For Generation X, the defining vision of our most likely future was laid out in The Jetsons. It presented a futurescape of flying cars, Uniblab the AI coworker with a bad attitude, and workweeks of one hour per day, two days per week. For millennials, the future was defined by Back to the Future and Tron. Unfortunately, we still don’t have a real hoverboard.
How Close We Are to the Future
Over the years, many alternative visions of the future have been presented, such as those in The Terminator, The Matrix, and The Handmaid’s Tale; but so far The Jetsons may be the most accurate.
Flying cars exist in 2017, though they’re not used for commuting. Self-driving Apple cars are more likely to be ferrying workers in the next few years. Non-humanoid robots long ago took over physical manufacturing, while chatbots with personality software now rule customer service. Workweeks don’t really exist at all anymore for about 35 percent of the workforce who are now freelancers. For them, work and life are inseparable. Other work-related advances from The Jetsons are just on the horizon including universal 3-D printing matter compilers and personal drones.
To help workers everywhere better prepare for work in the decade ahead, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center conducted a vast survey with input from thousands of technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers, and university leaders.
5 Visions of the Future of Work
These five themes emerged from their predictions. Prepare yourself for a brief time-tour of the year 2026.
1. Robots and Infinite Training
The AI/robotics revolution will affect everyone. It’s not just low-skilled workers who are losing jobs to robots. Lawyers, doctors, and financial advisors—information workers—are the next frontier for AI. In response, public, private, and governmental organizations will likely join forces to train the workforce in new ways of living and working.
Universal basic income, already being tried in places like Norway in 2017, will likely be more common by 2026. That means there may be far fewer people looking for work, and those who are will need to be in a constant state of training. Continuous training will simply be a condition of any job.
2. Unteachables and Intangibles
The skills that will be most in demand in the future will be those that AI programs have not been able to adequately model. We are already seeing a growing desire for:
- Emotional intelligence
- Critical thinking
Maybe English Majors will actually come out on top after all. Programming, which has long been considered a safe bet in a world increasingly dependent on software, may no longer be done by humans. The next generation of programmers are likely to be the idea people who imagine what the software should do and then let the program write its own code to accomplish those ends along the most efficient path.
3. The Triumph of Alternative Credentialing
The rapid changes in technology and society have outstripped the education sector’s ability to prepare students for the workforce. Hiring managers in 2026 will look for different sorts of credentials and have already started to devalue the worth of traditional degrees. Instead, HR is more likely to look for work-based training and self-taught skills as evidence of the necessary mental flexibility.
4. Surpassing the Limits of the Mind
Just as there are mathematics problems too complex for the human mind to solve, there are potentially societal and cultural shifts so great that humans lack the ability to respond fast enough.
A few of those surveyed felt that this could lead to resource wars and vast movements of populations on a scale not seen for a thousand years. Others felt the way forward is a merging of the digital with the analog. “Wetware,” also known as biological organisms, are likely to find new ways to merge with hardware as the Internet of Things expands. That may be as simple as brain augmentation via “neural lace,” but it will probably also include advances as complex as DNA-based quantum computers.
5. The Far Side of the Singularity
Around a third of those surveyed said that capitalism is going away. They felt the working world is likely to be so different that it will require a new economic system not yet invented. Capitalism had a beginning in the 16th century, and some believe it could find its end in the 21st. No one has yet offered a viable alternative.
Technologies like fusion or hydrogen electrolysis from seawater promise virtually infinite energy. Three-dimensional printers could build food, molecule by molecule, ending world hunger overnight. In that world, there will be no need for labor in exchange for money because both will be obsolete. Work could be an entirely creative act of entrepreneurship, not rewarded by wealth but by the kind of prestige that wealth buys today. Perhaps the mechanisms of capitalism will merge into a working economic system without the need for an intermediary device like money.
The alternative is we all become part of the Matrix.