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What will the future of work look like?

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

Prof. Dr. Lauren Howe, Assistant Professor at the University of Zurich answers.

What will the future of work look like? Let’s take a moment to imagine it. Let’s say it’s a decade in the future. If you browsed job postings, what kinds of jobs would you see advertised? What skills would be necessary for these jobs and what kinds of skills would be valued by employers?

Of course, as technology plays an ever more prominent role, one set of skills that will be critically important in the future of work are technical skills – learning how to build, design, and work with machines and artificial intelligence. But as I looked into predictions of how technology will change work, I was quite inspired to see that, alongside technical skills, skills that we might think of as fundamentally human also seem to have a solid place in the future of work.

For example, fundamentally human skills like social perceptiveness, negotiation & persuasion, and caring for others are things that machines just aren’t good at (at least not yet). So experts predict that as automation changes jobs, this human side of work will remain much needed and that combining technical and fundamentally human skills will be a sweet spot for work in the future.

But in my research, I wondered whether when people imagine the future of work, they might overlook this more socioemotional side of the future of work. If so, people might neglect the development of socioemotional skills when they prepare for the future of work. Further, if visions of the future of work focus ONLY on technology, they represent the future of work in a stereotypically masculine way

For example, women have been underrepresented relative to men in technical fields for decades and into today, and these fields are sometimes stereotyped as “geeky”, masculine, and socially isolating. So hyperfocusing only on technology in the future of work and missing the need for socioemotional skills that is also there might make women feel more negative and less positive about the future. But if you can broaden visions of the future to acknowledge that social and emotional skills will be important alongside technical skills – as indeed many researchers, experts, and organizations predict – this vision of the future may be more inclusive.

So first, do people do overlook this need for socioemotional skills in the future of work? To get at this question, we recruited 800 students – the future workforce - to spend five minutes reflecting on the very question I asked you at the beginning of this video – Imagine it’s a decade in the future. What kinds of skills would be valued in jobs? Then, we coded these responses for how often they mentioned technical skills (like skills with technology, STEM jobs, robotics and AI) or socioemotional skills (like emotional intelligence, and collaboration and working in teams).

What we found is that students were much less likely to mention socioemotional skills than technical skills in their visions of the future of work. In fact, 61.9% of students – almost two thirds – never mentioned a socioemotional skill when writing about the future, while only 19.1% did not mention a technical skill. And we didn’t just see this tendency among students – in other studies, executives in the C-suite and other top positions as well as journalists writing about the future of work also neglected the socioemotional side of the future of work.

Can you change the way that people envision the future of work? In this same study, we next gave the students different descriptions of the future of work – built on real experts’ statements about the future of work. What we found was that when students read a highly technical narrative about the future of work, less than a third said that their university should expand classes focused on socioemotional skills to prepare students for the future. But this was more evenly split when students imagined the future of work as technical AND socioemotional – then there was room to prioritize both skill sets. In addition, after students read about one of the two visions of the future of work, we asked them to rate the extent to which they felt positive emotions like excited and enthusiastic, and negative emotions, like distressed and upset, when thinking about the future. When the future of work was depicted as technical only, women reported less positive and more negative emotion compared to men, but when the future of work was depicted as technical and socioemotional, there were no gender gaps.

This research suggests that narratives in society may need to more explicitly encourage people to train socioemotional skills alongside technical skills – otherwise, since default visions of the future of work seem to have a blind spot toward the need for these skills, these skills may start to be neglected and this risks contributing to existing gender divides. So when it comes to planning for the future of work, especially in thinking about what kind of talent is fostered and recruited, we as a society may need to more explicitly think about the need for socioemotional skills in the future of work and how they might be important alongside and combined with technical skills in a variety of jobs. Otherwise, we may wander into a future of work that is less inclusive and doesn’t take advantage of all of the opportunities that advances in technology and artificial intelligence can offer.

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