“Hey, boss—sorry to interrupt, but it’s time.”
Andy was so engrossed with the painting she was working on that it took her a moment to realize that the voice was talking to her. She leaned back and considered the canvas. It was an arid wasteland rendered in bright neon colors. Rusting hulks of automobiles littered what was once the Pacific Coast Highway. It was the background for Andy’s latest virtual reality project, an afro-cyberpunk reimagining of Octavia Butler’s Earthseed stories.
She live-streamed her painting sessions to her nearly 2 million followers. Working this way, she could build an audience for her projects as they developed. By the time she was ready to release, there would already be a substantial fan base anxiously awaiting the new project.
She rubbed her eyes. “Wow, Lacey, is it already 3:00?”
Lacey responded with a laugh. “More like 5:45.”
“You let me work that long?”
“You seemed to have some serious flow going on. I didn’t want to interrupt, so I just rearranged the afternoon to give you max time,” Lacey explained.
“Just doing my job, boss. And now you should have just enough time to take a short break before the walk-through of the Rodríguez home.”
Andy stood and crossed the small, cluttered studio. Her eyes roamed across the dozens of different projects in varying stages of completion. They ranged from computer screens covered in complex mathematical calculations to hand-built art objects. Andy thrived on the chaos. She would shift seamlessly from one project to the next, often working on as many as six or seven throughout the day. When she was deeply engrossed in one project, she often had unexpected insights into another. When an epiphany struck, she would drop what she was doing to capture the moment.
Of course, that kind of creative freedom could have its downside since Andy’s projects were her livelihood. Keeping Andy focused and making sure that projects got done on time was Lacey’s job. Well, one of Lacey’s jobs. As Andy’s personal smart agent—think: Alexa on steroids—Lacey was responsible for coordinating Andy’s work, running the house, and managing her social calendar. Every successful gigger had an advanced smart agent these days. Some people had separate ones for work and personal life. Andy didn’t see the point. For her, the boundaries between work and private life had dissolved more than a decade ago, when she first started gig-hopping in 2020. Since then she had worked as an experimental mathematician, virtual reality designer, and sustainable architect, to name a few of her more esoteric occupations.
Andy loved the nomadic nature of her work. She might join a team for a few months, but most of the time she worked alone. It wasn’t that Andy was antisocial. She got plenty of human interaction during her workday. Most of her meetings happened in VR spaces so advanced that it was impossible to distinguish the virtual from the real. Plus, she had Lacey as her constant companion, making sure that Andy was always free to follow her passion without sacrificing the need to create an income.
Is this the future of work?
It could easily be imagined as one possibility in a world where artificial intelligence takes on more of the organizational and management jobs that traditionally required scores of individual employees. As work becomes increasingly dispersed and tasks replace jobs, there will certainly be plenty of opportunities for talented solopreneurs to compete with much larger organizations.
No doubt, this particular scenario is one of privilege, reserved for those with access to just-in-time education, the latest digital tools, and the confidence to carve their own path in an increasingly complex environment. How do we make sure those same opportunities are spread across the workforce so that everyone can thrive in this digitally empowered future?
Answering that question begins with a deeper understanding of what the trends, especially in automation, artificial intelligence and the so-called gig economy, are telling us about the coming opportunities and challenges.
Despite a flood of studies on the topic of the automation of work, there is little conclusive evidence on the long-term impact on overall employment. If recent trends continue, it is reasonable to assume that automation will become a cost-competitive alternative to more and more jobs within the next decade. The unknown is where workers displaced by automation will land. Many experts hope that this latest wave of technological disruption will follow the classic curve and create more jobs than it eliminates. However, the only reliable data we have tends to belie that assumption.
In the last two decades, automation has eliminated two jobs for each job it has created in manufacturing and skilled labor occupations. Displaced workers end up in lower-paying jobs, and the ripple effect of automation across the broader economy has been downward in terms of overall job creation.
The expectation is that many of these newly ‘freed’ employees will turn to the gig economy for income. In fact, it was the availability of a large pool of recently unemployed workers created by the Great Recession of 2008 that helped Uber launch the gig economy. If these trends accelerate and collide, they could create significant barriers to building a future of work that is inclusive, diverse, and fulfilling.
So, how do we build a foundation for a future of work where everyone can experience the same success and freedom as Andy? It begins with a commitment to universal digital access and lifelong learning opportunities. It will require teaching every child critical thinking, entrepreneurship, and mindfulness.
For conscious business leaders, it will mean deeper dedication to a broader group of stakeholders. As temporary, project-based assignments replace full-time employment, businesses will become more like dispersed tribes. Leaders will have to invent new forms of connection and engagement. Already flattening hierarchies will be pressed to become even flatter.
Creating a future where digitally empowered individuals can reach their highest potential, and realize their desire for purpose and profit, will be challenging. But the technologies that are disrupting our traditional ideas of work and employment also hold the potential for us to reimagine a better tomorrow. As long as we continue to expand access to opportunities and remember that the goal of business is to improve the larger community, then we can create a future of work where everyone thrives.
Joe Tankersley is a futurist and advocate for better tomorrows. He helped to found and lead Walt Disney Imagineering’s Strategic Foresight group and currently advises corporate and nonprofit clients on how to reimagine their futures. He served on the board of directors for the Association of Professional Futurists for six years and currently sits on the board of The Blue Community, the nonprofit group that oversees the UN Sustainable Tourism Observatory for Florida. His book, “Reimagining Our Tomorrows: Making Sure Your Future Doesn’t SUCK,” was released in September.