenarios, for example, helping them practice soft-skills that can’t be taught through training videos. The health and fitness industry is revolutionised, with personal trainers and dieticians making use of wearable technology and big data in order to create personalised training regimes and diet-plans for their clients.

Workers begin to see improvements in living standards, because we’re able to retain the gains from productivity growth in the UK. Disposable income is then free to flow into high-touch sectors that have proved to be resistant to automation – care and education, for example

Whilst this is probably the brightest potential future of the four we’ve explored, it’s far from perfect. In a world where a career is built on boosting the feelings of others, we are all required to manage our own emotions throughout the working day, which can be more demanding than physical labour.

From Dystopia to Utopia

There is a growing consensus that soft (or ‘life’) skills are increasingly important to employers – in fact, in certain roles they could be more valuable than qualifications based on academic knowledge. There are difficult questions to answer about how transferable creativity and problem-solving skills are, but young workers would be sensible to channel energy into practicing the seven core soft skills: leadership, teamwork, communication, problem solving, work ethic, flexibility and interpersonal abilities. They’re likely to serve you very well in the future.

We should be looking into building strategies that will help workers up-skill in ways that will help them benefit from the approaching disruption to the way we work. The RSA Lab is currently working with employers in the retail sector to find ways to equip shop-floor workers with high-touch customer service skills, and we’re seeing similar programmes pop up elsewhere.

We shouldn’t underestimate the pressure of a working society built on a foundation of empathy, however. Without an infrastructure in place to give workers a space to vent and recharge after stifling their own emotions in pursuit of truly excellent customer service, we could see rising levels of frustration and workers struggling with mental health. 

It’s also important to remember that (even with tech-augmented training) not everybody is suited to high-touch roles, and we need to spend time considering how workers can develop within the low-skilled jobs that persist. Occupational licensing would be a great way to ensure these jobs are given the status they deserve, and possibly raise their earning power at the same time.