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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking

2024: THE YEAR OF BUSINESS AS UNUSUAL

2024-01-30 11:47

Cathryn Barnard

Blog, BUSINESS RESILIENCE, FUTURE OF WORK, SUSTAINABILITY, ATTENTION DEFICIT, TECHNOLOGY TRENDS, BUSINESS SUSTAINABILITY, GLOBALISATION,

2024: THE YEAR OF BUSINESS AS UNUSUAL

In 2024, we will to need to keep our eyes wide open if we’re to successfully navigate what lies ahead...

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I relished the Christmas holidays this year; I didn’t want them to end. Not because I don’t enjoy my work but because I have a persistent, low-level feeling 2024 is going to be incredibly challenging.

 

I don’t say this pessimistically. If anything, life experience to date has taught me realism. It’s taught me not to look away from things I find uncomfortable. Distracting myself with more palatable infotainment isn’t, in my view, the answer. In 2024, I think we need our eyes wide open if we’re to successfully navigate what lies ahead.

I say this because labour market data so far this year has been alarming. On January 11th, Google announced 1000 layoffs, with more to follow [1]. It’s made no secret of its plans to reduce its headcount by 6% - approximately 12,000 jobs will disappear in total. Redundancies are necessary for it to focus on and invest in markets of the future. I think we can safely assume this means investment in AI. 

Over in the financial services sector, after a ‘disappointing quarter’ Citi announced a US$1.8 billion loss and 20,000 layoffs - to be spread across the next two years – 8% of its workforce [2]. 

My hunch is these jobs are unlikely ever to return as full-time, permanent posts. 

In listed companies where shareholder returns are prioritised, AI will replace humans wherever possible. Technology is persistently lauded as cheaper and more efficient over the longer term. Technocrats appear increasingly fixated on AI domination – competition in this space has already been positioned as an ‘arms race’ by some commentators. Who knew capitalism could become so warlike?  

But for the few who observed with rising concern the gross normalisation of debt since the 2008 financial crisis, it seems clear the same greed that spawned the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe continues to loom large. What’s human misery when there’s money to be made? Why employ humans when technology can yield greater profit?

Forget the critical role employment plays in healthy, well-functioning communities and societies. We’re watching an ego-fuelled competition play out in real-time, where, depending on the size of the end of year bonus, the prize will be yet another Lamborghini, a new Patek Philippe, or, for the super-rich, a rocket launch into space. 

This month, I’ve delivered the first of our webinars on the meta-trends transforming work in the 2020s. Preparation always requires greater scrutiny of the current landscape and analysis of what’s changed since I last presented our findings. 

In August 2023, Generative AI reached the peak of inflated expectation, according to Gartner’s Hype Cycle [3]. Presumably then, it’s set to enter the trough of disillusionment in 2024. With so much money invested in its success however [4], even if this is the case, I imagine there will be a dog fight to disprove it. Plus ça change.

Meanwhile, I can’t feel the challenges organisations face are becoming more and more complex. The quest for digital superiority will inevitably clash with other key organisational priorities and its increasingly hard to foresee how the intersection of work trends will play out. Outcomes will inevitably be highly context specific. 

Nonetheless, commercial decision-makers need strategic foresight to successfully mitigate risk and optimise opportunity. 

As trends converge and complexity amplifies, here are just a few of my musings.

Challenge 1: technology vs globalisation and geopolitics

Promises of cost reduction and improved efficiency sit at the heart of next-generation AI’s value proposition. But in a world where employment is replaced by algorithms, how will nations and societies sustain themselves? How will countries successfully compete and trade with one another if domestically, unemployment is spiralling, and products and services become increasingly unaffordable? This doesn’t make sense.

At a more local level, how will organisations balance AI adoption with ESG obligations to act as a responsible employer? How will they be regarded within their local community? 

More holistically, what is the purpose of enterprise in a well-functioning society?

Challenge 2: technology vs the climate emergency

Digital transformation success largely depends on access to big data. Vast data sets, either proprietary or in the public domain (the Internet), can be sorted and sifted for insight that leads to competitive advantage. Today, ambitious organisations are greedy for any information that can reveal more about customer behaviour and preferences. 

The trouble is all this data needs to be stored. 

According to Statista, the total volume of global data will reach 180 zettabytes by 2025 [5]. A zettabyte is 1 trillion gigabytes or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes if you want to see what that looks like. Unfortunately, as data is now mostly stored in the cloud, most of us have no idea what that means in context.

Until the 2010s, most organisations held their electronic information on their own servers. Had we not migrated away from on-premises data storage, at an organisational level we’d have been far more likely to monitor what was stored and to undertake regular audit clean-ups and deletions. We’d have had tangible evidence of the capacity requirement. 

By contrast, cloud storage is cheap and invisible. Because organisations no longer need servers, electronic information can be created, uploaded and forgotten about. How many photos have been taken since the launch of the first smartphone? Of those, how many have ever been revisited? Now we can home produce myriad different types of media, the amount of data created and stored in a single week is mind-boggling. And it continues to grow.

But its environmental cost is something too few people have considered. To prevent overheating and risk of server failures, data centres must remain at a consistent, optimal temperature. The heating and cooling of these spaces requires a continuous supply of both electricity and water. The processing required by GenAI places further immense pressure on these resources [6]. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t something we’re told about.

In 2024, how will organisations reconcile AI adoption with the urgent need to cut carbon emissions? How will they report on the carbon footprint of their data? How will they set about establishing sensible guidelines for GenAI use-cases at work? 

Challenge 3: Technology vs attention deficit

In the past decade, whistle-blowers have stepped forward to warn of the addictive nature of social media. The FANG companies have heavily invested in features that play to our psychological weaknesses and keep us scanning and scrolling our devices for as long as possible. We all love a dopamine high, and this has been fully exploited by social media platforms.

We’re told AI and automation will free us up to do the work that algorithms can’t yet do. We’ll migrate to undertake human-centred work that involves critical thinking, complex problem-solving, empathy, curiosity and more. Work that helps us address the great societal and environmental challenges we’re facing. 

But how will this happen if, in parallel, we’ve lost our ability to focus? In Stolen Focus, Hari wrote:

“Democracy requires the ability of a population to pay attention long enough to identify real problems, distinguish them from fantasies, come up with solutions, and hold their leaders accountable if they fail to deliver them.”

More urgently than ever before, we need diligent, ethically-minded decision-makers focused on big picture societal and environmental issues if we’re to stand any chance of mitigating the biggest risks that lie ahead. 

Social media and streaming platforms won’t help us achieve that.

There are 64 general elections being held around the world in 2024 [7]. Any organisation hoping to survive the coming decade needs to urgently prioritise creating conditions where internal stakeholders can focus their attention on the vital work that matters. This in turn requires deliberative dialogue about what actually does matter. 

  • What is the purpose of work in a well-functioning society? 
  • How do we create value without exhausting the earth’s natural resources and causing further environmental degradation? 
  • What world do we want to leave our children and grandchildren? 
  • How can we reverse manmade biodiversity loss? 
  • What role can business play in addressing the root causes of the mental health crisis? 

These are just a few essential questions that need addressing. None of these are easy topics to confront. Nonetheless they require urgent attention in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Let’s enter 2024 with realism. It’s idiotic to pretend we can return to pre-pandemic norms. 

By accepting instead that 2024 will be a year of unusual, we’re immediately better placed to acknowledge our challenges and start work on plans to reduce risk. The future of our organisations depends on it. 

 

References

[1]            https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2024/jan/11/google-alphabet-layoffs

[2]            https://www.reuters.com/business/finance/citi-swings-18-billion-loss-slew-charges-2024-01-12/

[3]            https://www.gartner.com/en/articles/what-s-new-in-artificial-intelligence-from-the-2023-gartner-hype-cycle

[4]            https://news.crunchbase.com/sections/ai/

[5]            https://www.statista.com/statistics/871513/worldwide-data-created/

[6]            https://www.technologyreview.com/2023/12/05/1084417/ais-carbon-footprint-is-bigger-than-you-think/

[7]            https://time.com/6550920/world-elections-2024/

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