Forecasting a brave new world (Guest commentary)

Students gaze into crystal balls and reveal a surprising working world in 2040
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/06/2011

You’re sitting in your office in the year 2040. The phone rings. On the other end of the line is HR at Petrobas, a large petroleum and energy firm based in Brazil.

They know you’ve just finished an assignment with Shell in the Middle East and they are asking you to join their company. They want to set up an interview that morning with the potential team, comprised of specialists based around the world. A global video link to conduct the interview can be arranged within minutes and Petrobas is anxious to discuss the opportunity before another competitor snaps you up.

Since the International Bureau of Social Networks is the global watchdog organization that manages and protects the global database, Petrobas — being a member — already has a detailed view of your background including education, work experiences, assessments conducted, skills and interests.

Being part of the bureau also means members have a social visa, carried as a computer chip, that grants access to workers across national borders — essential in a world where workers frequently work on different continents. Language is no longer an issue because of simultaneous electronic translation services.

The Global Information Access Act has been in existence for many years (it replaced national privacy laws written at the turn of the century, before Facebook revolutionized access by demonstrating people were willing to share personal information). Petrobas’ workforce is primarily contingent and virtual workplaces are the predominant mode of business.

Does this sound like a far-fetched scenario? Not to the students who participated in this year’s Focus 2040 competition. (For more information see, “Students predict world of work in 2040,” page 8.) A changed landscape anywhere close to this scenario has huge implications for individuals, the HR function, organizations, communities and countries.

People in 2040

What about the people in the workforce of 2040? What will they need and expect from this highly flexible, global and virtual workplace? By 2040, generation Z — those born in the early 2000s — will be in their late 30s and will have become the backbone of this fluid, global workforce. Commonly called the net generation, they are the first generation born into the web world and have grown up completely comfortable with the digital technologies that give them what they need and want — anytime, anywhere.

Unlike their gen-Y predecessors who were more team-oriented, generation Z is individually oriented. To that end, the Focus 2040 finalists foresee a workforce focused on achieving personal happiness. With personal fulfillment as their primary goal, organizations will be expected to bend to meet the needs of the individual.

‘Happiness maps’ enable personal fulfillment

Technological advances in brain research expected to occur between now and 2040 will provide organizations with a whole new set of tools to meet individuals’ personal fulfillment requirements. One such tool would be neurologically based “happiness maps” that tailor job specifications and conditions to maximize the personal fulfillment for each individual.

Depending on individual happiness profiles, jobs would be designed to meet professional and personal needs and provide a range of development opportunities. The job content would fit an individual’s competencies and needs for professional growth. This could include job rotations to broaden experience, working from geographical locations to broaden cultural awareness and having free time to pursue individual projects. On the personal side, jobs would be designed to fit with an individual’s preferred working style and conditions, and would also accommodate family needs.

Looking into the 2040 crystal ball, the finalists see a person who is clear about her needs and aspirations and expects the workplace to fulfill them. Employee activism has long been embraced by organizations, as far back as 2015, when retention had become such a critical priority.

The student view of the world and workplace in 2040 led us to recall Aldous Huxley’s book, Brave New World. In 1932, Huxley introduced a futuristic society, set in 2540, where advances in science and technology had an alarming dehumanization effect. Perhaps he was not so far off with his futuristic novel.

The rise of robots

A common theme at Focus 2040 confirmed we can absolutely expect an imminent and momentous, evolutionary transition in the development of life on earth as the biotechnology revolution unfolds. Imagine life in the workplace where resources consist of biologically inspired robotic systems that adapt to changing environments and have the ability to learn and emulate the versatility of living beings. In other words, the workforce would consist of robots with the capacity to replace humans.

How are we going to respond to this robotic revolution? Think about it — will these humanoid robots be creating new manufacturing jobs, programming and engineering jobs, sales jobs or even repair and servicing jobs? It’s doubtful. They will be able to fly airplanes, carry out surgical operations, provide special care services, be the ideal server in restaurants, handle dangerous and emergency jobs and even repair and teach themselves.

As leaders, if we handle it appropriately, the introduction of humanoid robots could be incredibly beneficial. At the risk of sounding Utopian, with humanoid robots doing most of the work and everyone’s life span extending indefinitely, we should be able to maximize our freedom of choice or go on perpetual vacations. However, society currently relies on people earning money in order to live. If we do not handle the future bioscientific, technological and environmental advances appropriately, we could potentially cause a major upheaval in the economy and none of us will benefit.

The critical question for leaders is what can be started now that will help smooth the transition to a robotic world? We cannot wait until 2030 or even 2040 to start rethinking our economy, the workplace and our communities. We need to understand now how we will enable people to live a purposeful life in a robotic world.

Sustainability

Lastly, what will the planet look like in 2040? Sustainability was a theme in almost every presentation. For them, “greening” is not just a fad and the issues took many forms:

•Fewer people working in offices results in less commuting and smaller, more efficient core offices — if offices still exist at all. Some of the presenters painted a picture that still included a central office location while others envisioned a virtual global workforce.

•Recycling and recovery become a part of good business practice and efficient use and source of resources.

•A strong expectation of corporate social responsibility (CSR) exists. Corporations manage their carbon footprint and overall impact on the environment in all aspects of business operations: workspace, sourcing, production, marketing, distribution and after-market. Corporations would find CSR expectations held by a variety of stakeholders: consumers, governments that created CSR legislation and employees who prefer to be affiliated with and work for a responsible company.

•Energy-consuming practices are eliminated by technology. For example, physical travel is replaced by real-time image projection.

•New alternative, sustainable forms of energy are developed.

•Sustainable choices and practices become ingrained. Our brains become hard-wired to naturally make sustainable choices. Sustainability is no longer about making choices but is a way of being.

In many cases, technology and technological advancements were seen as key to supporting sustainability. That said, what was not addressed by the students at Focus 2040 was the environmental cost of technology as it currently exists, with massive, energy-sucking computer server farms with heavy metal and rare earth components in the hardware. Some participants did indicate energy, as we know it today, must change and alternative, more sustainable energy sources must be developed. While visions varied on the degree of impact of sustainability, there was a clear view sustainability, in some form, will be a major factor in organizations going forward.

It seems clear to us the organizations that will succeed in this decade, let alone 2040, are not waiting for changes and trends to emerge before they act. The winners are those that study what is happening around them, consider and evaluate possibilities and welcome change. They will encourage employees to be reflective, have diverse interests and learn continuously.

Ian Hendry, Karen Gorsline, Ray Johnston and Patricia Maguire wrote this article together on behalf of the Strategic Capability Network. If you would like to learn more and are interested in hearing the Focus 2040 winners’ predictions, attend the Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto on May 11. For more information, visit www.scnetwork.ca.

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