Skip to main content

Age of Adaptability: The Future of Jobs as Machine Partners Join Our Workforce

Around 20 years ago, leaders started to ask me if nascent AI-based technologies would eliminate the need for human workers. My response then was the same as it is now: not quickly and not totally.

Nevertheless, human jobs are transforming at a rapid rate. According to a 2023 McKinsey report, in the period from 2019 to 2022, the labor market in the U.S. alone experienced 8.6 million occupational shifts. This is a 50% increase from the prior three-year period, and by 2030, an additional 12 million shifts are projected. McKinsey also estimated that 30% of all hours worked by humans today could be automated by 2030.

It might be simpler if the march toward an AI-driven future meant that all human workers would eventually lounge their lives away on cruise ships – depending on technology for their very existence as in the 2008 Pixar movie WALL-E. In reality, though, humans will continue to work as we always have. The work will just look different.

The exact manner in which human jobs are evolving is driven by organizational concerns around profit and productivity. As we shared in our 2024 Age of Adaptability trends report, companies seeking to boost flagging human productivity must focus on finding the right blend of people and technology. We can do this with a thoughtful approach to job redesign and how human work can best be distributed and evaluated in the near future.

Job Redesign

I briefly talked about job redesign in the first article in this series. Job redesign is the process of rearranging or replacing tasks to better align work with real-time conditions inside and outside the organization.

While leaders may be focusing a lot of attention on job redesign now, the need for it is not unprecedented. For example, the bookkeeper job, once essential for every organization no matter how small, was redesigned in the 1980s to reflect the widespread adoption of accounting software. Back then, if you were a bookkeeper who wanted to remain gainfully employed, you had to determine how to add value beyond the software’s capabilities.

To be fair, job redesign is a more complex proposition today because the onslaught of AI-based technologies in our workplaces is impacting a larger number of jobs. But the transition shouldn’t be overwhelming, as the progression to more complete AI integration is occurring more slowly than most people think. Despite the excitement around generative AI, for instance, practical use cases are still limited. Industry analysts at Gartner even predict that in the next few years, we are likely to fall into a “trough of disillusionment” regarding what AI-based partners can do and what they can’t.

Many organizations have already learned the hard way that strategic job redesign does not involve blunt force – or bringing in a new piece of automation or an AI-based software program and letting go of all of the human employees related to that function. The most effective job redesign initiatives assign smart technology components to handle straightforward, repetitive tasks while human employees remain to provide essential oversight.

Firms like Accenture have already quantified how this shakes out. According to a recent analysis on the impact of generative AI, a current human customer service role can be broken into 13 distinct tasks. Of those 13 component tasks, four must still be fully performed by humans, four could be fully automated, and five involve human and machine partnership. Although Accenture didn’t say this, I’ll point out that the five partnered tasks require substantially more human skill than the four transactional tasks technology is replacing.

Ultimately, the ongoing integration of AI-based technologies means that more humans will be needed – not fewer – to maximize their potential for improving productivity. Human workers will simply need new skills, which is why roles such as AI specialists and prompt engineers are among the fastest-growing occupations globally. It’s also why cross-company upskilling programs are critical. As the Accenture analysis pointed out:

“The use of AI requires more cognitively complex and judgment-based tasks. Even domain experts who understand how to apply data in the real world (a doctor interpreting health data, for example) will need enough technical knowledge of how these models work to have confidence in using them as a workmate.”

Rapid Team Assembly and Job Performance Evaluation

Any discussion of the future of jobs would not be complete without mentioning how redesigned roles might be structured and evaluated. As most have surmised by now, the pandemic-induced remote and distributed work phenomenon is a permanent development in most knowledge-based organizations.

And, in my book Humanity Works, I introduced the concept of rapid talent assembly (RTA), a work structuring approach allowing organizations to source the best people for specific tasks when and where they are needed. As the contract workforce explodes in size in the 2020s, RTA is indeed coming to fruition.

Instead of relying on traditional, full-time employees to perform most responsibilities, organizations are now staffing projects in response to immediate business priorities. These short-term teams include temporary and contract employees as well as consultants and subject matter experts. As more organizations embrace this structure, the average worker come 2030 may be employed by several different institutions at once – thus changing the very definition of what it means to have a “job.”

The criteria are also shifting for judging how well a job is performed. By 2030, employees will likely be evaluated and compensated not by the subjective impressions of a human manager but by objective metrics in the capable “hands” of smart machines. For instance, if you’re a salesperson, an AI-based supervisor might inform your human boss whether your customer calls are effective or ineffective in comparison to other salespeople in your division. Based on this data, you might either be given a bonus or a performance improvement plan.

Overall, leaders should feel empowered by these developments. The days of paying people to show up have come to a close. Yes, job redesign on a large scale will take some doing, but I believe the end result will be worth it. Human jobs of the future will be more strategic, more targeted, and more flexible for both the individual and the organization in terms of compensation for productivity and contributions.

About the Author

Alexandra Levit is the founder and CEO of Inspiration at Work, a woman-owned futurist consulting business with the goal of preparing organizations and their employees to be competitive and marketable in the future business world. A nationally syndicated columnist for the Wall Street Journal who currently anchors The Workplace Report, Alexandra has authored several books, including the bestsellers "They Don’t Teach Corporate in College," "Humanity Works: Merging People and Technologies for the Workforce of the Future," and "Deep Talent: How to Transform Your Organization and Empower Your Employees Through AI." In addition to past assignments writing for the New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Time, U.S. News and World Report, and The Atlantic, Alexandra is also a frequent media spokesperson and is regularly featured in outlets such as National Public Radio and CNN. She was named an American Management Association Top Leader for two years in a row and has also been Money Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year. A member of the Northwestern University Council of 100, Alexandra received the prestigious Emerging Leader Award from her alma mater. The award honors a Northwestern graduate who has made a significant impact in her field and in society. She was also named to the Thinkers50's Radar. This global organization identifies the individuals developing the most compelling business and management ideas of our age. She resides in Chicago.

Profile Photo of Alexandra Levit