Labor Day 2015: How The Digital Economy Is Restructuring The Future Of Work

Michael Rander

For most Americans, Labor Day is a holiday full of barbecues, family gatherings, beach outings, compass pointing at jobsand relaxation. Furthest from anyone’s mind is work. However, back on September 5, 1882, the dignity of workers everywhere was top of mind for 10,000 people parading arm-in-arm at Wendel’s Elm Park in upper Manhattan. Organized by the Central Labor Union, this holiday was intended to celebrate the accomplishments of workers and discuss solutions for better working conditions and salaries.

Since that first unofficial start, a wave of social and technological change has transformed the meaning of work and how it impacts our lives. So amidst this rush to squeeze out these last moments of the summer season, here is a snapshot of how the workforce has changed – and continues to do so.

Automation opens doors to better, purposeful work

According to the U.S. Federal Census, the 1880 report recorded over 50 million men, women, and children citing occupations such as carpenter, farmer, factory worker, dressmaker/tailor, clerk, school teacher, blacksmith, miner, and cotton mill worker. Other stated jobs sound more like machinery than job positions including button polisher, envelope folder, feather curler, silk winder, and boot clicker.

By the time the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, those machinery-sounding jobs were replaced. However, in their stead, a new crop of more lucrative industries emerged such as retail, real estate, and financial services. Take the retail industry, for example. In the 1880s, the retail market was reserved for the local general store, typically ran by a couple living in a small area next or above it. By the 1930s, large retailers infused the economy with millions of part-time, full-time, and seasonal jobs as cashiers, stock handlers, security, janitors, merchandisers, and store managers.

Just as the Industrial Revolution changed the nature of work, so has the Internet. Let’s continue with our retail example. The explosion of online shopping is beginning to curb demand for these positions. Although it is easy to blame the Internet for the loss of these jobs, one must look forward to realize how it is also paving the way for different kinds of work.

Yes, we still need teachers, carpenters, dressmakers, factory workers, and farmers just like we did back in the 1880s. However, at-home jobs – such as medical transcription, telemarketing and data entry – as well as operations management and software engineering positions are quickly emerging as today’s top career trends, according to Bing Predicts. We are even witnessing the combined application of robotics and 3D printing taking over hazardous work such as building bridges over the canals in Amsterdam.

What this means for the future of work

It is remarkable to see the arrival of new jobs appearing thanks to the digital economy. In essence, we should not fear whether robots and technology will take jobs away from workers. Rather, the digital economy should be embraced, and the nature of work needs to be reimagined.

Even millennials (and the soon-to-come Gen Z) are working in positions that never crossed the minds of the boomer and Gen X generations. Chief digital officer. Social media engineers. Data scientists. Analytics-driven city planners and law enforcement. Even highway planners with knowledge about the behaviors of self-driving technology are becoming sought after.

This is where the world of work in heading – more thought-driven, analytical, and creative. And this is what the business world requires as our world becomes more and more hyperconnected. A recent report from The Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) revealed:

“The unprecedented uptick in interconnectedness that began with the Internet, extended by mobile technology, and now continues with the Internet of Things is not just a technological trend. It is one of the era’s redefining characteristics. It’s little wonder that companies see adapting to it as their greatest challenge.”

To evolve along with the digital economy, workers must remain flexible. A solid, stable state is very comfortable, but makes the workforce resistant to change. Although greater agility may appear to be more chaotic, even dangerous to some, it lends the best opportunity to adapt and cater to the changing needs of today’s economy.

Are your employees prepared to embrace the future of work in the digital economy? Download The Economic Intelligence Unit “The Hyperconnected Economy: Phase 2.”




About Michael Rander

Michael Rander is the Global Research Director for Future of Work at SAP. He is an experienced project manager, strategic and competitive market researcher, and operations manager, as well as an avid photographer, athlete, traveler, and entrepreneur.