Getting ready for the future of work

Artificial intelligence is poised to disrupt the workplace. What will the company of the future look like—and how will people keep up?

Here is a brief excerpt from an article featured in the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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Work is changing. Digital communications have made remote work commonplace. The gig economy is growing. And advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics could upend the conventional workplace. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, at least 30 percent of the activities associated with the majority of occupations in the United States could be automated—including knowledge tasks previously thought immune.

For workers of the future, then, the ability to adapt their skills to the changing needs of the workplace will be critical. Lifelong learning must become the norm—and at the moment, the reality falls far short of the necessity. The Consortium for Advancing Adult Learning and Development (CAALD), a group of learning authorities whose members include researchers, corporate and nonprofit leaders, and McKinsey experts, recently met in Boston for the second year in a row to assess the state of the workplace and explore potential solutions.

In a series of discussions, CAALD members addressed the challenges facing individuals and society, new ways to knit together learning and work, and the intriguing experiments that companies are undertaking to help workers adapt to change. (CAALD members also explored the potential for learning innovation in a set of related discussions. For more, see “Learning innovation in the digital age,” forthcoming on

Societal challenges

Bob Kegan, Harvard Graduate School of Education: The number of employees who are operating in more nonstandard, complex jobs is going to increase, while less complex work is going to be increasingly automated. The time it takes for people’s skills to become irrelevant will shrink. It used to be, “I got my skills in my 20s; I can hang on until 60.” It’s not going to be like that anymore. We’re going to live in an era of people finding their skills irrelevant at age 45, 40, 35. And there are going to be a great many people who are out of work. What are you going to do about that? Or is work going to essentially become an elite setting for more favored, privileged, complex people to live out meaningful lives? That’s a disturbing question. It’s hard for me to believe that we’re going to have a society in which half the people just don’t work. Work itself is intrinsically meaningful. People need to go to work every day.

Jason Palmer, general partner, New Markets Venture Partners: As a society, we have a big underinvestment in education and training for older folks. There is a misconception that it makes sense to spend $300 billion to $400 billion a year on college students between the ages of 17 and 25 and then very little after that. But most Americans who need higher education and postsecondary training are 35, 45, 55.

Maria Flynn, president and CEO, Jobs for the Future: In a country with such imperfect career navigation and lifelong-learning systems, plus the growth of the gig economy, we could end up worse off if we don’t start to change now. On a broad scale, we have to think about the intersection of economic mobility and the future of work, especially for those who are already left behind in today’s economy. Without highly effective education and workforce-development systems, those groups will fall further behind. That’s something that worries me an awful lot.

Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School: We must view it as a race to develop institutions to support lifelong learning. We need to move fast because we’re playing catch-up, and this is a much harder game to play; suddenly the numbers of people who need to learn fast are too big. Look at Greece and Spain, where half of the people in their 20s there are unemployed.

Two things that human beings don’t do well are thinking about the future and thinking about the collective. The long term and the collective good will not naturally be taken care of by the decision making of individual workers. So a motivating force is needed to spur action, or else we slowly but surely will fail.

Claudio Feser, senior partner, McKinsey & Company: That’s sobering, because it implies that leaving human beings to themselves and saying, in effect, “Take care of your own development” is probably not so fruitful. Whether it’s the state or whether it’s companies, that means we will have social engineers who create recommendations in which people are nudged, but also helped, to learn and advance.

New skills needed

Bob Kegan: Work will increasingly be about adaptive challenges, the ones that artificial intelligence and robots will be less good at meeting. There’s going to be employment for people with growth mind-sets, but fixed mind-sets are going to be more and more replaceable by machines. We used to say things like, “You’re going to have 6.5 jobs over the course of your career.” We should also be saying, “You’re going to have a number of qualitative shifts in your own growth and capacity over the course of your career.” That might be with the same employer, or it might be with 6.5 different employers.

Bror Saxberg, vice president of learning science, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative:A lot of work that will continue to be of high value for people to do is tied to meaning making with other people. How does this decision, product, or service affect your life, your challenges, your family? The corollary is that we need to train everybody, early, on how to give meaning to other people’s challenges, work, skills, and needs to ensure they will have valuable work to do. And imagine how fun it would be to live in a world surrounded by people who are thinking professionally about your needs, not just theirs! This will require very intentional effort all through the growing-up years and beyond—it is not a thing you pick up the night before you start work.

Betsy Ziegler, chief innovation officer, Kellogg School of Management: One of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is how we train our students to think of AI or the machine as a team member rather than as a competitive threat. A lot of the analyst work is being taken over by machines, for example, but that gives the MBA graduates access to higher-skilled work. I think there’s a competitive advantage to being human. Given that the level of ambiguity is amplifying and the rate of change is increasing, what do people have to be equipped with? What tools do they need? We don’t talk to them about that now. We don’t teach any of them how to be a leader in the organization that is managing contractor talent or that is responsible for this fluidity of work. We should.

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