The Digital Work Economy and Our Human Future

Leading tech strategist Gary Bolles offers a balanced perspective on the impact of technology on jobs, institutions, learning and human development.


Date Posted

10 Jan 2018


Issue 18, 30 Jan 2018

The Digital Work Economy and Our Human Future from Civil Service College Singapore on Vimeo.

1. How should we be thinking about the future of work? 

The single most important insight about the future of work is that it has nothing to do with the future. We are already deep into the transition to what I call the digital work economy. Trying to guess what the world of 2050 will look like isn’t an especially useful activity today, because all the challenges and opportunities of a world of work transformed by automation and globalisation are already here.

Of course we all would love to see the future, so we can make the most appropriate decisions, and try to avoid bad things happening. As Singularity University co-founder Ray Kurzweil has often said, technology has always been a double-edged sword: beginning with fire, which warmed us, but also burned our houses. Some of us want to foresee the results of technology’s impact on the world of work because of concerns that robots and software have the potential to perform virtually any task, thereby making human work obsolete.

But I call that “hi-tech dancing in the end zone”: Silicon Valley sees its technologies as being so unrelentingly successful at automating human tasks, that all technologists can see is an overwhelmingly automated future.

That’s simply a collective failure of imagination. We would all have had the same misconception if we’d gone back 150 years, to the start of the industrial revolution, and tried to envision jobs for 3 billion people. It’s entirely possible that this time will be different—we’re talking about software and robots, after all, not mills and looms—but even the most far-seeing forecasters can’t know the actual future impact on human work. 

That’s because automation doesn’t replace jobs: it performs tasks. It’s a human’s decision if a job goes away.

Work is actually three very simple components. We’re paid to work because we solve problems. How do we solve problems? We perform tasks. How do we perform tasks? We use our skills. So, humans use their skills to perform tasks so we can solve problems. Bundle up all of the problems that each of us solves in our work, and that’s a job.

Automation doesn’t replace jobs: it performs tasks. It’s a human’s decision if a job goes away.

Along comes a robot, or a piece of software. That technology rarely performs all of the tasks of any worker’s job. But because software and robots perform a human’s former tasks, a worker’s job is inevitably changed by the introduction of technology. It’s a human’s decision as to how that worker’s tasks are reorganised, and whether or not a job goes away.

Rapid-growth companies often have a commitment to maintaining existing workers, because they need all the people they can get. But slower-growth companies have a tendency to use robots and software to replace human work—and lay off workers who are no longer needed. Leaders need to invest in programmes and technologies to help workers disrupted by automation.

Automation almost always represents new opportunity. There are very few buggy whip manufacturers any more, but there are a lot of car mechanics. We have to ask: What new work is created because of automation? How easy is it for existing workers to learn to perform that new work? Where is that new work, geographically? Does that new work pay as much as the old work? And does the overall pool of work—all the compensated work that humans can do—continue to grow? Or does it start to shrink, as technologists look for more and more tasks that can be automated?

The main reason that so much entrepreneurial energy is applied to automating human tasks is that the venture-backed model of start-ups inevitably looks for existing markets to disrupt. In developed economies, human labour is an expensive cost centre, so it’s easiest to find a set of tasks that can be replaced by automation.

We need to think differently. If we take the same amount of energy and capital that’s currently focused on disrupting human labour, and instead focus it on up-skilling and enhancing human capabilities, we’ll create far more work opportunity than we’d ever imagined.

Along the way, we’ll also need to become more flexible in our thinking about where work is performed. By training managers to coordinate remote workers, we can ensure the ongoing viability of our rural areas, letting talented workers stay where they have the greatest quality of life.

2. What can we do to mitigate the challenges and make the most of opportunities in the digital work economy?

There are many useful strategies for individuals, organisations, communities, and countries. I’m helping to guide an initiative to aggregate all of those strategies, by collaborating with organisations around the world. But here are some of the strategies we know are critical.

For communities and countries, policymakers need to understand that traditional institutions, such as work, education, and healthcare, are designed for a world that has already changed dramatically. We need to think about meaningful and reliable paid work instead of jobs, lifelong learning instead of traditional education, and healthcare tied to the individual rather than the organisation.

Policymakers can also work with industries to increase the signals they send to the work market, so workers have a greater certainty that there will be near-term work available for them. Singapore has done this by encouraging a range of industries to collate their projections for future worker needs. Education providers can then take this information and create what calls nano-degrees—focused learning opportunities for specific job opportunities.

Policy stakeholders can also encourage hirers to “soften the walls” of their organisations. By providing economic incentives to increase programmes like mentorships and internships, making internal training programmes available to independent workers, and hiring workers in rural areas, policymakers can dramatically accelerate the process of making work and training more broadly available.

3. In what ways can public policy facilitate a more flexible, adaptive, learning workforce?

Any strategy for large-scale workforce flexibility has to start with the individual. Each person has a unique set of skills and experiences. Each individual needs to learn how to continually do a “self-inventory” to know what makes them unique. They also need the tools to envision the kind of work they’d like to do in the future, and have support in either finding or creating that kind of work.

Structurally, we need to move away from the idea of a “job” to what I call “unbundled work”. As the definition of a career is shifting from lifelong work in a single field, to an individual’s entire relationship with the world of work throughout their lives, workers will need to pursue what I call “a portfolio of work”: a range of projects and work roles at any point in their work lives. The traditional one person-one job role will never go away, but there will be fewer people working in those roles, and more who will be working independently in a variety of activities at any one time. Yet governments will need to help smooth the ups and downs of that kind of model, and help workers when their income inevitably dips.

We need to empower individuals with the tools to drive their own direction in life.

This “unbundling” also means that we need to completely rethink traditional retirement. Since we’re moving towards a model of lifelong learning and lifelong working, we also need a model of lifelong leisure. We need to be as intentional about planning for leisure as we do for work and learning. We need to intentionally plan time for family, hobbies, and fun—or else work will fill every waking hour, with all of the physical and psychological challenges that come with it. We need “alternating rhythms” in our lives, doing a range of different activities on a regular basis, to keep ourselves stimulated, engaged, and healthy. The industrial-era model only allowed us to enjoy leisure at an advanced age, but so long as governments continue to encourage saving for our later years, we can ensure that workers can enjoy extended leisure at various points throughout their lives.

If we’re going to make an actual commitment to lifelong learning, we have to completely rethink our schools. Most public and private education is built on an industrial-era model of mass production, segmenting students by age without regard to learning style or innate skills, and using mechanisms like testing to ensure students move forward as an age cohort. But given the rapid pace and spread of change, we have to prepare our youth to be adaptive and agile learners—and we can’t do that with learning factories. We need to provide much more flexible learning environments throughout our lives, and help people to pro-actively design their own learning goals, and have access to a range of learning situations.

When it comes to college-age learners, we need to move away from the degree model, which simply reinforces a production-era mentality, and instead move towards a functional skills model that supports more discrete chunks of learning, and provides certification mechanisms that look more like learning badges than degrees.

For disadvantaged populations of any kind, the single most important thing we can do is to sponsor “agency”. We need to empower individuals with the tools to drive their own direction in life, and provide them access to the learning resources they need to ensure they’re prepared for their next work transition. And we need to support a variety of ways for workers of all kinds to band together for their mutual benefit, supporting mechanisms like guilds to ensure that groups can collectively support each other.

The real deliverable is to upgrade our organisations, our learning institutions, and our governments to be perpetual adaptation machines.

4. What should we keep most in mind when thinking about how to address the future of work?

We need to stop thinking that there is some ideal answer about where the world of work is going, and to instead realise that the single most critical thing we can do today is to design for adaptability. I can say with absolute certainty that the world of work in 20 years will be dramatically different than we envision today. So the real deliverable is to upgrade our organisations, our learning institutions, and our governments to be perpetual adaptation machines.

We must also mobilise civil society to commit to the never-ending need for human work. For example, we need to rethink the very nature of business. If the only stakeholder that matters is an organisation’s shareholders, then the tyranny of quarterly financial reporting inevitably means that we will do away with costly human labour wherever possible. Instead, we need to expand the organisation’s list of stakeholders to include workers, customers, partners, communities, the planet—and, yes, shareholders—so that organisational leaders will make decisions to benefit humans and their work.

We place financial value on the things we value, as people. As the world of work continues to dramatically change before our eyes, we need to commit to one fundamental concept: no human left behind. Only then can every individual thrive in the transition to a digital work economy.



Gary A. Bolles writes and speaks around the world on the transition to a digital work economy, focusing on strategies that can help individuals, organisations, communities, and countries. He is the Chair for the Future of Work for Singularity University, co-founder of, and partner in Charrette LLC, a boutique strategy consulting firm based in San Francisco.

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