What will our working life look like in 2040?


Invited to a 5 minute pitch addressing attendees of the ‘Festival for Modern Workers’, I was asked to give a sneak peak into the future of work. What will our working life look like in 2040? Which are going to be our greatest challenges and opportunities? And what is going to be the major task of the Werkvereniging, a group professionals working towards modernization of the labor market, supporting modern forms of work, life and learning. I decided to form my speech as a plea for the future of work, which I gladly present.

Interestingly we speak about 2040, yet not even understanding our current times. 2040 is a long stretch away. In 2040, I may be grandfather and my children Joep, Sophie and Anna may have finished their studies. Although they won’t have stopped learning, neither will have I.

If one would ask a tech optimist what working life would look like in 2040, surely he would be of the opinion –I’m implying a he, as chances are he would be a man– that technology will have solved all our issues by that time. Wonderful, as we don’t have to take any responsibility right now. The problem lies in the fact that tech optimists tend to forget that ratio doesn’t beat emotion and that success of technology is found in facilitating people, not in leading them. Something, on a side note, many so-called leaders might want to reconsider.

If one would ask a flex working optimist an identical question, the imagined worker would appear as an empowered happy individual, hopping from project to project. Someone who keeps learning for a lifetime and who works to live and doesn’t require much government intervention. He or she will fend for himself or herself. A beautiful utopia stemming from a certain bias of the world being equal and honest, all people being able to choose for themselves what they would like to do and everyone overflowing with ambition.

If one would ask an optimist on social securities, say someone of a trade union, the same question again, the answer would be that everyone has a fixed job, would work in accordance with collective labor agreements and they would pay their monthly contribution without any delay. There is no need to wait for 2040 to understand that this model starts to crumble within the Netherlands and at many other places this system has once flourished.

If one would ask a platform optimist, someone from the category I belong to, the what working life would look like in 2040, I would state that platforms lower transaction costs, solve information asymmetry, enable the individual to market his or her skills optimally, facilitates temporary cross-border and cross-bubble cooperation, and that data and review scores will have replaced diplomas by 2040, but hopefully even quicker. I would argue that those capitalistic platforms, where workers are dependent on, will have been replaced by cooperative and decentralized variants and the considerably downsized government will guarantee social securities ‘by design’, hence equalling the playing field for everybody.

Anyone claiming to know what 2040 will look like, lies like a trooper. All our statements on what 2040 could be are more or less wishes spoken from the perspective or bubble we’re living in at the moment.

All very well, so let’s be clear about that. What I may be able to share is what I personally hope working life would look like in 2040. And what the ingredients would be to possibly end up at that point.

What I hope to see, is that our working life by 2040 looks somewhat like the following: In 2040, we would have found a balance in ways technology is empowering the individual in a facilitating manner. Workers will organize themselves through platforms in a way that fits them well. Not confined to borders or descent, nor the temporary nature of a formation and giving equal chances to everyone. Continuously developing and simultaneously valuing and judging on actual added value. Not based on the privilege of the bubble you belong to and which bubble you support. With the correct, ever changing, balance between on and off, gearing up and slowing down.

When we would like to have a world of equality and equal chances as a central element, it implies that by then we will have take a step back. Which also means that the definition of success will have to be rewritten. However much we may be complaining, we are still part of the lucky 1% of the world’s population. Don’t feel guilty about it, but be aware of your position.

With a more fluid role of working individuals, a more fluid framework is needed to follow suit. All verticals, sectors and collective labor agreements will have been crushed by horizontal thinking and social securities will have been unlinked from their dependency on working relationships. I might even drop the B-word of Basic Income.  Better even: basic facilities and social securities for everyone. We will have noticed that all chit-chat about generations X, Y, or Z has been short sighted. Every individual has different needs during each phase of life. Generations differ, but we’re still humans after all, all clichés included. A more fluid system will be essential. I hope we’ll be at that point in 2040.

But hope buys you noting. Time to talk actions. What steps are there to be taken now in order to reach the utopian 2040 scenario?

Currently, I observe a world in which several parties with historical interests have entrenched themselves. And from that position beyond the reach of daylight they keep trying to survive. Living in a continuous phase of denial. I also notice that very few parties dare to take their responsibility and that new initiatives are received with great enthusiasm, but all stakeholders are greatly lacking urgency, the guts and the ambitions to pull through seriously.

To achieve the 2040 scenario, a change of system will be needed. To reach such an objective it will show to be essential that our past, interests, fear and ego lose their dominant role in the debate and we all admit that we’ve realized, “We have no clue what we should do.” The good news is: you are not the only one. Starting from vulnerability, without being trapped in sectors and verticals, we can start building together. Recognizing that each and every one of us, coming from whatever background, is also a willing and good person. In the end with the same goal as the party he or she now despises and might even consider his or her greatest enemy.

Exchanging our ‘have to’ for a ‘want to’, our ‘it’s impossible’ for a ‘how can we make it work’, our focusing on ourselves (single stakeholder) for a focus on us (multi stakeholder), and our ‘walking out’ for recognizing and taking on responsibilities. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of ALL stakeholders together. Nobody excluded. So it’s your responsibility as well. Even when 2040 sounds comfortably far away, it does not exempt you to keep burying your head in the sand.

What could be the role of an organization like Werkvereniging in all of this? I see a role as initiator, connector, catalyst, bridge builder, incubator and in ‘practice what you preach’. Even Werkvereniging has to exit its own bubble and step on the gas of ambition. If we want to make the 2040 scenario happen, we should all start the expedition together. Yes, I’m in favor of it.