The Purpose of Work in the Digital Age

Everyone, whether they’re 21, 41, or 81, shares many similar motivations for working. We work to put food on the table; to buy nice things that improve our circumstances and lifestyles; to wield power and gain status; to enjoy physical or mental pursuits; and, of course, to maintain our own identities.

This last point is critical. Whether you are a corporate leader, a skilled tradesperson, or a side-gigger – and whether you are financially comfortable or just getting by paycheck to paycheck – it can be all too easy to lose sight of who you are. At the same time, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a world without fulfilling work. How boring would that be? As the saying goes, “If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
 Yet far too often, the reality is that work can be depressing.

Millions of people have jobs that lead directly or indirectly to poor mental and physical health. Most of us have experienced the Sunday night blues, and some have even endured work-related diseases like coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung) or sustained a serious workplace injury. So why is it that with the arrival of new digital tools like AI and automation – which could help free workers from the monotony of rote tasks and from the risk of dangerous work – there is a pervasive sense of doom surrounding the idea of the future of work? Isn’t it logical to want to diminish the repetitive tasks that lead to boredom, dread, drudgery, or injury? The fact is, advances in digital, robotics, and AI can help us obliterate obstacles to fulfilling our purpose. The future of work, it seems, is not work. The future of work is purpose.

What Comes Next?

AI – long the domain of academic theory and Hollywood plotlines – is becoming “real” at an astonishing pace. It’s now being used to read X-rays and MRIs.
 It’s at the heart of stock trading. Chat with Siri or Alexa, and you’re using AI. Soon, AI will be found in every job, profession, and industry around the world.

This has led many people to wonder what comes next. How will people make a living when machines are cheaper, faster, and smarter than they are? 
To many, the future of work can seem bleak, characterized by temporary jobs, minimum wage labor, and a ruling technocracy safely hidden away in gated communities.

At Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, we have a much more optimistic view – one based on a different interpretation of how change occurs and humans evolve. We created our own vision of the future of work, emerging from the following principles:

/  Work has always changed. 
Today, few people (if any) make a living as knocker-uppers, telegraphists, switchboard operators, lamplighters, or elevator operators. Yet these were all jobs that employed thousands of people in the past.

/  Lots of current work is awful. 
Millions of people around the world do work that is dull, dirty, or dangerous. Rather than trying to keep people in these jobs, we should liberate them to do more fulfilling, enjoyable, and lucrative work.

/  Machines need people. 
Machines can do more, but there is always more to do. Can a machine create, market, sell, or deliver itself? Machines are tools, and tools need to be used by people.

/  Human imagination or ingenuity shouldn’t be limited. 
Our greatest quality is our curiosity. In an age of intelligent machines, humans will continue to want to explore – and make – what’s next. This motivation will continue to act as a source of new work.

/  Technology will upgrade all aspects of society. 
Modern societies are still far from perfect. Are our healthcare systems, banks, or education systems as good as they’re ever going to be? Technology can seriously improve key services and experiences, and in doing so, can help free up our time.

/  Technology solves – and creates – problems. 
Intelligent machines will address many problems in society, but in doing so, they will also create new problems that humans will need to work on addressing – in other words, they will create new jobs.

The signposts are already popping up everywhere: One of the most in-demand jobs in the modern marketing function is now the “Twitter data wrangler,” which would have sounded ludicrous just 10 years ago. Same goes for the iOS developer a mere 15 years ago.

Beyond these roles, the jobs of the future will cultivate work with a sense
 of real human purpose. These roles will require workers to use their emotion, empathy, human judgment, and ethics, as well as to answer the question, “What’s the right thing to do?” AI can help with such tasks, but it can’t do them.

It may sound counterintuitive, but in a world of more pervasive technology, activities that humans do well will become even more important. In the future, work will change, but it won’t go away – and it will certainly be infused with more purpose.

So, the next big question is this: What new jobs will be created by new technologies?

What the Next
 10 Years Will Bring: New Jobs

By looking at current trends and future projections, we envisioned hundreds of jobs that could emerge from today’s major macro-economic, political, demographic, societal, cultural, business, and technology trends. We considered everything from carbon farmers and drone jockeys to 3D-printing engineers and avatar designers. These are jobs our teenage children may consider doing in the not-too-distant future.

Of these, we zeroed in on 21 jobs that
 we are confident will be created over the next 10 to 15 years. These roles will create mass employment for people currently working in offices, stores, and on factory floors, whose current jobs may be displaced or disrupted by technology. Importantly, these aren’t jobs that would only employ a handful of bearded hipsters in the current “hot job markets” of Silicon Valley or New York – they are employment opportunities that many people will be
 able pursue.

While the jobs we selected cover many disciplines, markets, and technologies, 
they also share three common themes (each one a strong contributor to the notion of purpose, fulfillment, and helping):

/ Coaching:

Helping people get better at things
(e.g. organizing their finances or managing their weight).

/ Caring:

Improving people’s health and wellness.

/ Connecting:

Bringing together separate disciplines
 or entities (e.g. people and machines, “traditional” and “shadow” IT, the physical and the virtual, or commerce and ethics).

These themes speak to a universal truth: that no matter how technological our world becomes, ultimately, we want to experience the human touch. We want technology, 
as a tool, to help us – but we don’t want technology for technology’s sake. These jobs reflect this fact and point not to a cyber-dystopia – a grim, dark singularity – but 
to a recognizable world in which technology has improved things for humans rather
 than robbing us of what we value most: our very humanity.

A Short Sample of the Jobs of the Future

Here’s a quick look at just four of the jobs we envision emerging across industries and disciplines. We believe these positions will be in high demand in less than 10 years’ time:

/ AI-Assisted Healthcare Technician.

Healthcare, supercharged by AI technology, will become available at scale and on-demand to all. As a result, in-depth patient care and diagnosis will no longer fall within the domain of doctors with seven years of qualifications. Instead, AI-assisted healthcare technicians will examine and diagnose patients, then prescribe and administer appropriate treatment with the help of AI-driven diagnosis software, digital examination tools, and remotely accessible doctors. This role could be filled by an experienced nurse or anyone in healthcare who is comfortable with digital equipment and able to build close, trusting relationships with patients.

/ Digital Tailors.

With a high percentage of online clothing orders returned due to imperfect sizing and fit, ecommerce fashion retailers will increasingly turn to digital tailors. We imagine people in this role using a “sensor cubicle” to accurately gather customers’ measurements, ensuring clothing items ordered online fit perfectly when delivered. Once collected, the data will be uploaded into a central cloud-based ordering system. The digital tailor will also offer advice and recommendations to the customer about styling, cloth choice, drape, etc., and offer value-added input into fashion trends, new design names, upcoming events, etc.

/ Human-Machine Teaming Manager.

Human-machine collaboration will be the backbone of the new workforce. Organizations will seek individuals who can help combine the strengths 
of robots and AI software (e.g. accuracy, endurance, computation, speed, etc.) with those of humans (e.g. cognition, judgment, empathy, versatility, etc.) to achieve common business goals. The key task for this role will be developing an interaction system through which humans and machines 
can mutually communicate their capabilities, goals, and intentions. The person in this role will also need to devise a task-planning system for human-machine collaboration. The end goal will be to create augmented hybrid teams on which humans improve themselves and machines do things “with” humans – not just “for” humans – to deliver much greater business outcomes. Individuals with backgrounds in psychology, computer science, or neuroscience would be a good fit for this role.

/ Augmented Reality (AR) Journey Builders.

To meet the massive demand for personalization of real-time experiences, businesses will need AR journey engineers to help design, write, create, calibrate, gamify, build, and – most importantly – personalize the next generation of AR stories and in-the-moment vignettes for customers’ AR trips. AR journey builders will collaborate with engineering leads and technical artists to create the essential elements customers need to move through an AR experience of place, space, and time. This includes the setting, mood, historical time, information, tone, characters, and suggested things or experiences to buy, as well as the application of clients’ favorite games, sports teams, music, and cinematic style. These vignettes will be uploaded into a Pandora-like AR platform, ready for use, redeployment, and recombination into countless situations and parameters. Gamers, artists, and even improv actors with a passion for technology could find a new future in this role.

There Will Be Work

Work has been central to mankind for millennia. Our very surnames convey
 that fact; take, for example, Baker, Brewer, Glover, Woodman, Wright, Mason, 
Judge, Weaver, Hunter, Dyer, and Fisher. In the future, work will continue to be 
core to our identities, our nature, our dreams, and our realities. While it won’t necessarily be the work we know or
 do now, it will most certainly be driven
 by a sense of purpose.

the author

Robert H. Brown

Robert is AVP, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and co-author of the center’s “21 Jobs of the Future” report.