Work 4.0: What is it and why does it matter?

SoftBank's Pepper
It seems that the future is all that anyone wants to talk about these days. No matter the industry, “the future of _____” is a topic sure to predominate any water cooler conversation. In the automotive industry, companies are off to the races to perfect self-driving vehicles. In the food industry, scientists have begun experimenting with lab-grown steaks in an effort to make agri- and aquaculture more sustainable. And in the world of finance, revolutionary technology brought by blockchain is, in the words of KPMG, “poised to change the future of accounting, payments, trading, and collateral management.”
The future of labor, of course, is no exception to this course of discussion. In recent decades, the development of new communication tools and the exponential increase in the amount of data and information available have opened up many new opportunities for work and employment. A term which you may no doubt have come across is Work 4.0. While it may sound like a software update, its influence extends far beyond the screen you’re reading this from. But just what exactly is Work 4.0? Simply put, the concepts of New Work, Industry 4.0, and Work 4.0 all describe how work may change in the coming years—more quickly and drastically than you might think. However, to better understand what the future might hold, we need to take a look at our past.
Source: University of St. Gallen/Telekom Shareground
Source: University of St. Gallen/Telekom Shareground


Work 4.0: How did we get here?

The transition from hand production to machine production beginning in the 18th century—more commonly referred to as the Industrial Revolution—marks a keystone chapter in human history. With the introduction of new production systems using water and steam, humans learned to harness the physical power of machines. This newfound knowledge transformed many aspects of daily life, and as a result, the world saw an unprecedented rise in population.
The Second Industrial Revolution continued to contribute to the rise of mass production with the help of electrical energy. Inventions such as the conveyor belt facilitated new technologies such as the telegraph and railway networks, which in their turn contributed to the surge in movement amongst people—another keystone chapter for mankind.
The third revolution of work, known as the Digital Revolution, saw the replacement of mechanical devices and analogue electronics by digital technology. The sweeping changes brought by the Digital Revolution includes the widespread adoption and use of the computer, cellular phone, and the internet.
Up until now, the use of machines has been limited to helping humans only in a physical capacity, through either power or agility. However, we are starting to also use machines to reason: humans are beginning to harness the machine’s intellectual capacity, with the most prominent example of this being the self-driving car. And so here we are at Work 4.0, the fourth and latest revolution in the world of industry and labor.


Predicting the future of work through megatrends

Work 4.0 is not an airy, futuristic concept. Just like the three previous revolutions that have preceded it, Work 4.0 will impact many aspects of our daily lives. There are many hypotheses we can make about what the future of work will look like by observing today’s megatrends. Coined in the 1980s by the American John Naisbitt, megatrends are long-term developments which shape all sectors of the economy and society, have a global character, and whose momentum and influence last over several decades.
Among the current megatrends identified by the Zukunftsinstitut, the following will have the largest impact in the way we work.
  • Digitization: In a 2018 report by McKinsey, it is estimated that between 20—25% of all tasks in Switzerland may be automated by 2030. However, roughly an equal number of new tasks may be created, signaling a need for reskilling in the workforce.
  • Connectivity: Along with digitization, connectivity is one of the most influential megatrends of our time. Social media, instant messaging, and apps are setting a new standard for how to interact, connect, and collaborate with others. As transparency increases and the traditional lines of communication and hierarchy are erased, one of the challenges will be to successfully navigate through the new code of conducts of Work 4.0.
  • Urbanization: As more people flock to urban centers, cities are becoming powerful players in their own rights in the global economy. Concentrated areas such as Silicon Valley have single-handedly been responsible for disrupting some of the world’s longest-standing business models. (Uber or Airbnb, anyone?) There is no doubt that in the future, urban areas will play a huge role in shaping the way we live, think, and work.
  • The “Silver Society”: Around the globe, the average age of the population is steadily rising as people are living longer, healthier lives. Retirement is being redefined as members of the silver society continue to engage in lifelong learning, self-development, and surprisingly—work.
  • Individualization: With increased, connectivity, mobility, and longevity, we also see a trend towards greater individualization. Especially those among the younger generation are discovering and embracing their freedom of choice: the freedom to decide where they live, what they consume, and how they work.
As these megatrends engender a new workforce that is more mobile and more flexible, it’s up to companies and policymakers to redesign the existing business models and policies to usher in this new era of work.

Viktor Calabrò is Founder and Executive Chairman of Coople. He is also co-author of the book Flexible Workforce and was named Swiss Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young in 2014.