There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.
To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.
As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Michael Wilson.
Michael helps organizations be ready, nimble and adaptable to continually create their next big success. He is chief digital strategist with Sheep Don’t Bark, a branding and marketing firm that leverages data-driven strategies to inspire innovation and new opportunities for organizations ready to grow.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from.
1. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?
I grew up in a suburb of Hartford Connecticut and went on to study “Multimedia Web Design & Development” at the University of Hartford. We lived in CT because my father was an on-air radio personality for ESPN Radio for 17 years – one of the first that they had hired when they developed that division. So as a young kid born in the late 80’s and growing up in the 90’s alongside the internet I spent a lot of time in his home office with all of his computers, gadgets, and recording equipment. That early love of all things both analog and digital never left me, and remains to this day.
I was the oldest of 3 boys, so I would teach my brothers how to use everything… how to turn on those computers, how to play the games when we eventually got them, how to run cables and wires, etc. Just being in that environment and being not only around the tech but also in a position to be a teacher really helped me to learn how to communicate the way to use it all. Eventually I could help my parents and teachers use their technology before realizing this is what I wanted to do for a living. Not only to use it every day but to help others make the most of their technology in their lives and businesses.
2. What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?
The two biggest disruptions facing employers over the next 10-15 years are automation and climate change. In both cases there are ways to plan for the effects to a degree and get ahead of these challenges before they become insurmountable, however there will be entire industries which do not continue to exist down the road, and entirely new industries which pop up to fill needs we don’t have yet.
Employers need to stop thinking about “jobs” and start thinking in terms of “tasks”. Automation software or the robots and systems which will be coming don’t really do “jobs”. By that I mean, they don’t replace everything that a person does. They do one or a few tasks very efficiently. That means that the jobs we do give to people are going to be an ever-changing list of “What can’t the software and robots do for us better yet?” It is going to be a cat and mouse game with a frenetic pace as the evolution of those technologies increases. And it will affect some industries far more than others.
Climate Change disruption should be clear to everyone by now – extreme weather events are disrupting every part of the global supply chain, consumer spending, and our ability to predict with confidence what the future of business activity will look like. That’s bad for any business leader. As those problems intensify over the coming years, it will be even more critical to have diversified products, services, suppliers, and infrastructure so that any one disaster (and the recovery period which follows) cannot take down your business.
3. The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?
College shouldn’t be the one-and-only next step after high school for everyone and we as society shouldn’t be pressuring young people to take on enormous debt at such a young age unless they are very clear on their goals and understand the path to pay off their debt.
Personally, I wish that I had been presented with more options regarding trades and alternative ways to work with the tools and technologies that I was passionate about without going straight to college. (Perhaps an apprenticeship, etc.) Ultimately I learned most of what I employ today via self-taught methods and hands-on work experiences rather than the actual classroom sessions. There’s no doubt that there’s benefits to an on-campus education but I struggle with the cost-benefit aspect of what I really got from my own education. Surely there had to be a better way?
4. Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?
I am less fearful of automation and AI in general than many because I see it as first removing the worst tasks from our lives – the most mundane, routine-oriented, process-driven, and time-consuming. The things that AI does really well are what most people find boring, not creative, and generally lacking human interaction. And while AI systems will probably become more human-like in time, they’re going after low-hanging fruit first. So as these systems replace job tasks, I think it will push people into more humane forms of work that are ultimately the most fulfilling.
Where this may become difficult from a societal standpoint is: “Will there be full-time positions available for what everyone dreams of doing?” And the answer to that is probably “no”. I think that some form of a gig economy that we’re seeing signs of now is here to stay. The creator economy born from the internet with YouTube, blogging, etc. will be around forever and people will have ways to share their interests with others, teach, create content, entertain, and so on.
So job seekers should look to diversify themselves. Relying on one income stream was once standard and is already becoming a risk, and will be more risky going forward and jobs become less stable and the nature of those jobs changes more frequently. We’re hearing the term “side-hustle” or “side-gig” more and more these days and that will become more common as people pursue not only their passions but also a more secure way to have reliable forms of income. For some people that might mean ride-sharing or food delivery services, others might dabble with video streaming, others will get involved with investing or NFTs, the possibilities are really endless and many people will probably be doing many of these.
The important thing is that the loss of any one “job” wouldn’t stop all of your income at once. The pandemic experience taught a lot of people how to be resourceful in this way; to do things remotely, to multitask, etc. And those skills will continue to be a part of all of our lives going forward.
5. The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?
There are two basic ways that I would approach this idea, especially if I were advising a young person looking at college options or someone considering a job retraining program about switching careers.
- Become a programmer. Or more broadly, become a resource in the evolution of the automation and AI revolution and be an essential worker to that process.
- Avoid the issue entirely by focusing on what AI doesn’t deal with: soft skills and human interaction.
Option 1 is fairly self-explanatory but the point is we’ll need people to fix those machines and the software that they run. Eventually they may have bots to fix the bots and software to fix software, but for this first generation of the revolution, they won’t. So be someone who can fix and maintain those things or iterate upon them.
Option 2 is more vague, but there are so many professions that AI will likely not be able to replace for a very long time (if ever really).
For example, nurses will be the very last healthcare profession replaced by any kind of automation. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the doctor giving the diagnosis or the x-ray technician can already be replaced in some circumstances by IBM’s Watson. 10-15 years from now, diagnostic medicine could potentially be largely automated. Nursing however requires personal human-to-human care. That can’t easily be replaced.
And there are so many other examples like this, including: social workers, psychologists, elementary school teachers, etc.
6. Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?
There’s no going back to the way things were pre-pandemic. Working from anywhere is:
- Efficient enough. It may not be as good as in-person, and obviously depends on many variables, but it has been good enough to get us through this period. And since it has been good enough there’s now no going back because the resistance would be too great. People have relocated, changed lifestyles, etc. They are used to it now.
- Cheaper. As businesses can get out of office leases they are going to save a lot of money by running leaner operations.
- Greener. It goes hand-in-hand with being cheaper but there’s a lot less energy cost related to remote work which helps organizations meet their ESG objectives. They aren’t powering buildings for their workers, employees aren’t commuting to work in their cars, etc.
- Regionally-diversified. To my above point about mitigating against climate change and extreme weather, it is a huge risk to have your whole workforce in one place. By allowing your employees to live where they want to live, you’re helping to spread them out and limit your risks of downtime and delays when extreme weather events, power outages, and other problems occur.
- A competitive necessity. You can’t be the only one not offering it now. Everyone is competing for the same talent and the talent has learned that they can live anywhere in the country, be near family, put their kids in whatever school district they want, etc. The talent isn’t going to move now just because you decide they need to commute into your office somewhere else. And your competitor is going to let them work from that beautiful new home they bought during the pandemic. The choice for the talent is going to be easy.
7. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?
The roots of society are formed through the public school education that is offered to each child. In order for this technological revolution to be successful, we need to give the children going through school today the tools and training to step into that new world ready to succeed.
I’m concerned that we’re not going to do that. And similarly, that we don’t have the job retraining programs in position to help those about to be displaced from jobs that they’ve had for 20+ years and may not have anywhere to turn.
We saw, during the pandemic, a period of desperation and violence in this country with riots, looting, and chaos. Stresses brought forward due to the pandemic, racial injustice, and economic inequality, among other factors.
My biggest fear for 10-15 years down the road is that we not only fail to solve those issues… but we add on top of them a 20-30% technology-caused unemployment (unemployment peaked at 14.8% in April 2020) and rampant natural disasters… fires out west and floods in the east and south. If that happens, will society tear itself apart? In such a scenario how could successful day-to-day business operations be the first thing on anyone’s mind?
So even now, as a futurist but more so as a son and as a brother to my family members I think of how we live our lives… how we budget, how we plan for our futures, where it is best to live, etc. With these thoughts in mind. And as I talk to many others my age, they share similar concerns… concerns about the culture of where they live, the stability of the climate of their area, and if that’s a place they can put down roots… if that’s a place they would want to raise kids.
Declaring that you’re a “futurist” is often met with odd reactions. I think everyone should be a bit of a futurist. Everyone should care about the direction that we’re heading and what it has in store for us. What investments are we making for ourselves and the next generation? Every organization should have at least one board member dedicated to being an expert on the future, someone who knows what their industry’s threats and opportunities look like over the next 2, 5, 10 years so that they can plan accordingly. Thinking a fiscal quarter at a time isn’t good enough. To not think about your future is to give it away – there’s always someone else who will decide your future if you don’t.
8. What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?
For employers, the most difficult change to accept will be the pace of change. Many if not most will have achieved their success by mastering an idea, technique, or making a product or service. Going forward, those who succeed will be the innovators who never stop moving… never stop changing what they do. Those who use data to always stay at least one step ahead of their competitors. This will not come naturally to many and they won’t be able to keep up. But for those who can adapt and can make data-based decisions they will truly be empowered to grow at a rate that they never thought possible before.
For employees, the most difficult issue of our time will be privacy (or the lack thereof). This can probably be extended to society at large as well. In the workplace though, employers are going to expect, and many already have begun, to monitor everything that employees do while working. And that is going to feel very intrusive, especially when those workers are working from home. Some employers want to watch those employees via their webcam, use other biometrics, and ultimately gather a lot of performance-related data. This is going to be a battlefield over the coming years about what can and can’t be done but the technological possibilities will only grow and it will come down to what the courts allow and what employers believe they can get away with without upsetting their talent too much. But I expect that the line will continually move in the direction of more data being collected by the employer at the expense of the employees’ privacy.
9. The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?
The way to address the existing income inequality, which is sure to grow as the AI revolution takes off, is via some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI).
I won’t pretend to be an economist here, however it seems clear that society will have the financial resources to keep everyone above the poverty line regardless of employment status. It is then a matter of how we distribute those resources, as we did during the pandemic. So it will be necessary as AI begins to displace more people that we have systems in place to ensure that we don’t create a system of extreme haves and have-nots.
The system that I think is most likely to emerge is one where there’s a monthly UBI provided which keeps all citizens above the poverty line to provide only basic essentials, and a Universal Healthcare program. To earn beyond that level, citizens will choose to find employment in the many full-time jobs that will still be available and necessary, and many others will supplement their UBI with part-time and gig work in different forms.
Universal Healthcare is critical though because benefits will need to be untethered from full-time work in this future scenario as there’s going to be far less full-time work to go around and must be guaranteed for all to prevent a healthcare disaster as many people lose their full-time status and shift to contract work, gig work, part-time, etc. This is already a model in other countries but the United States will need to catch-up.
10. Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
I am genuinely hopeful that work becomes more of a choice and more humane. So many people are currently working simply so that they and their families can survive. We also have many jobs where the person is spending an inordinate amount of time, their most precious resource in life, on tasks which are objectively a waste of that time and a poor use of human capital. But currently there’s no way around it. AI is going to streamline that time issue. The AI revolution is going to unlock the best qualities of our people: their creativity, their passion, and their humanity.
11. Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?
Lifelong education will need to become the norm. The idea that someone can go through K-12 education and be equipped with the skills and knowledge that they need for the rest of life on this planet is obviously inadequate. Adding four more years of higher education to qualify that person for a particular field is still certainly not enough when 10 or 20 years down the line that profession may no longer exist.
We need to make lifelong education a reality. Community colleges and trade schools need to be better invested in to offer a wide range of job training programs so that adults can more easily move between careers at any point in life and make more fluid transitions where they are fully qualified to do something new.
And if we don’t get ahead of the problem quickly, as the pace of change increases there will only be greater gaps and more vacancies as more new industries pop-up with no qualified workers available.
12.Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)
If you aren’t already, then start thinking about your business and others in terms of these 3 keywords.
How well do you or they: treat the environment, handle relationships with your stakeholders, and manage your organization? And in particular, do you treat people fairly, have diverse and equitable representation and do a good job of working with the communities where you have a presence?
This is a deep and nuanced topic but it is critical for all business leaders to start thinking about it because this is how they and their businesses are now being judged by others. University endowments have mandates not to invest in companies with poor ESG ratings, some large firms won’t do business with suppliers that don’t meet certain ESG targets, etc. The world is becoming more transparent and the way that you meet these expectations could mean the difference between success and failure.
- Blockchain integration
Everything that is currently a contract of any kind or could require authentication or verification will end up tokenized on a blockchain. Right now, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have been popularized through online platforms mostly for digital art and collectibles. However, as these become commonplace, we’ll move onto the more practical, maybe even boring, everyday uses for them that will bring them into your everyday life. That’s why companies such as DocuSign, Zillow, Amazon, Microsoft, and others are all looking at ways to use Blockchains. They see the potential in using Blockchain-based tokens for everything from your new home purchase, to banking operations, to drivers licences, to your high school diploma. Anything that might require validation or authentication in the real world… just as art does already, could be better stored and processed digitally via the blockchain.
What this means for the world of tomorrow is that there will be a much better, more secure, more networked flow of data for things that right now have no way of talking to each other. Things that right now might require physical signatures, paperwork, passwords, (dare I say a fax machine) won’t anymore. They will be digital tokens that you’ll be able to prove are real, prove who the owner is, and will have all kinds of useful metadata associated and on the blockchain forever. Data that can’t be lost in a fire, tampered with, hacked, etc.
- AI / Automation & “Deep Learning”
The AI revolution will be broad and involve software, systems, and robots which can execute the software. We’re really already living in the future predicted by the films that we grew up watching: drones, driverless cars, and fully automated factories are all beginning to come to reality.
If there’s any one “trend” to watch for in this space to see what’s coming next and where the progress is really being made, watch the Deep Learning space and Open.ai’s GPT 3.0. This model is able to turn data into human speech or code. Essentially, it is an AI model that can write its own language.
The algorithms behind the biggest tech companies in the world are no longer written by people, they’re written by deep learning AI systems like this. According to ARKInvest, “In 2020, deep learning powered almost all large scale internet services including search, social media, and video recommendations”.
- China & the world
China’s influence on global life can’t be understated. The biggest issue for America as we go forward though is that we’re entering a period where we expect there to be immense resource shortages while we’re also scaling into a technology revolution. And unfortunately for us, China is holding a lot of the cards. They not only have the vast majority of the semiconductor capacity, but they also happen to sit on a great deal of the natural resources required to make those chips. So pay careful attention to policy coming out of China and U.S. policy as it relates to China going forward because that is going to have a huge effect on how this technology revolution actually transpires.
We’re now in a situation where Ford has to shut down production lines because it doesn’t have the chips to make cars. Any number of other industries which historically might not have been “technology businesses” will be similarly affected in the months or years to come. And the knock-on effects on the supply chain and related businesses will likely be very substantial even to those who are not directly related to technology or semiconductors.
And these issues are during relatively peaceful times. If anything were to happen which stresses the U.S./China relationship further or towards any kind of breaking point we could see U.S. businesses put in an incredibly precarious situation, not only in terms of semiconductors but many other essentials as well until a point where more goods are produced elsewhere.
- Vertical Integration
The most successful businesses of the next 10-20 years are going to be mega-businesses who eliminate suppliers, middlemen, and extra steps in their customers’ process by handling an entire line of thought themselves, in-house.
For example, it might have seemed like an odd acquisition for some when Amazon bought Twitch. Why would they need a video streaming service mostly catering to video gamers? However the integration is a brilliant one… Amazon is able to drive viewers into the Twitch service for many hours at a time, during which those viewers consume lots of ads for Amazon products and services which drive them to the Amazon website where they can buy the items which get delivered by an Amazon delivery person. At every stage of the sales funnel, the customer was in an Amazon loop and never left it.
Tesla is also going the same route, becoming their own chip & battery supplier in addition to making their own cars and solar panels… their customers will be able to buy a car and power it via the solar power collected at their own home all via entirely Tesla-made and installed products.
This transition to vertically-integrated mega-corporations will lead to fewer companies overall, much more consolidation, and a very high barrier to entry for entrepreneurs looking to launch a business. Those bigger companies who remain will be powered by lots of data and AI which will be very hard for new entrants to match.
13. Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?
“Leave it better than you found it.”
Something that I try to apply to anyone I meet or anywhere that I go.
In business, particularly for the clients that we work with at Sheep Don’t Bark, I often begin a relationship by hearing two things: I hear what all of the problems are that they’re experiencing, and I get to hear what their aspirations are and where they’d really like to go. So starting from that place, and trying to make sure that we’re going to leave them one day better than we found them, we know that we can solve problems and fix issues, but truly we want to help them reach that dream state and help guide them to a future that they can be really proud of.
14. We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I am a great admirer of Cathie Wood, CEO of ARK Invest. It would be great to sit with her and discuss disruptive innovation which I’m also a huge believer in.
15. Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?
Follow me on LinkedIn.
Michael, thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.