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Take It From a Futurist: The "Second Middle Ages" of Work Are Coming

Cornerstone Editors

For futurist Peter Weddle, the biggest upcoming challenges that the world of work faces are grasping the extent of the tech-driven transformation that's coming and preparing for it. The author of Circa 2118: What Humans Will Do When Machines Take Over says it's the responsibility of the C-suite, HR leaders and employees to educate themselves about what he calls a Second Middle Ages, or when super-intelligent machines surpass human cognition.

He has developed his expertise over the past four decades by studying the intersection of technology and people, serving as the CEO of three HR consulting companies and a partner at the Hay Group and authoring more than two dozen books. He now refers to himself as a "Latter-day Futurist," stressing that fast-paced changes to the way we work are already underway.

Weddle says the introduction of artificial intelligence and machine learning can't be legislated into oblivion or curbed by humankind's logic and compassion. It will ultimately cause some people (particularly those performing manual labor rather than creative work) to lose their jobs and remain unemployed indefinitely because there is nothing left for them to do in the workplace—and all of this will happen within the next 100 years.

"Animated by ultra-intelligent, ultra-intuitive, ultra-empathetic technology, these byte-collar workers won't terminate our species, but they will terminate our jobs, our careers and our access to the American Dream unless we prepare for their arrival," says Weddle as he softens these alarming warnings for the future with an action plan designed to address the disruption of individual lives and business. So how can employees and organizations prepare?

Start With Individual Preparation

The first step is recognizing the life-altering change at our front door—this applies to workers, HR leaders, organizational leaders and government leaders alike. They must all come to terms with the fact that change is coming. Once that realization takes place, it will be up to workers to identify areas where they can continue to contribute, even if their core functions are replaced by technology.

It takes soul-searching and skill-building—employees will have to expand their skills to remain relevant and HR leaders should do what's in their power to not only give them physical tools to succeed (i.e. learning courses), but also engage in conversations to help workers uncover strengths they may not know they have. Breaking deep into people's consciousness to learn what drives them can make the difference between an employee that's out of a job, and an employee that's on her way to developing new skills and securing a different job or role.

Once employees are set on the path to a more promising future, they have to muster up the courage to "bring the possibilities to life," Weddle says. That means putting in the hard learning and development hours.

Take Collective Action

As important as our individual preparation will be, Weddle says collective action is needed to protect humans from being mistreated by the mass introduction of machines, or what Weddle refers to as byte-collar workers. Americans will have to assemble new groups in a wide range of venues and exert the full force of their democratic power to ensure they know:

  • How and where machines are entering the workplace and workforce
  • What changes to specific occupations, jobs, industries and locations are being caused by their introduction
  • When, where and how new and more capable machines will be added to the workplace and workforce in the future
  • What governmental, academic, social and civic organizations are and will be doing about it

The government should also play an involved role in ensuring that humans continue to play a role at work. According to Weddle, the federal government should acknowledge how important human resources departments will be for ensuring employers' fair and equitable treatment of workers who are affected by the introduction of super-intelligent machines.

And, to raise broader awareness about the growing challenges plaguing the world of work, Weddle suggests investing in the expansion of HR curricula at both the undergraduate and graduate level in higher education, while also supporting the development of more advanced coursework for mid-career and senior professionals through groups like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Once we're able to successfully transition into this new reality, Weddle predicts workers will be rewarded with the Age of Ennoblement, or when "machines are leveraged for the daily grind of employment while people—for the first time in human history—can achieve the more creative and mind-driven work they're all capable of doing."

Photo: Creative Commons

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