The future of work: what is it and how do we prepare?

Associate Professor in Organisational Studies, Management and Marketing Susan Ainsworth, Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of The Policy Lab, Leah Ruppanner, and Dr Andi Pekarek, Lecturer in Human Resource Management (HRM) in the Department of Management and Marketing, share their expertise to help us understand where the world of work is heading and what needs to happen to ensure it benefits everyone.

Two colleagues focussing on a task

Technological breakthroughs, a changing demographic, rapid urbanisation, shifts in global economic power, resource scarcity and climate change are currently reshaping society as we know it (PWC, 2017).

These megatrends are impacting not only how we live, but also the type and availability of jobs, our working conditions and the way work is performed.

The complexity of these competing forces – how they converge, the speed of change, our human response – means “predictions about the future of work are inherently uncertain”, says Dr Andi Pekarek, Lecturer in Human Resource Management (HRM). But there are trends around the impact they are having that provide context for understanding what the future of work “might, could, or should” be.

As Associate Professor in Organisational Studies, Management and Marketing Susan Ainsworth points out: "It's important to separate out the potential impact from how it is actually being taken up, because they're two separate things.”

Technology, the gig economy and workforce diversity

The biggest influencer is technology. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and automation, as well as big data and analytics, are impacting the nature and number of jobs available, how organisations operate and the way the labour market is organised.

While finance, information technology and media have the highest level of digital potential, all sectors are embedding new technologies into their operations. Orders of industrial robots increased threefold in a decade and are projected to double by 2020, and private equity investment in AI doubled over the past year (OECD, 2019).

Whether this leads to a decrease or increase in jobs, however, is less certain, says Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of The Policy Lab, Leah Ruppanner.

The OECD Employment Outlook 2019: The Future of Work predicts 14 per cent of existing jobs could disappear as a result of automation in the next 15 to 20 years, while another 32 per cent are likely to change radically as individual tasks are automated (OECD, 2019). There are also strong arguments that increased demand for new roles will offset the decreasing demand for others (WEF, 2018).

In terms of which jobs are vulnerable, labour markets around the world are showing ‘job polarisation’: a decline in the share of middle-skill, middle-wage jobs involving routine, easily automated tasks (such as administrative work in offices, production roles in factories, program administrators, bank staff and accounting clerks), while high and low-skill jobs increase, says Dr Pekarek.

But many experts suggest we should be focusing on the level of tasks within jobs. This better indicates the nuanced impact technology will have, and the shift towards a skills-based labour market as a result (Lu, J. 2019).

As technologies advance and work moves in the direction of automation and AI, people’s job descriptions will change and they’ll need new (and frequently updated) technical skills and digital competencies, such as information and data literacy.

Human skills will be most important though. Conceptualised in the MIT J-WEL Human Skills Matrix (HSX) as thinking, leading, interacting and managing ourselves, human – or soft – skills will serve as the binding agents to the ever-changing list of required technical skills (Evollution, 2020)

a table with three columns showing skills demand in 2018, followed by trending skills in 2022, and declining skills in 2022. The overall message is that soft skills are on the incline.
a table comparing skills performed by machines vs humans in 2018 vs 2022. The overall message is an incline in the share of machine work.

Another major theme is “the rise of the ‘gig economy’ and the proliferation of digital labour platforms such as Uber or Airtasker”, says Dr Pekarek. Identifying as ‘technological companies’, platform-based companies connect and mediate between consumers and sellers through apps while distancing themselves from the product or service and relying on contract workers (rather than hiring actual ‘employees’) to meet fluctuating customer demand.

In effect, they challenge existing business models, labour management practices and regulations (Healy, Nicholson, and Pekarek, 2017). And while largely contained to the service industry, Dr Pekarek says the rise of gig work poses a big question for other markets and occupations: “will it spread to other sectors like healthcare, childcare, and legal work previously thought off-limits? What would this mean for career paths, professional standards, pay, job security and employee voice?”

An increasingly multigenerational and diverse workforce also stands to shake up the world of work. As an ageing population, globalisation and technology bring baby boomers, millennials, Gen X, Gen Z and even AI together, different mind sets, ways of working, digital literacy, expectations and needs disrupt the concept of work, workforce participation and resourcing (PWC).

How organisations create workplace culture; accommodate the fluidity of education and work in the 100-year life; or manage ‘loyalty-lite’ millennials – now forming more than 50 per cent of the workforce – alongside baby boomers working into their 70s and 80s will become normal questions.

In a survey of executive-level managers, communication, collaboration and connectivity were identified as the most challenging areas due to this new employee base (Deloitte, 2016); while solutions include strong leadership, innovative resourcing, diversity and inclusion strategies and continuous learning and development (PWC).

The future of work is a choice

How do we prepare for such vast changes taking shape? Associate Professor Ainsworth says that it requires bold leadership and recognising that collectively, we have a choice.

“A lot of the popular discourse acts as if the future is already written and all we can do is respond to what's inevitably going to happen. But this overlooks the possibility for collective agency.”

“Current decisions by governments, societies, industry bodies, managers, organisations, employers and higher education will influence the kind of future that unfolds for people.”

Deciding what the future of work will be and ensuring we are prepared has been important for some time. In 2018, for example, the Senate ‘Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers’ (established in 2017) released a report entitled Hope is not a strategy – our shared responsibility for the future of work and workers. The same year, Australia ranked 23rd in the world for digital skills (PWC, 2020).

But COVID-19 has made action even more urgent – accelerating trends and forcing us to address their impact. As Associate Professor Ruppanner says: “any of the changes we were thinking would come in a year or two are here. They're immediate.”

Economic uncertainty, social distancing and various local and global lockdowns sped up the adoption of automation and AI (from chatbots in health (WEF, 2020) to employee monitoring tools (Gartner, 2020); expanded gig work; brought entire industries (such as aviation) to a halt and shifted others (higher education) online.

As well as showing us how quickly we can pivot, these rapid changes have highlighted the vulnerable pockets of the workforce and, with that, the top-level decisions and massive upskilling that is urgently required.

We need to ask: what policies will protect gig workers working “under terms and conditions that are not regulated”? (The Age, 2020). How do we ensure women (taking on a disproportionate share of housework and childcare under COVID-19) don’t become increasingly disadvantaged under a rapidly changing world of work? How will we support a huge segment of the population requiring upskilling or complete retraining?

As well as an overarching strategy, governments, employers and higher education all need to take action in their respective roles to direct how these questions play out.

For higher education, which intersects with society from many angles, its role is three-fold: providing the research and evidence base that enables governments to develop sound policy and informed decisions; supporting industry and business leaders to adapt; contributing to the continual upskilling and education of individuals.

Essential for higher education here will also be an entrepreneurial mindset that is collaborative with industry, interdisciplinary and innovative. This will encourage the bold experimentation and cross-discipline thinking required for the issues we face, while closing the skills and job gap through embracing technology and employer engagement (Evollution, 2020).

Globally, universities are playing a role

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Task Force on the Work of the Future is launching a new series of subject-specific research briefs to help frame national discussion and policies on work, technology, and prosperity.

Stanford Interdisciplinary – bringing together 18 interdisciplinary institutes – prepares students for future careers in which bridging ideas is increasingly important.

In Australia, Swinburne’s Industry 4.0 strategy includes the Higher Apprentice Program, which trains students alongside industry in new technologies and work practices for the future. RMIT Online’s current campaign for postgraduate programs is based around the future of work.

And sector-wide, universities are targeting soft skills (DeakinCo. has built them into all their degrees alongside technical or disciplinary skills, for example).

At the University of Melbourne, research informing government policy and public opinion, as well as programs equipping organisations and individuals for the future of work take place in various ways.

Faculty-wide, experts are working on research in areas such as workforce capability, skill gaps, training, artificial intelligence and gender equality. In one example, Associate Professor Ainsworth is currently working on an interdisciplinary project to enhance the data capability in workforces, focusing on the organisational level. In another, Associate Professor Ruppanner has been researching the future of women at work to identify the barriers to achieving gender equality and inclusivity, including around the impacts of artificial intelligence.

At a program level, skill gaps, shifting labour markets and a changing workforce are addressed through a range of short courses through to accredited degrees. The Melbourne School of Professional and Continuing Education (MSPACE) is a prime example, driving the University’s continuing and professional education portfolio by working with all faculties to meet industry challenges and shifts in society.

In a new initiative, Melbourne MicroCerts equip individuals quickly, and at all stages of their career, with the most pressing knowledge, skills and competencies required for the changing world of work.

The Managing Teams series, for example, provides learners will the capabilities to recognise and address team dynamics, and to develop strategies to manage biases, diversity and processes for effective decision-making. Across sectors these are increasingly essential workplace skills.

If the future of work depends on collective decisions and leadership by government, higher education and organisations, then the University’s role in providing independent research and education has only become more pressing.

As Associate Professor Ainsworth says: “It all increases our capacity to contribute to the overall ability of the economy and the labour market to adapt to whatever unfolds, and steer the future of work towards one based on social values, rather than just economic gain.”

To learn more about how you can rapidly upskill for your career now and in the future workplace, consider our Melbourne MicroCerts, or if you would like to discuss custom education for your organisation, email us at


Deloitte. (2019). Building the Lucky Country. The path to prosperity: Why the future of work is human

Deloitte. (2017). Soft skills for business success

Deloitte. (2016). Transitioning to the Future of Work and the Workplace Embracing Digital Culture, Tools, and Approaches White Paper on the Future of Work Research Study

Hall, B. (2020, July 14). The Age. Workers pay price as gig economy avoids regulations, inquiry finds

Healy, J. Nicholson, D. & Pekarek, A. (2017). Should we take the gig economy seriously? Labour & Industry: a journal of the social and economic relations of work, 27:3, 232-248, DOI: 10.1080/10301763.2017.1377048

Lu, J. (2019). World Economic Forum. Skills, not job titles, are the new metric for the labour market

OECD. (2019). OECD Employment Outlook 2019 : The Future of Work

PWC. (2017). Workforce of the future: The competing forces shaping 2030

PWC. (2020). Australia’s mismatched workforce

PWC. (2020). Australia Matters

Stump, G. (2020, March 2). Evollution. Human Skills: Critical Components of Future Work

Weber, S. (2020, March 27). Evollution. Preparing for the Future (and Present!) of Work

WEF. (2018). The Future of Jobs Report 2018