DAVOS 2020

The Future of Work: The Gig Economy and Shifting Social Values
By Susan Seto
Vice President of Market Strategy - Environics Research

With the rise of the gig economy and "sharing" platforms, the role and meaning of work in many people’s lives is changing. Alongside the growth of freelancing and side-hustles – many enabled by mobile apps like Uber, Airbnb, and Task Rabbit – more traditional jobs have also changed, with flex hours and remote working becoming normal for even established firms. While these shifts in the world of work are sometimes presumed to be led by the young, in fact these changes cut across the age spectrum. And how people relate to these changes as workers, consumers, managers, entrepreneurs is powerfully affected not just by age but also by social values.

New Ways to Earn – Exciting or Unavoidable?

Environics social values research finds plenty of optimism about the new work landscape. Over 70 percent of Canadians agree that, “In this day and age, almost anyone can be an entrepreneur or make a living in a way that is easier than before.” Notably, agreement is fairly consistent across all age groups – although members of Gen Z (those born after 1996) are especially bullish about today’s possibilities. Meanwhile, six in ten Canadians – slightly higher in younger cohorts – believe that, “Because of technology, this digital age provides so many more opportunities that are open to anyone who has the wherewithal to take action themselves.” This sense of empowerment might be driven by an awareness that many new ventures require limited up-front investment to get started.

Despite optimism about work and a sense of entrepreneurial possibility, Canadians’ financial outlook and confidence about the future is tenuous. Our recent IRIS Network Global Economic Confidence Study revealed that 33 percent of Canadians are having difficulty making ends meet compared to a year ago, and 44 percent believe the Canadian economy is getting weaker. Amid these concerns, the fact that many Canadians express an interest in exploring digitally-enabled earning opportunities may speak to necessity more than inspiration.

Navigating Change Requires Diversity – of Age and Outlook

How to manage a multi-generational workplace has been a frequent topic of discussion among managers, especially over the last 20 years as technological change has brought generational differences into sharper relief. Although promises and cautions about Millennials and Generation Z in the workplace have often been overblown, it’s fair to say that a combination of technological and social change mean that younger workers often have a distinct understanding of both the meaning and mechanics of work. However, while there are differences in expectations and experience among different age groups, age is less of an influence than many leaders may assume.

Social values rather than demographic traits are often stronger predictors of workers’ attitudes and reactions to change and disruption. An older worker who has a strong sense of adaptability to complexity may be better equipped to guide a team through a tumultuous period than a younger worker who values order and hierarchy. Businesses need to ensure that whatever values their teams bring to the table, there are opportunities for productive discussion and exchange. By promoting dialogue across generations and across values orientations, firms can ensure that their practices and decisions benefit from multiple perspectives – regardless of the ages of the proponents. Design of the physical workspace and the tools it contains can support this effort, supporting different personal styles and ways of working, as well as social and collaborative needs.

In a Digital Age, Human Skills Matter

As digital tools have become more central to working life, many experts have emphasized the need for tech skills in the labour market of tomorrow. Although there’s little room for Luddites in 21st century firms, in a world of growing digitization and automation some distinctly human skills remain sought-after. In our social values research, 84 percent of Canadians agree that “Our human capacities for empathy, creativity, spirituality and intuition are becoming even more critical as they come under threat from the rise of artificial intelligence, machines and technology.” This sentiment perhaps presages a growing premium – at least among consumers, and perhaps among managers, too – on factors like emotional intelligence and social skills, as complements to technical competence.

Adaptability Is Crucial

Most people – business leaders and others – know that in a period of rapid technological and economic change, it’s good to be adaptable. At the same time, Canadians seem to recognize that adaptability is a quality that’s easier to praise than demonstrate. Only about half of Canadians are confident in their ability to deal with disruption and come out ahead; 54 percent feel they are better than most at taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves and avoiding threats. Forty-nine percent say they embrace the challenge of successfully navigating complex situations.

What do these findings mean for employers? Most firms will likely have on their teams a mix of adaptive navigators and people who are less eager to embrace change. Both segments likely have plenty to offer. While adaptive navigators are especially well equipped to lead change, it’s still true that loyal, dedicated, long-time employees can make important contributions. The trick is to offer an environment where both groups can contribute ideas and add value, and where their values orientations can be complementary instead of mutually frustrating.

The adaptive navigators are likely to be harder to retain, since they’ll be tempted by new opportunities as well as entrepreneurial possibilities, but they’re vital when it comes to helping their organizations negotiate the complexity ahead. To attract and retain these workers, firms will want to offer flexibility, growth opportunities, and a bit of fun.

The winners in the emerging world of work will not be those who follow a specific new set of rules, but those who can foster a culture of learning, growth, and productive exchange that helps individuals and teams feel connected and effective in the face of challenge and uncertainty. This means creating an environment that harnesses diversity (of age, experience, perspective, and skills) as an asset. It means taking a human-centric approach to management, even as computers become more intricately integrated into every function. And it means cultivating a firm’s ability to navigate flexibly, even though the people within the firm will bring different levels of adaptability to their roles.
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