The Future of Work: Best of Times and/or Worst of Times?

Shortlist
5 min readAug 25, 2023
Our robot friends can now pluck petals.

I just capped off a frenetic three-week visit to the US, making stops in 7 different cities (if you can count my 20,000-person hometown of Lockport NY as a city — perhaps a stretch, though we do have the amazing Erie Canal Locks).

My trip was book-ended by two unique experiences. On the front end, I participated in a Young Leaders Conference put on by the Council for the United States & Italy, bringing together 51 professionals from 17 countries in Boston to discuss “The Changing Nature of Work and Its Implications for Individuals, Businesses and Society.” And on the back end, I sat on a panel at SOCAP in San Francisco, discussing “The Future of Work — and What’s Working Already.” Similar topics, but very different outlooks.

The first event in Boston focused on a series of thought-provoking questions about the way work is changing. We discussed the forces that are causing these changes, from gig-enabling marketplaces to offshoring to robotic and AI-driven automation to wealth concentration and the emergence of a new monopolistic order. We considered the havoc this is wreaking, at the level of income disparities, industrial re-ordering, loss of identity and self-esteem. And we queried: What on earth might we do about it?

The discussions were terrific, textured, and open — and a lot of fun. (Spoiler: Not sure we solved it.) However, at the end of the day, they more often than not tracked the pessimistic arc of most journalistic news stories and commentary: The world is changing, it’s creating more losers than winners, we should raise our fists and resist. And, I must admit, I often feel this way.

SOCAP presented another point of view: Amidst the doom and gloom, there’s hope and excitement. Amidst robots and machine intelligence, we are opening up new ways of democratizing opportunity and giving real people a chance to seize control of their destinies. Probably not surprising for SOCAP, which is held at Fort Mason, perched on the scenic northern tip of SF. It’s one of the only conferences where most meetings are had while staring out at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, where you can always taste the ocean, and where you sometimes leave with a tan. Who wouldn’t bend towards world-beating optimism in those environs, and with the do-gooding, feel-gooding energy of over 3,000 global participants?

But now, back in India, free from the ideological pull of both experiences, I find myself drawn to and mulling over the lesser told story of the really cool stuff happening around the future of work: The future of how we learn new skills, pursue fulfilling careers without crushing student debt, discover and pursue awesome career pathways. Many of these sub-currents seem driven by entrepreneurs and enabled by modern technological possibility. Among the examples and trends that give me hope:

Viable, accessible alternatives to traditional, expensive four-year undergraduate degrees. There’s nothing wrong with a traditional liberal arts program (says the philosophy/psychology major…) but for many it’s a debt-ridden path to professional no-man’s land. One of my fellow SOCAP panelists (and Shortlist investor) Ryan Craig of University Ventures published a book called “College Disrupted,” which argues that online degrees and other higher ed alternatives will unbundle traditional degrees to offer a better deal for the majority of students in terms of graduation, employment, and wages. And he’s publishing another book next year on faster, cheaper, and better alternatives to college, identifying hundreds of new options.

An example is a program like MissionU, whose founder Adam Braun also joined our SOCAP panel. MissionU is a one-year program which combines training in-demand skills like data analytics and business intelligence with soft-skills like collaboration and critical thinking, financed with an income-share agreement requiring $0 upfront (repayment is taken as a % of income post-graduation).

An explosion of short-course options to upskill in areas like programming, data science, digital marketing, and more, offered by “boot camps” like General Assembly and Galvanize, online course providers like Udemy and Udacity, MOOC-aggregators like Coursera, and blended models like Upgrad. Almost anyone can catch up to the cutting edge with enough basic smarts, motivation, and tuition money (which can be, admittedly, steep).

New ways of combining upskilling and talent connection into one business model, especially in emerging markets. Companies like Andela (in Africa) and Revature (in US/India) combine talent screening and tech upskilling to find and train teams of engineers. (Ashwin Bharath, COO/Co-Founder of Revature, rounded out our panel at SOCAP.) These engineers get contracted out to global companies, like GitHub and Viacom, while staying on the books of Andela/Revature. Companies get lower cost talent, and young professionals get the opportunity to learn new skills and advance their careers on someone else’s dime.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a blog by me if I didn’t plug Shortlist, and how excited we are about facilitating a shift from pedigree-based to competency-based hiring. We see so many ways to use tech and data to make it easier for employers to see past the CV and instead assess true potential, ability, and fit, promoting a level economic playing field and helping companies and employees alike find a better match. In fact, we see this shift towards competency-based methods as integral to the success of many of the above ideas. Employers will need to reorient themselves from traditional proxies like 4-year degrees and name brand corporate experience to other signals of competency if programs like those at MissionU, General Assembly, and UpGrad are to reach their full potential.

Last but not least, I love to see a LOT more focus on building a career of meaning and impact, particularly among millennials. Perhaps I’m over-sampling the do-gooder set (too much time at SOCAP; Medium/Facebook/Google AI bots great at predicting my click propensity) but it really does seem like mission and meaning are more important to young professionals than ever. Getting rich quick and at all costs is no longer cool; making the world a better place is (though if you can do that while getting rich, that may be cooler still, according to my read of the zeitgeist). I see new articles and blogs every day focused on meaning at work, ikagai, and self-actualization. Companies like Imperative are trying to help companies lead with purpose.

Our data head Anshul’s (nonprofit) side hustle.

Even on my team at Shortlist, I love to see the extracurricular energy of my colleagues: Our data science head Anshul moonlights as the co-founder of GreatToAwesome, helping young Indian professionals build “careers of passion and impact”; and one of our first employees Ben launched a podcast Journey Down Discovery Lane, featuring guests with ideas for “becoming your best self.”

So, amidst the pessimism, there’s light! There’s cause for optimism! Maybe we can turn this thing around, and the future of work will be better than ever!

Even so: robots scare me…

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Shortlist

Shortlist provides Executive Search services and workforce development programming to impact-focused companies in Africa and beyond.