The Future of Work vs. Workforce Futures

Probably the most common phrase indicating a prediction of the future begins with, “the future of _____.”  You see this in media headlines, in the titles of talks by “futurists” at conferences, and in the titles of authoritative reports about the future.  When it comes to futures thinking, which is critical thinking about what the future could bring and of what we want from it, this opening phrase tends to indicate that what follows is less a critical exploration of the uncertainties and possibilities for the future and more of an assertive statement about what the authors predict will be important.

What we want to see, as an early indication of how the authors/speakers think about the future is something along the lines of “the futures of _____” or “_____ futures.”  Note the plural of the future.  This is a key indicator, as it shows that the authors admit to multiple possibilities, and not simply a single inevitable future.

To take one example, as critical thinkers about the economy, education, and jobs, we don’t really want a presentation on “the future of work”; we want a presentation on “workforce futures.”  The former probably entails a bullet list of important trends and a (vague) description of how people will have different work lives in the future.  In contrast, the latter will lay out the turbulent confluence of current trends and future emerging issues, from shifts in the global economy to the changing perceptions of the value of education to the emergence of wholly digital and autonomous non-human corporations.  Workforce futures will explore how these many issues might interact with all of the cultural and institutional forces striving to keep things from changing, and it will present the key uncertainties and the interesting possibilities for us to shape.  The former is about prediction, the latter about foresight.

As much as each of us as audience members crave surety and confident prediction, hard won experience has taught us that the critical approach to thinking about the future will not only reveal more of our perceptual blind spots, but will also remind us that the future is not inevitable and that we have a real role in shaping it.

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