The Shape of Things to Come
Apr 27, 2023

By: Dr. Gary Anderberg, SVP - Claim Analytics


H.G. Wells published his “future history” titled The Shape of Things to Come in 1933. While his view of the future, like all such views, was not 100% correct, he did see another world war, the rise of dictatorships, a pandemic, and other issues looming in the near future. I thought of old H.G. at the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) annual meeting last month as the keynote speaker, Dr. David Autor of MIT, gave an admirably fact- and thought-filled talk on “The Future of Work.”


The WCRI is, of course, justly famous for its “just the facts, ma’am”* approach to understanding comp, so this was a fascinating and eminently worthwhile departure. Dr. Autor’s talk, and the half hour or more of Q&A which followed, touched on a myriad of topics. Here are a few highlights that struck your correspondent as especially noteworthy:

  • Expect change: While the need for work is driven by the insatiability of demand (we always want more), it constantly changes or develops new forms. Some 60% of the work we all do today represents new skills and expertise that didn’t exist in 1940.


  • The barbell effect: AI and other forms of automation tend to eliminate work/jobs in the middle ranks leaving menial work and highly specialized technical work untouched. The future of work may be more entry-level or semi-skilled folks and data scientists with fewer folks in between**. “B-level” skills will fall in demand.


  • AI and Polanyi’s revenge: Unlike the rules engines we all grew up with (the computer executes rules written by the programmers), AI writes its own rules/scripts, and we may not always understand what it tells us***. Paradoxically, certainty becomes ever harder to find in a world full of fact-checkers.


  • The pandemic: COVID-19 has changed the face of labor permanently****. Working from home is only part of the story. There is also the shrinking workforce and the changing face of labor across age brackets.


  • Retirement and the aging workforce: All OECD countries are dealing with more experienced/knowledgeable workers retiring and fewer new workers entering the workforce with useful skills.


  • Too much data: WC billing and medical management may be an example of another new development—our AI vs their AI.


The pattern that emerged from this far-ranging discussion is that work is not going away, but the distribution of jobs and the texture of regular work is changing. Back in 1930, J.M. Keynes worried about the impact of excess leisure on the workforce as automation eliminated one menial job after another*****. So far, the plague of leisure has not materialized and Dr. Autor’s talk suggested that it’s not about to.


Taken together, his remarks do suggest that the patterns of risk that we associate with our workforces will continue to change, and there will be an increasing division of work into higher-risk manual jobs and lower-risk specialty and executive work with the hollowing out of B-level skilled positions. On the other hand, retaining needed skills well past age 67 (and the associated co-morbidities of age) is becoming a risk-related task in its own right. Never before have risk management and HR been so closely allied in needs and goals.


The existential corporate risks today are human based, not financial or material based. Also—the future isn’t “out there.” It’s happening around us right now. Don’t get ready—get busy.



*You too are old as the hills if you remember that this was Sgt. Joe Friday’s tagline in the old Dragnet TV series (1951–59 in living black and white).

**My rude summary of a much more nuanced discussion.

***The philosopher Michael Polanyi noted that we acquire knowledge we can’t explain, but act on it anyway.

****A recurring theme in many discussions of labor and work in 2023 compares the changes wrought by COVID-19 with the ways in which the Black Death reshaped the economies of Western Europe wholesale in the mid-fourteenth century.

*****Keynes suggested that the standard workweek would dwindle to perhaps 15 hours by early in this century. I’m still waiting. Are you?


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