From automation and artificial intelligence to virtual reality and a highly networked digital workplace, futurologists and labor market experts are convinced that the world of work will look very different in ten years from today. What are the groundbreaking cultural and technological drivers that are already having a significant impact on our work today, but even more so tomorrow? And above all: What does the change mean for us, how much courage and willingness to change is required. What is coming? What remains? What to do? A search for clues.
One thing is certain: The future has already begun - under the term "digital transformation." There is no area of life that is not affected by it, no company that is not working on corresponding concepts for the digital awakening. Deutsche Telekom has also long since embarked on the journey. And formulates the goal of this journey very confidently: Telekom wants to become the leading digital telecommunications company - with the claim that it will not be satisfied until everyone is connected. This also makes it clear that, strictly speaking, digitization is not so much a revolution as an evolution. It is a process of change that began decades ago. In the 1930s and 1940s. The binary system, consisting of ones and zeros, was the basis for the development of the first computers by Konrad Zuse in 1937. What has increased is the speed of development. This is ensured again and again by technological leaps, which then have an effect in almost every area of life.
Microchips change everyday life
The development of the microchip is particularly worthy of mention here. In 1958, the electrical engineer Jack Kilby created the basis for these small electronic wonder parts by inventing the integrated circuit. Without semiconductors, our everyday lives would look very different. Microchips are the basis for automated production processes, they make the Internet and communication via smartphone possible. Televisions, washing machines, pacemakers, hearing aids, e-bikes and cars would also be inconceivable without these tiny components. In the automotive industry, electronics have been the innovation driver for some time now, rather than mechanical engineering.
The technological leaps are why people nevertheless talk about the "third or fourth industrial revolution" in connection with the digital transformation. "The digital transformation […] is also considered to us today to be a kind of revolution, similar to the Industrial Revolution of the early 18th and early 19th centuries," writes historian Anja Kircher-Kannemann in her blog "Culture Stories Digital." Quantum computing, biocomputing and nanotechnologies will further accelerate this change. All of this is leading to profound transformations in economic and social conditions, living conditions and working conditions. "The time of change is the present, not the future," says social psychologist Harald Welzer. In the fundamentally changing modern world of work, people should be the measure of all things.
Social acceptance of transformation
The examples of the coal phase-out or the transformation of the mobility sector show that the social acceptance of transformation processes depends on whether the affected employees can be shown prospects for their future working lives. But even those not employed in these sectors must be clear: If you want to protect nature, you have to put up with wind turbines. Anyone who calls for a change in transportation must think about the sense and nonsense of owning a car.
Fear of change
But for many people, change is difficult. They react with fear and resistance - and sometimes with suppression. It's no different in the world of work than anywhere else. "Just as the first industrial revolution of the living world scared many people back then, digital change does so today. However, in a few years or decades at the latest, the reaction to these fears will probably be just like our reaction to the fears of people in the 18th and 19th centuries: we will no longer be able to comprehend them," says Kircher-Kannemann.
Pecter of the end of work
Futurologist Matthias Horx is already unable to understand the fears today. Especially when it comes to the "specter" of the "end of work." Horx rubs shoulders with economists like Jeremy Rifkin and other theorists who preach that developments like "Industry 4.0" or "artificial intelligence" will "destroy work" en masse - leading to a huge crisis in the gainful employment society. "That is, was and remains nonsense - even if it always sounds very convincing," Horx enthuses: "Work is not a cake that is eventually eaten." Every technological advance creates a cascade of complexity that leads to increased demand and entirely new needs. Automated factories generate demand for "high services" and technical expertise, but also for "low services" in the area of maintenance and support. Horx believes that those who are "freed up" will quickly find new jobs in professions that were unimaginable yesterday. The non-linear laws of evolution apply to work: "Automation - less physical work - immediately generates a huge movement and health market, for example. In other words, work is not getting less, it's just getting different.
New Work: It's not just where and when that counts
How do I want to work? And what significance does work have in my life? These questions are increasingly becoming the focus of employees' attention. "Home office," "remote work," "job sharing" and "co-working" are key terms in the new world of work. Not to forget "purpose", i.e., the higher meaning of work. The Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO) speaks of a "large-scale, nationwide experiment in the digitization of work and cooperation." Not only the where and when of work is changing, but also the mode of collaboration with colleagues. "For more and more people, participation, autonomy and sense-making are becoming an issue," he says. "This has increased, especially in the last two years," says Professor Jutta Rump of the Institute for Employment and Employability (IBE).
The U.S. labor market is feeling the pain of this cultural shift right now. Last year, 48 million people quit their jobs there. A historic high. The "Great Resignation," as we call this phenomenon, is increasing the pressure on employers to provide better conditions and to rethink the hire-an-fire culture. And even a successful flagship company like Apple recently had to bow to the new self-confidence of its employees: After CEO Tim Cook was inundated with petitions and letters of protest from the workforce, he suspended the plan to increase office days again. Tesla does things differently: CEO Elon Musk is ordering his employees back to the office - anyone who does not comply with the presence requirement of at least 40 hours per week must "leave Tesla," Musk wrote in an internal mail published on Twitter. The higher the position, the more present an employee must be. He said he would decide personally on exceptions. Musk indirectly confirmed the authenticity of the email with a reply on Twitter. Asked what about employees at Tesla who think it's an antiquated concept to come into the office, Musk wrote: "They should pretend to work somewhere else.“
Existing work models under pressure
Digitization, globalization, corona pandemic, but also the increasing urge for self-fulfillment: existing work models are under pressure. Norms and beliefs that largely emerged during the industrial revolution are increasingly being doubted. Even the centuries-old norm of the eight-hour workday and the five-day week is shifting due to the extent of technological change. In politics, the issue of a four-day week is increasingly coming up. And the idea of an unconditional basic income is being publicly debated.
Rethinking work structures
If we look at the success criteria for implementing digital transformation, companies with a high level of digitization also have high scores in the core areas of work culture: employee orientation, family-friendliness, appreciation, participation, and freedom from hierarchy.
Put another way: A well-developed work culture is the key to transformation working at all. This is how New Work should be understood: It is about creating the conditions for self-determined work. And that goes far beyond the home office. New Work is not just about flexible working hours. It's also about rethinking work structures.
A Fraunhofer study for the German Federal Ministry of Labor shows how great the potential is and that New Work is not only suitable for the office. "New Work is definitely feasible in other areas as well. Digitization is an important prerequisite," says Josephine Hofmann, co-author of the study. New Work is a tool that companies can use to shape changes in the world of work.
Learned is learned
The problem is not digital change, but the inability to react to it. Once we have learned something, we are reluctant to unlearn it. We cling to the familiar, avoid information that contradicts our convictions. In addition, companies fear the cannibalization of established products and services. "If I have a working business model, there is no incentive to do something new," says Monika Schnitzer, an expert in innovation research.
Holding on is the illusion of security. Starting over requires letting go of something old and familiar. Letting go of the familiar, meanwhile, is not a human strength. "That which is secure is not secure. It does not remain as it is," as the playwright Bertolt Brecht knew. It is clear to all of us: There is no way back. Only little remains as it is.
Not learning does not work
The education sector is also facing major upheavals. Many people will have not only multiple jobs but also multiple careers during their working lives. Learning paths must change so that they are lifelong. Companies play a central role in this ecosystem of learning. A new learning culture therefore always starts with top management. Not learning must not be an option.
It all depends on us
Labor market experts expect occupational profiles to increasingly break away from sectoral boundaries - for employees, this also holds opportunities: job changes between individual sectors will become easier, and the possibilities for occupational mobility will increase.
Those who are concerned with the future have the best chance of not being an onlooker. Yes, megatrends such as automation, human-machine interaction and artificial intelligence will fundamentally change our working world. Cultural and social change are also contributing to this. Digital progress is changing job profiles, and technical achievements are enabling completely new, flexible ways of working. What's in store for us and how we deal with it will always depend on us. Or as Tim Höttges put it in an essay on digitization: "We are not a plaything of digitization. Rather, we are what we want to be."