Do we really think the future of work involves our replacement by robots?

future of workA report published recently by my former colleagues at CBRE called “Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and the Workplace” claims that by 2025 so many people will be more interested in being happy and having creative roles that up to 50 percent of current occupations will be defunct. 35 years elapsed between the release of Orwell’s 1984 and the eponymous year and very little of Orwell’s dystopian vision came to pass. 2030 is a scant 16 years away so, even if one takes the exponential pace of change into account, it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to think robots will have taken their seat at the table in quite the way we appear to think they will. Also unchanged one assumes are the attitudes of those who have a vested interest in the status quo or in dictating where the benefits of change will fall.

Even those funky guys in the Valley have skin in the great game and are fast outpacing their pinstriped brethren in creative accounting practices. Google gets great press for turning disused trams into shelters for the homeless but they’d get even better press if they paid their taxes so we could start to do more to tackle inequality.

Of course, as the CBRE report suggests, a lot of youngsters these days want happiness over money and their folks now aspire that they have happiness over money too. Which is great news for the tech and media corporations who provide that happiness. Hence the relentless churn of new iPhone models out of Cupertino, smart watches and other wearable tech, the X Factor, America’s Got Talent, Strictly Come Dancing and The Batchelor, One Direction, Justin Bieber and the Jonas brothers (I don’t know, I had to use Google for that last bit). And it’s not just tech and media companies that want us to be happy too. BP do a really nice line in environmental concern to make sure we’re happy to continue to consume their product. But lift any nearby rock and you’ll still find an oil-gummed guillemot struggling for breath. If one were being cynical (or sceptical) all these gewgaws could be viewed as a sop to the masses. A “let them eat cake” from the Masters of the Universe. Happy, but at what cost?

SoylentgreenAnd of course, there’s still no real sense of, or attempt to properly define what new roles all these people are going to occupy. They can’t all be flexible freelance contingent workers and 16 years does not allow sufficient time to transform our education systems to prepare students for a new world of work. It’s not the 1 percent who are going to have a lot more leisure time. And sooner or later the illusion’s going to break down. Someone will spot the glitch in the matrix. CBRE’s report has an Asiatic bent, which is no surprise given that originates out of their APAC Workplace Strategies practice, but it naturally omits any comment on the recent massive demonstrations in Hong Kong. The scenarios described are ones which will only serve to maintain, or in worst case scenarios, widen the gap between the expectations of the workforce and the desire of those in power to cede to those expectations. The Hong Kong protests hint at what the real democratisation of work might have to look like before anything really begins to change for the better.

I can’t imagine what we’ll do with all that spare human resource. Unless of course, we can eat it.


Simon HeathSimon Heath is a freelance illustrator and commentator on workplace and facilities management issues and was formerly Head of Operations, Global Workplace Strategies at CBRE. For more of Simon’s worldly, wise and witty writing on all things work and workplace, visit his blog