The Working Future: More Human, Not Less

Viewed in Bain & Company

In 2022, you would be hard-pressed to find any major business book, study, or article whose thesis is that the future of the workforce is likely going to fairly indistinguishable from how it existed in the recent past.

Experts can get it wrong

There has emerged a nearly monolithic thesis among management consultants, business academicians, and business media that changes are coming fast in the workforce, and they are likely to be seismic and even revolutionary when compared to the workforce of today and yesterday.

But is this nearly monolithic thesis predicting such radical changes actually accurate? History affords us some skepticism. “In 1964,” this 72-page report by management consulting giant Bain & Company reports, “RAND Corporation predicted that we would be breeding intelligent apes to perform manual labor by 2020.

In 1959, the U.S. postmaster general predicted that today’s mail would be sent by rockets (email turned out to be a more cost-effective option). In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that continued economic growth over the coming century would reduce the workweek to 15 hours.”

Yes, the so-called “experts” can get it wrong. In fact, they frequently do. It is a fact worth recalling as today’s experts emerge with new predictions that the world’s post-pandemic business climate—what work we do, how we do it, how we measure it, and many other crucial workforce questions—will never be the same.

Five major forces changing post-pandemic work life

With this background, Bain concurs that post-pandemic work life will differ dramatically from the pre-pandemic work world life we knew, and they see five major forces that will define these changes:

#1 Working time decreases

First, “motivations for work are changing.” Bain reports a substantially diminishing amount of time that employees actually spend working, and it is a phenomenon that is present in nearly every major economy, including the United States, Europe, and China.  In the late 19th century, employees in each of these economies worked, on average, in excess of 50 hours weekly.

Today, on average, they work less than 40 hours weekly, on average. This diminished work week is most profound among workers in Germany; in the late 19th century, Germans led the U.S. and other major European companies with the longest work week (in excess of 60 hours weekly, on aveage).

Today, compared against the same developed economies, Germans actually log the shortest work week (under 30 hours, on average). At the core of this trend is the fact that workers in developed economies today place less value on their jobs in comparison to other time-consuming activities, including the raising of children and leisure time.

Most prominent in driving this global trend is “Generation Y” (also known as “Millennials”), generally defined as those born between 1981 and 1996, who lead all prior generations in valuing leisure over work. It is a trend also strongly correlated with a nation’s economic well-being with workers in wealthier countries discounting the value of work more significantly than those in less wealthy emerging countries like India and Nigeria.

#2 Pioneers vs. Operators

Second, “beliefs about what makes a ‘good job’ are diverging.” A lot gets lost, of course, when any nation’s workers are lumped together. As such, in this study, Bain carefully delineates the workforce into six different classifications, and each class of workers bring different motivations and expectations to their jobs.

The two polar opposites of the continuum of these six classes are “Operators,” who “find meaning and self-worth primarily outside of their jobs.” To them, work is merely a means to an end, and they expect predictability and stability in their work lives and generally are more inclined to be disengaged and less proactive in their work tendencies.

But at the opposite end of these classes of these six classes of workers are “Pioneers,” who “are on a mission to change the world.” Work is very much at the epicenter of their life for them, and they can be expected to be more comfortable with risk and tend to be proactive in their work style. They are the sort of workers capable of inspiring a workforce, but they also can tend to be uncompromising in their expectations.  

#3 Automation is rehumanizing work

Third, “automation is helping to rehumanize work.” As automation continues to impact business and especially certain industries in profound ways, Bain argues that there has been an inaccurate tendency to sometimes feel this automation will make human employment unnecessary.

But while work functions will vary with automation, workers will continue to be very much in demand. Menial jobs will continue to be less needed, replaced by automation, and managing workers’ transitions between industries and jobs in less demand to what Bain believes will be a “nearly endless” list of jobs will represent the real challenge. These displaced workers should be able to perform “when given the right training and support,” this Bain report states.

#4 Blurring frontiers

Fourth, “technological change is blurring the boundary of the firm.” In the two-plus years in which companies and their employees have had to adjust to pandemic conditions, a lot has been learned—and some expectations, especially among workers, have changed considerably. In the U.S. during 2020, “the amount of time Americans spent working from home jumped from 5% to 60%,” Bain reports.

As this percentage leaped, companies and workers both saw its potential since workers seem to generally value the flexibility of working from home and companies found that they incur lower costs with remote employees than they do with in-office ones. These two facts are likely to contribute to a growing trend to remote work, especially for white collar workers in management and administrative functions (and less so for other functional roles).

#5 Workers under the age of 35 are struggling in vast ways

Fifth and finally, “younger generations are increasingly overwhelmed.” Especially since the pandemic’s emergence, workers under the age of 35 are struggling in vast ways, Bain has found.

Sixty one percent of them are concerned about “finances, job security, and meeting their career goals,” compared to 40 percent of their working peers over 35.

And while we may think technology makes younger workers’ lives easier, the opposite is actually proving to be the case. “Email blurs the lines between work and personal time, an issue only compounded by working from home. Social media pushes younger generations to constantly compare their lifestyles with those of their peers. And the acceleration of innovation cycles creates the illusion of life at twice the speed,” this Bain report concludes.

About The Best Business Reads

One of our goals at The Official Board is to bring relevant business content and information. In this space, we feature summaries of the best business reads we encounter each month. To make suggestions, please [email protected].