The future workplace in 2036

What will the future workplace look like? No one knows for sure, but we do know that emerging developments such as automation, artificial intelligence, the growth of the informal economy and shifts away from command and control power cultures are all profoundly shaping the way people work.

At Forum for the Future, we have created four possible futures that explore how clear trends, such as urbanisation, might interact with more uncertain trends, such as the speed and impact of automation, to transform the workplace over the next two decades. These scenarios serve as powerful tools that today’s leaders can use to make better decisions today.

Meet John, a 40-year-old US-based healthcare worker who is single and lives alone; Claire, a 25-year-old entrepreneur living in Europe; and Jahar, 20, a migrant in one of India’s coastal cities, who moved to find work after his father’s cotton farm failed. Let’s look at their lives in each of the scenarios...

Future #1: Business Monopoly

In this version of 2036, big business and vast technological efficiencies dominate. Automation has halved the global workforce and inequality is high. With low public funding, governments have stepped back to provide only basic services. Workers have no social or economic safety nets, and experience high levels of anxiety.

John works full time as a consultant in a high-end private hospital. Although he is well paid, he works long hours and feels isolated.

Claire runs a small business supplying homeware to a multinational retailer. She has been locked into low margins and works constantly.

Jahar is a dock worker, providing manual labour on an informal basis. With no benefits or protection, he feels trapped, and can’t find a way to repay his family’s debt and return to his home village.

Future #2: Service Transformation

This possible 2036 is a decentralised, entrepreneurial and fast-moving world. Thanks to a strong climate deal, there is constant innovation focused on delivering a green, circular economy. Work and health networks are global and fluid, and workers need to be self-directed and flexible.

John works as a self-employed consultant on a telemedicine health network three days a week, and takes private patients for the other two.

Claire runs a national sharing and rental service for designer homeware. She is self-employed, working long hours and interacting only virtually with colleagues.

Jahar has joined a local guild of informal dock workers who have pooled savings to support each other in times of crisis. This makes him feel empowered despite the daily grind.

Future #3: In the National Interest

This is a reactive future world dealing with serious systemic crises. Earlier failure to act on climate change means that its impacts have hit hard, leading to a last-gasp climate deal agreeing drastic carbon-cutting measures. Business and healthcare have been subordinated to the national interest.

John is employed full-time at the main city hospital on a permanent contract. He misses the global interactions he used to have with colleagues around the world.

Claire runs a local homeware repair, recycling and re-use service. The service is government funded, and she has to ensure it meets stringent standards. She still lives at home with her parents.

Jahar has no benefits or protection, but his employer enforces basic health and safety standards. However, he still feels trapped.

Future #4: Redefining Progress

This version of 2036 describes a world in transition. Increasing automation has resulted in record unemployment, which has triggered a huge shift in global mindsets that values communities, wellbeing and sustainability over growth and consumption. There is more economic and social resilience, but less individual choice.

John is employed four days a week at the local health co-op. In his leisure time, he volunteers with the local sports team. He mostly feels good about life.

Claire is self-employed, running creative workshops for people and organisations on how to upcycle old homeware. She lives in a creative community.

Jahar doesn’t have a contract but is protected by basic health and safety standards. Critically, he has access to a company that provides financial advice and support. The hard work is bearable, as he knows it is temporary.

Implications for today’s leaders

In all but one of the future scenarios, mental health challenges such as loneliness, isolation and anxiety are common. Employment and income insecurity, and poor lifestyle habits - particularly the lack of opportunity to exercise - are also prevalent.

This points towards four areas for action that all employers need to consider today.

Governments and business need to address automation. It has huge potential to trigger widespread unemployment, which could undo decades of economic and social progress. We need to develop human-centred approaches and leadership, which differentiates between what only humans can offer and what the non-human or robot can do better.

We need to use technology and big data to drive positive wellbeing and lifestyle outcomes, such as employing smart apps to monitor and share health solutions and develop platforms that support learning and peer networking.

We need to build supportive peer networks and community interaction, creating meaningful networks between the workplace, the home, the community and the wider economy.

Critically, we need to create workplaces and employment structures that help enable interpersonal connections, blending virtual and physical environments in ways that promote positive health and wellbeing.

In other words, we need to imagine the workplace we want in 20 years’ time, and set about creating it today.

Dr Sally Uren is CEO of sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future. Read the full scenarios of the Future of Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace here.