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The working world of 2040

Students paint a realistic picture of what work could look like in 25 years

By Todd Humber

Whenever we think of a vision of the future, two things inevitably arise — flying cars and jet packs. (And yes – I’m still not over the fact I don’t own a jet pack.)

It’s been like that since at least the early 1900s, when French artist Villemard painted a series of postcards of what life would be like in the year 2000. The whimsical paintings show a future with trains in the sky, a machine that converts books directly into knowledge pumped into your brain, a fantastic contraption that allows an architect to build an entire building by  himself and — yes — flying cars.

So perhaps we should give the students at the just completed Focus 2040 competition — presented by the Strategic Capability Network and McMaster University’s Degroote School of Business on March 20 in Burlington, Ont. — credit for painting a far more realistic vision of the year 2040.

Fifteen students, representing schools across Ontario and Nova Scotia, pitched their vision of the what they thought the working world will look like in 25 years — but not before Rick Mercer kicked off the event with a special video.  

The winning team — Nadine Shantz and Matthew Armellin, both commerce students at the DeGroote School of Business — said they envisioned a future where workers are defined by their personal brand, and not by who employs them.

The working world could look a lot more like life on campus, they argued, with a plenty of cross-functional opportunities for workers. After all, students don’t just study one subject and one subject only — and workers wouldn’t need to just specialize in one task or area. They could bounce around to different positions, picking up new skills and applying what they’ve learned in other areas to their new roles.

In a theme that echoed some of last year’s presentation, Shantz and Armellin argued that the next generation of workers simply aren’t interested in owning houses and having mortgages. They’d rather spend that money on leisure and travel — and not being tied down to a property would give the workers more flexibility to move to where the work is, potentially living in company-sponsored housing. (I remain sceptical of that vision — I didn’t want a house when I was 20 either, but priorities and interests change.)

They pointed out the gen-Y and gen-Z workers have been babied by their parents, and because of that family is going to play a huge role in the working world, with lots of family-oriented programs in the workplace. And by the year 2040, the government will have instituted universal child care across the country, which takes the expense (and hassle) of finding childcare out of the equation.

On the health and wellness front, Shantz and Armellin see the elimination of a lot of shift work. Obviously, some workers — such as doctors, police officers and firefighters — need to work around the clock. But as the body of evidence grows, showing the damage that shift work does to people’s physical and psychological health, changes will be made to greatly reduce the number of people on shifts.

Mandatory breaks will also gain popularity — companies will create blackout periods where technology systems will physically shut down and force workers to get up, interact and be social.

Michael Carey, an MBA student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, took judges on a tour of what the world would look like in 2040. There will be a tidal wave of technology flowing across developing nations in what he called the “Roaring 2020s.”

In the United States, a demographic shift will create the “Latino States of America” — English will still be the language of management, but a lot of front-line workers (and the HR professionals who recruit them) will need to be fluent in Spanish to serve the majority of customers.

Nigeria, he argued, will become a global economic player due to its exploding population and vast natural resources. A good portion of Western Africa will experience an economic boom. And, of course, China and India will continue to be major players — and English could even learn a thing or two from Mandarin.

Carey pointed out that 140 characters in Mandarin is equal to about 140 words, and English has a long history of absorbing words and tricks from other languages — so it’s not hard to envision a continuing evolution of English to make it a more efficient way to communicate.

“As we talked about the key capabilities needed in a highly competitive world, the need for us to be able to evaluate and measure the social networks of new recruits is going to become increasingly importance,” said Ian Hendry, vice-president of HR and administration at Interac and president of the Strategic Capability Network. “Broad social networks of like-minded professionals can be both a recruitment and marketing bonanza for organizations who create healthy cultures. Well connected recruits help build that brand, so knowing who is well networked has real importance.”

2014 Focus 2040 Winners

First place: Matthew Armellin and Nadine Shantz, McMaster University, Hamilton.

Second place: Naureen Qazi Mushfiq, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ont.

Third place: Mikael Castado, University of Toronto (Scarborough Campus), Toronto.

For more information about Focus 2040, visit and look for additional coverage in the April 21 issue of Canadian HR Reporter.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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