As a foresight professional, I’ve been trained to create scenarios that contain a mix of positive and negative elements. Taking a balanced view is more useful than indulging in utopian visions or detailing dystopian nightmares. Even though we aimed to do that in writing our recent paper on the future of readiness, I have a hard time seeing the positive in one of the scenarios that it presents.
Set in the year 2040, “Working the Platforms” describes a future in which a laissez-faire societal response to high levels of technological displacement leads to an extremely taskified employment landscape. In this highly competitive scenario, most people find piecework via automated dispatching platforms (think Lyft or Taskrabbit on steroids). They often make specific contributions without much sense of the whole, and they rely heavily on digital reputation management to find successful matches. It’s kind of like access to work has become mediated by an online dating platform, except that people can’t get away with posting decades-old photos. While some people harness the power of the platform for their own uses (for example, to manage a plumbing business or find distributed markets for niche goods or services), working in this world requires emotional resilience, persistence and careful data management.
Even as a futurist who is used to playing in the world of uncertainty and considering future possibilities, I find this scenario destabilizing. Its extreme uncertainty and fragmentation scare me. While I have had different kinds of jobs over the course of my career and found it deeply strange when in 2003 I secured an employment contract that could have lasted until I turned 65, I find it hard to imagine having the fortitude and the resourcefulness to piece together sufficient work from many small assignments, or gigs. Some people do that today and thrive in it, but I haven’t developed that muscle. The overlay of the matching’s being handled algorithmically makes this platform-based scenario feel particularly sterile and stressful to me.
I worry not just for my own ability to navigate such a future, but also for its potential impacts on communities. Inequities could increase as those few with the means to access higher education occupy an elite reminiscent of robber baron days. Communities could become more fragmented as competition increases and becomes more global. Stress levels could increase as people inhabit a constant state of hustle. I know that there could be positive outcomes, such as greater flexibility, new collective solutions that help buffer people against uncertainty or greater variety of experience, but I have a hard time seeing and feeling them.
My personal response aside, foresight professionals are taught to hedge our bets. Generating scenarios that exploring multiple possible futures can help us generate strategies for thriving no matter how current uncertainties play out. For me, my future readiness strategy currently centers around continuing to learn, pushing my professional practice by developing new skills, incorporating new perspectives and applying current skills in new contexts. Fostering professional relationships also feels important. In addition, I’m looking at ways to demonstrate competency around skills such as project management that are less central to my work than they were earlier in my career but which I might need to document for the future. I’m considering, too, how I might deepen my emotional resilience so that I’ll be more likely to thrive in ambiguity and uncertainty. Lastly, I’m musing on how to get better at telling the story of my career in ways that convey the resilience and learning that have already marked a journey characterized by working again and again in fields or jobs that I did not know existed until I stumbled upon them.