The future of work – already here?

Rebecca Valentine, Careers Consultant, has been thinking about the skills which we will need in the years ahead – and sooner! Here she explains the context of this project.

At the beginning of the year I was sitting in my office at the University reading reports about the future of work that were predicting how, in the future, many of us would be working remotely, using technology to support our virtual working.  Critics of these reports talked about this being unrealistic, and that the future workplace would actually look very much as it did to us all just a few weeks ago.   And then all of a sudden, that’s what many of us are doing now.  We’ve all been thrust into the future of work and had to adapt quickly. 

My research found that a wide range of skills will be important in the future world of work and when I started writing this blog post a few weeks ago my original aim was to highlight these and to discuss why they will be important.  No sooner had I started writing, the country went into lockdown and I put this on the backburner.   

Looking back on what I’d written then, a lot of it seems out of date now.  What was once just speculation about the future of work and widespread remote working has become a reality for many of us right now.  It seems the future of work has arrived, perhaps just a few years ahead of schedule!  

So, rather than talk about these skills being important in the future, I’ll explain how they are important now.  But first here’s an introduction to the future of work and the research that’s been done over the past few years. 

A brief history of the future of work  

Back in 2016, the focus of the World Economic Forum’s Davos summit was the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  Since then there’s been lots of focus on how trends such as technology, the global climate crisis and changing business models will affect work in the future.  The WEF followed up with a publication later in 2016 and another in 2018 on skills needed for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and lots of other organisations have also been modelling what the future of work might look like. 

For example, in 2017 PwC published their report which summarised four possible future worlds and just last year the RSA published a report on the four futures of work where they outlined four possible scenarios that could play out in the future.  Other organisations have got in on the act too including McKinsey (2017), The British Academy and Royal Society (2018), Universities UK (2018), Nesta (2017), The Institute for Public policy Research (2017) and in January this year the Scottish Council for Development and Industry. 

Back in 2013 two researchers from the University of Oxford published an article on the future of employment and how vulnerable different jobs were to computerisation.  They concluded that a staggering 47% of jobs in the US were at risk of vanishing due to automation and their conclusions certainly created some shockwaves!  

People began to talk about the possibility of widespread technological unemployment, perhaps the most famous example being Martin Ford’s 2015 book The Rise of the Robots.  Ford points out that in the past people have been able to protect themselves against the advances of technology by learning new skills but Ford argues this no longer offers us protection as machines are becoming better at learning new skills.  From these perspectives the future looks pretty bleak, with robots coming to take our jobs.  

Then in 2016 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published the results of their own analysis of the threat to jobs by automation and they arrived at vastly different estimates from the Oxford researchers.  They used a different methodology and estimated between 9% and 13% of jobs were vulnerable to automation – not so bleak after all perhaps! 

Two opposing camps and yet more uncertainty 

So, lots has been written about the future of work and two opposing camps of thought have emerged.  On the one hand the optimists have been pointing out that technology can increase productivity and create new job opportunities  and they also argue that technology has the potential to change work for the better by taking away the dull, dangerous and dirty jobs, freeing up humans to work on more high value and rewarding work. 

On the other hand, the pessimists have been predicting widespread unemployment and they point to the dark side of technology with its potential for widespread monitoring of workplace performance, the rise of insecure work and the gig economy.  Factoring in other changes such as climate change, which is itself unpredictable, then a great deal of uncertainty has emerged. 

Of course, all of those reports were written before the current Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and the consequent possibility of global recession along with still unknown political, social and economic changes.  Some organisations have already started making predictions about what the coming months have in store for us – for example  Nesta published a blog post a couple of weeks ago on There will be no back to normal  and the RSA have also been writing about the current crisis and the impact on workers.   

This much we do know… 

These are only predictions of course.  As ever, uncertainty is the only certainty. However there has been a surprising amount of agreement about the skills needed.  Although we don’t know exactly how the future will play out, there are things we can all do to prepare ourselves.   

Looking at history, change and uncertainty have been constant features and so we need the skills to be able to deal with these and navigate the stormy periods.  We’ll also need the flexibility and adaptability to move on and do something new if our job disappears and to make the most of other opportunities that present themselves such as online learning, volunteering or taking work in other sectors.  Add in the fact that lots of us will be living and working longer, we’ll also need to have the career management and lifelong learning skills to manage our longer working lives. 

So what does this all mean? 

So, although we don’t know how the future will play out over the coming weeks and months, how the economy and labour market will hold up and what jobs will or will not be available, we can be doing things to make sure we have the right set of skills. The good news is that by studying at university you’re already developing those skills, not just with all of the activities that you had been participating in before the current pandemic but also through what you’re doing now – by adapting to studying at home and taking part in learning online. 

In my next post I’ll talk more about some of those skills and why they’re so important, both now and for the future. 

In the meantime stay safe and well! 



Find out more about how you can get ready for your future, and how we can support you, in our FAQs and updates


(PublicDomainPictures / 17907 images on Pixabay)

(PublicDomainPictures / 17907 images on Pixabay)


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