I’m just going to cut to the chase right from the get-go, and ask: “how the hell is one supposed to understand all the elements that make up the future of work?”
There are so many different moving parts. Consider AI, robots, remote offices, digital nomads, no-code companies, health insurance, collecting food to save in case of a robot uprising in which humans are rendered unnecessary, and are subsequently eliminated….
Perhaps not the last one (we hope), but you understand. It’s a lot. It’s hard to know what categories to keep track of, and once you have the categories down pat, you need to know which companies, people, and trends to follow.
This post aims to provide a sample of everything there is to know about the future of work, to help business leaders, independent workers, and everyone else prepare for the future. Which are the early companies making a splash, which people are being talked about, and which are the trends you should be following?
You ready? Let’s go.
In a nutshell, what is the future of work?
I have stated in other blog posts I’ve written that the future of work is broken up into two halves. You have the freelance/remote/distributed side and you have the robot/AI/automation side, also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. So if anyone asks you to talk to them on a high level about the future of work just know that in its simplest form, those are the two primary sides to the coin. Deloitte, World Economic Forum, the Harvard Business School, and dozens of others agree on this, and we’re going to follow suit.
Unfortunately for you (if you’re short on time to spend reading this), those two sides go very, very deep. In this post, we are covering all aspects of the future of work. Let’s start with all things remote, freelance, and distributed.
The future is freelance
Essentially, the future of work is heading more and more in the freelance direction. I will admit that the data on this is iffy, as there are arguments for both sides. Yes, there are articles claiming that the gig economy is 34 percent of the US workforce, which I have a hard time believing. Because it’s still early days in the gig economy, I want to rely more on hard facts than qualitative data. This is my blog post anyway, you know?
However, I do think there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to show that more young people want to be their own bosses with freelance work. Potentially, the most convincing report is the one Upwork publishes every year.
The “x” economy
The freelance side of the future of work is often described as the gig economy, sharing economy, 1099 economy, or the freelance economy. It’s just a quick way to categorize this growing type of work, for ease of explaining. I personally think that “gig economy” is the term that will stick. It’s growing steadily on Google trends, anyway.
So, why is the gig economy growing? Obviously, something must be fueling it.
In my opinion, it’s that the barrier to being a freelancer is being lowered. This comes with the proliferation of online education and democratization of work opportunities for freelancers.
The rise of skills-based education
Freelancing was very hard to do before the early 21st century, due to the fact that the internet had not been widely adopted yet. If someone wanted to learn a skill, they needed to go to a community college or university to learn it. As freelancing of any kind is a skills-driven profession, this stifles a lot of potential.
In 2006, a bullet was fired into the air when Google bought Youtube for 1 billion dollars. Youtube become one of the first online venues for teachers to teach and students to learn, among other things (like cat videos). Sites like Udemy, Udacity, Code Academy and more have since launched to give more people access to skills-based education. Even Harvard opened up many of its courses for free online, for people to audit. Once someone learns something marketable and valuable like design or writing, they can find clients and get gigs. It starts with the skills, and these educational websites have made them available at scale.
Of course, as people became equipped for self-employment, the sites and platforms on which they could find work began to rise.
The Upwork generation
To match this demand, websites such as Upwork (formerly Elance and Odesk before the merger), Freelancer, and Fiverr got started. Their value proposition was to help match up writers, designers, developers, videographers and more with customers who needed them.
These sites are how many freelancers and independent contractors get their start. Once they have cut their teeth in freelance marketplaces and developed the credibility and reviews to break away from the brand equity of Upwork or similar, most break away to develop their own mini agency. Why leave? Why would a freelancer want to get off a platform that consistently gives them work?
The reason is that Upwork is not a very freelance-friendly community. Freelancers are forced to bid against each other for gigs, with customers looking for the lowest prices, and only one can “win.” Upwork doesn’t provide benefits, and they have had a lot of backlash for not treating their freelancers well enough. Brands like Upwork, Fiverr and Freelancer have become starting points for many freelancers; they are often the beginning of the journey but not the destination.
So, the freelancer movement couldn’t end at Upwork. If the future of work is gigs, what is the next natural progression, one that will allow the best freelancers to find work on more “quality” platforms than those mentioned? This is where we introduce the boutique marketplace.
A boutique marketplace is still connecting freelancers to customers. However, in this case, the marketplace is a lot more selective. They search out the top talent in their field. Examples of these boutiques are Gigster and Toptal. On Gigster, they treat and pay their freelancers well, but not just anyone can sign up. There’s an application and interview process, raising the bar for those applying. Gigster is focussed on developers, while Toptal includes many verticals (just like Upwork) but still limits itself to the best freelancers.
There are several companies that use both gig workers and employees to create vertical boutique marketplaces. Examples of this are Bench for accountants and Atrium for lawyers. The accountants are likely w2 and so are the lawyers, but it’s still acting as a marketplace. I imagine that there will be vertical boutique marketplaces in every sector by the end of 2020.
We are currently in the era of boutique marketplaces. Freelancers who have a 20+ year career and want to use their skills to best effect can do well on these platforms. They are a much better option than Upwork for someone who has the necessary ability but doesn’t want to do the work of finding the customers all on their own.
There is opportunity in the middle ground
Do you see a problem there? You have the Upwork-type sites, where people start their careers, freelancing for pennies and grinding constantly to build a portfolio, and then you have the boutique agencies which are notoriously difficult to break into. I personally think there is a lot of opportunity in the middle ground. How can one make a good freelancer into a great one? This is a question several companies will need to answer when it comes to the future of work, I’m sure of it.
There are a few companies indirectly impacting the future of work by up-skilling people. This brings us right to the next topic: the future of education.
The future of education
The only way for a good worker to become great is through education. There are dozens of companies working on the future of that particular field, but the ones which (I believe) have the most forward-thinking concepts are those like Lambda School and Flockjay, the “pay once you get a job” model. Both companies are backed by Y Combinator and are gaining steam rapidly. As student debt reaches trillions of dollars, this model of education is more and more attractive to people looking to make a career shift.
Udacity offers an educational experience for just a few hundred bucks, and Udemy sells coding courses. I personally think that the future of education is something more like Lambda School, less like Udacity. People like being part of something. Udacity alumni don’t wear it like a badge on their sleeve, while Lambda School alumni do. I wonder if Lambda School is going to get into skilling up the freelance workforce? Those two models of education and work could make a very dynamic duo.
Of course, the best (and most educated) freelance talent might not be found in your specific town, city or even country.
The rise of remote work
Another notable trend is the increasing prevalence of remote-first organizations. Traditionally, companies have struggled with having remote teams, facing difficulties in communication. It wasn’t until recently that there was a technology stack built for the modern remote company. With the emergence of fantastic team communication tools like Slack, video chat software like Zoom and project management software like Asana, the day of remote work is upon us.
Here’s a small, but growing list of mainstream companies that have a fully distributed workforce:
- Product Hunt
This popularity of remote work is contributing to the added pressure for companies to be geo-flexible. More and more candidates are expecting the remote option to, well, be an option. I wouldn’t say it’s mainstream yet, but I’d argue that a year from now, it might be.
The rise in remote work has led to the proliferation of another trend that is shaping up in the future of work: digital nomadism.
The digital nomad
As people learn new skills and remote work becomes available, career opportunities widen. They can get full-time jobs, freelance for a living, or merge the two to create their own path. The democratization of online education means that people could technically learn these skills from anywhere in the world. This, plus the documentation of travel through Instagram, has led to a rise in digital nomadism.
Digital nomads are generally freelancers, but they choose to spend their time working from different cities across the world—often documenting their experiences on Youtube and Instagram. Many digital nomads create mini-agencies that support their travel lifestyle; some, like Sam Kolder, make their living on the videos that they make of their adventures.
Digital nomads use websites like Nomad List to figure out where the best places are to live, work, and play. For some, it’s almost a religion. This growth in travel has spurred the creation of globally-known coworking spaces in Bali, Thailand, and Shanghai. Digital nomads are experiencing wanderlust, giving in to it, and taking their work along for the ride. There are even companies capitalizing on the trend—Beautiful Destinations, which is a modern experience agency, is growing on the backs of the digital nomad movement.
I was enchanted with the digital nomad movement, but after reading a great blog post about how traveling is no cure for the mind I have fantasized about it a little less. We get caught up in wanderlust by seeing people lead seemingly-perfect, glamorous lives on Instagram, but that envy is a problem that won’t be easily fixed by digital nomadism. Although exciting, the lifestyle involves a lot of careful balance. For some people, however, it’s ideal—and the digital nomad tribe will be increasing as freelance becomes democratized.
As the studies show, the future of work will be dominated by freelancers. There will need to be new education platforms to help people learn skills that will equip them for said future, and there must be platforms that will allow them to find work. This new world, this gig economy, will be partially populated by country-hopping digital nomads, always in search of a good WiFi connection so they can earn their next dollar.
But the real question is this: Does any of this matter if we all die in a robot apocalypse by 2050? I kid, I kid—but let’s get into the other side of the future of work that everyone is talking about: AI, or artificial intelligence.
Robots, AI, and world automation
Alright, so let me start with this: I’m not a developer, nor am I a data scientist. This facet of the future is not so easy to understand, at least not for me. But I’m giving it my best shot.
How should you be thinking about AI in the future of work? Well, you’re going to have to pick a path. There are two AI “camps,” so to speak: the Mark Zuckerberg camp and the Elon Musk camp. Perhaps these are better categorized as the augmentation camp and the automation camp.
Mark Zuckerberg’s view on AI
Mark Zuckerberg’s AI-related view is that if correctly harnessed, it can be used for the betterment of humanity. With human intervention, AI can augment humans to do more of what they do best, and it can automate out all the boring stuff. This is the camp into which most people fall. Books like “The Fuzzies and the Techies” outline that AI needs humans more than humans need AI. A comforting thought.
Examples of this thinking can be seen in companies like law firm Atrium, who are using AI to automate the process of document management so they can spend more time with their customers—the latter being something that robots won’t be able to do for a long time. Another example of AI augmenting human jobs is X.ai: an AI assistant that helps people automate the process of scheduling meetings so they can focus on more important things, like attending the meetings being scheduled.
The reason I call this the Mark Zuckerberg camp is that he once got in an online feud with Elon Musk about the danger of AI, or the lack thereof. He sees AI as an opportunity for humanity, not a danger. Elon Musk and his company have a different view.
(Dun dun DUNNNN)
Elon Musk’s view on AI
Elon Musk thinks that AI presents an unparalleled risk to humanity if uncontrolled. This is one of the reasons he started OpenAI with Y Combinator President, Sam Altman. He has since left the company, but still carries the same concern. People in the automation camp think that AI is going to take all jobs and humanity will suffer. Enter, the rise of solutions to this hypothesized impending jobpocalypse.
One concept that has become popular in this camp is that of a basic income, sometimes known as a universal basic income (UBI). I’ve written on this topic in depth in the past, but it’s ultimately the idea that every US citizen gets a monthly payment of around $1,000 to spend on whatever they want. The reason? There won’t be jobs in the future, so people need a baseline to cover the bare essentials.
This isn’t a pipe dream, either. Elon, Mark, and even Barack Obama have mentioned they think basic income is a smart move for the United States. There’s even a 2020 presidential candidate running on the premise of providing a basic income to every American over the age of 18.
Companies automating jobs
Although it can be argued that most jobs are being augmented for humans, it’s impossible to deny that some roles are fast disappearing. CafeX and Creator are both food establishments that are automating the process of getting a morning latte or a burger to eat after work. Additionally, companies like Uber Freight and Tesla are going after the massive opportunity that is automation in freight—which will have the side effect of putting truck drivers out of a job. Heck, even Panera is getting crafty with automation. When I walk into a Panera to grab a salad, an iPad is there to take my order and can even process payment.
The job automation worry is real, and these examples plus hundreds of other prove that Elon Musk’s camp might have a point.
At the end of the day, Mark’s view and Elon’s view are both correct. It’s up to us to harness AI in a responsible way that promotes the benefits of automation without the potential consequences of a jobpocalypse.
The future of work is coming, ready or not
To be honest, the future of work—the combination of gig economy and AI, freelancers and automation—is not taking place in the future. It’s being built right now in garages and offices.
It’s a little scary, and it’s a lot exciting. I’m of the opinion that there’s never been a better time to be a worker in America. No one knows what is going to come. Will we implement a full basic income system within a decade? Will organizations be primarily made up of freelancers in the same timeframe? Will we have unleashed the full power of AI for the human good by then, too? Only time will tell. Get on board.