The Future of Work Calls for Embracing Uncertainty

Cultural Vistas has been promoting global understanding and collaboration since its founding in 1963. Through our exchange programs, we are focused on not just problems of the present, but the promise of tomorrow.  

Through its recent Future of Work Symposium, Cultural Vistas convened immigration and legal experts, educators, and private sector leaders, from companies such as Uber and Adobe, to share their perspectives on a future of work that we believe will be increasingly defined by advancements in technology, workforce re-skilling, and global cooperation.

The symposium, held at our NYC headquarters, is part of a series of events we’re organizing around the world that bring networks together to discuss how to develop the next generation of global talent ready to reach beyond borders and seize emerging opportunities.

We were happy to see members of the future workforce during the Future of Work Symposium, held September 27 at Cultural Vistas’ NYC headquarters in the Woolworth Building.

Indeed, being able to face fears and seize emerging opportunities was a dominant theme of the discussions at the symposium. Time and again, panelists shared their views on whether or not the fears and uncertainties related to the future of work were justified.

But as the day wore on and the event participants got that much closer to the inevitable future they were discussing, the solution to their fears and uncertainties began to emerge all around them.

Fearing Tech for All the Wrong Reasons

The fears surrounding automation technology and artificial intelligence dominated the first discussion of the day on ‘Corporate America and the Workforce of Tomorrow.’

When Jacquie Davidson, Head of Global Mobility at Adobe, asked the panelists about the dangers of AI which prominent figures like Elon Musk have publicly warned about, the panelists revealed that they were not as fearful as the tech entrepreneur.

Steve Feyer, Head of Product at Eightfold, went straight to the point. “There’s never going to be such a thing as a robot-owned company,” he said. Instead, Feyer said that people should fear competition from each other as much as the competition from automation.

“I don’t think that automation is going to take jobs away from people, but people who can use the automation technology relevant to their jobs, will inherit those jobs from people who cannot use that automation. That’s going to be a dominant trend in the coming years.”

Derek Wilkinson, Partner and Head of International Development Practice at Odgers Berndtson, expanded on this by pointing out how the competitive advantage of utilizing certain technologies can cause undue strain on the individual.

“Especially when someone is working globally, [because of technology] they’re expected to be able to do the jobs of two or three people in many cases,” he said. “So I see that actually creates a lot more burden on an individual which has mental and emotional and physical health impacts… which I think we’re just starting to touch on.”

Drawing on his own experience as the Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Uber, Cultural Vistas board member Bernard C. Coleman III provided an example of how he can utilize automation to improve recruitment efforts and do the jobs of two or three people as Wilkinson described.

“There’s a whole pool of people just sitting right within your systems—if you could accurately go through it […] you could find that talent and save yourself a lot of time,” Coleman said.

The panel largely agreed that the some of the fears of advanced technology are misdirected.

Despite these benefits, Coleman agreed with the other panelists and provided another example of how the drawback of utilizing technology can be due to human factors.

“I work in diversity and inclusion so if I take my implicit biases or my unconscious bias and I plug it into AI, it’s going to put out flawed results.”

But Coleman was also careful to point out that the growing pains associated with utilizing new technology should not cause us to place undue limitations on our own potential.

“I think we put a lot of fear in what AI can do, in what machine learning can do. I just think we need to recognize its role in terms of helping us adapt and grow and be more industrious.”

Striking a Balance on Immigration Fears

Panelists discussing the role of immigration on the future of work also focused their discussion on the associated fears and opportunities.

“We have tremendous gaps in technology,” said Robert S. Groban, Jr., a Member of law firm Epstein Becker Green. “By restricting the immigration laws, from a global competitive standpoint, we’re actually shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit.”

The Future of Work Symposium covered a variety of topics and attracted a diverse crowd.

But not all the immigration experts on the panel agreed that restricting immigration regulations was a negative.

“I believe the immigration system in the United States is too friendly to immigrants,” said Haseeb Ahmad, Director of Immigration – U.S. Services at Global Expertise. He described the fears surrounding too few, as well as too many, restrictions.

“We need to find a balance between these two systems—whether we are allowing people, that we don’t want, to come into the United States [to] do all these bad things or do we want to create a tougher immigration system to have human trafficking, have an environment for human trafficking, so you have illegal immigrations [sic] coming from South America or from other parts of the world.”

Due to global trends toward protectionism, the fears associated with human trafficking or immigrants with criminal intent have certainly increased in recent years.

But other panelists provided examples of how the political climate can change. At one point during the discussion, moderator Alex Koppelman, Managing Editor at CNN Business, asked Groban about the potential “legal hiccup” of the U.S. accepting an individual from Canada based on fears which have dominated the political climate in the past.

Groban explained the current gray area in policy with a question.

“If [an] individual buys marijuana in Canada where it’s legal and comes into the United States, are they going to be admissible, or are they going to be rejected as a trafficker of a controlled substance which would make them permanently excludable from the United States?”

He went on to describe how this issue is relevant because of admissibility criteria in a 1952 statute which also addressed contemporary fears like communism, noting that—while laws haven’t changed, the “culture has changed, the mores have changed.”

Together, our panelists drew upon decades of upper-level immigration, legal and management experience.

Ayesha Blackwell-Hawkins, the Global Head for Talent Mobility at Johnson & Johnson, agreed that the fears surrounding immigration may also change based on the political cycle—and gave some hope that the stringent policies toward immigrants may also loosen as political headwinds shift.

“The U.S. isn’t the only country that goes through political cycles—you see this everywhere. Canada went through a phase where it was very restrictive, and it wasn’t that long ago where it was just really hard to get workers into Canada. It’s all based on the political cycle and it does come back around.”

Facing Fears through Higher Education

Dr. Norah McRae, Associate Provost for Co-operative and Experiential Education at the University of Waterloo, used the acronym “VUCA” that has been around since 1987 to describe the fears which dominated the Symposium on the Future of Work.

“The future we’re facing is one that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. […] I think all the speakers this morning spoke to that and, I mean, you just have to turn on the television or go onto whatever on the internet for two seconds and you’ll see that.”

But Dr. McRae and educators like her, whose profession it is to prepare individuals for uncertain futures, already have some solutions to our VUCA future.

Our education panel agreed that international experiences foster the creativity and resilience necessary for success in the workplace of tomorrow.

Dr. Cheryl Matherly, Vice President & Vice Provost for International Affairs at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, witnessed the transformation of her university following the decline of Bethlehem Steel—a major employer in the region that went bankrupt in the nineties and finally closed its doors in 2001.

“Bethlehem was truly a one-industry town […] and all of a sudden, as the Mayor of Bethlehem reminds us, that overnight—the unemployment rate in the city of Bethlehem jumped by about 25 percent,” Dr. Matherly said. “And that had tremendous impact also on the university which had been founded as an engineering university, one that has its deep roots in materials, in construction, and civil engineering.”

The only solution was to have the university reinvent itself alongside the city. While Lehigh continued to teach technical skills, the university also started promoting creative inquiry and fostering entrepreneurial mindsets among its students which allowed them to adapt to a future which had become less certain for them.

“We’re training students to be thinking differently about how they enter the work world,” Dr. Matherly said.

This transformation went hand-in-hand with promoting exchange programs that promote global perspectives.

“If you think about the kinds of creative inquiry problems or the ways that people define problems differently—doing that in an international cross-cultural global perspective is really essential to that.”

Dr. Norah McRae manages co-operative and experiential education programs at the University of Waterloo—the presenting sponsor of the Future of Work Symposium and recipient of Cultural Vistas’ inaugural Global Partnership award.

Dr. McRae agreed and expanded this point to explain why educators see the future of work as being so closely intertwined with international exchange.

“Because we are in a global world, we are interacting with all sorts of cultures—and whether one travels abroad or not, you’re in very diverse workplaces all the time.”

In Short

Whether it’s technology that we don’t yet understand or fears of immigration in a country defined by it, our esteemed panelists seemed to agree on one thing—that the only certainty we can have for the future is that it will continue to be uncertain due to these fears.

But knowledge of the uncertainty may also provide some clarity. If we know that fears will continue to hinder our ability to embrace the opportunities of our future, perhaps we shouldn’t pray for lighter loads, but for stronger backs. And as the panelists noted, an education that acknowledges our diverse realities by promoting global collaboration and embracing varying perspectives is one of the best ways to prepare.

In other words, if we accept that the future is uncertain, we should at least work on embracing this uncertainty together.

The Future of Work Symposium provided ample opportunities for participants and panelists to continue their discussions beyond the scheduled panels.