The Future of Work: What It Is and How Our Resilience in the Face of It Matters

in Kinesiology Review
View More View Less
  • 1 School of Professional Advancement, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA, USA

This article is based on a keynote address at the 2021 American Kinesiology Association’s Annual Leadership Workshop, for which I was asked to talk about the future of work in connection to higher education. I am familiar with the kinesiology field in my role as Dean of the School of Professional Advancement at Tulane University. This article touches on issues important to the field of kinesiology that may also be applied across other academic disciplines. Technology is changing the nature of work; the global pandemic has sped up the pace of that change. Beyond this, the potential for future pandemics and other transformational events and trends mean that work is in a state of permanent flux. Preparing students for future success in this environment requires educators to think more broadly and holistically about their roles. Higher education institutions also, arguably, have a responsibility not just to educate, but to model workplace culture.

What Is the Future of Work?

When it comes to the study of bodies and their movements, technology will have the greatest impact on the future of work. Certain images come to mind when considering the future of kinesiology. Among them are wearable computers accurately measuring muscle exertion and the efficiency of breathing with every step, and artificial intelligence that reads big data sets across populations and accurately scans for patterns and anomalies to improve diagnostic work.

In general, talking about the future of work and about how to prepare students for that future is daunting, not only because of changing technology. How can educators possibly feel equal to the challenge of preparing future professionals for long and successful careers at a time of such massive transition and upheaval? These challenges are before the field of kinesiology at least as much as other fields. As a result, significant scholarship has been directed toward helping kinesiology educators prepare for the future. Block and Estes’ (2011) discussion of “supercomplexity” and the “need to manage the risk that comes with uncertainty,” join Knudson’s (2016) reflections on scientific trends within the field as just two examples of such scholarship.

Despite this work, there is a scarcity of theoretical models that help educators reflect specifically on the future of work for today’s (and tomorrow’s) students and its implications for their own practice, with too few discussions of the future of work within educational contexts. Those models that do exist tend to fall into a couple of categories—Futuristic visions that are too vague and conceptual to facilitate the needed adaption of curricula and how they are taught or frameworks that attempt to be concrete and directive but are instead simplistic and reductive.

There are many ways to interpret and analyze the phrase future of work. And there are even some scenarios in which most work goes away. Artificial intelligence is replacing much of the analysis and diagnostic work done by humans (Toews, 2021). Jobs are disappearing even now, a shift that will only accelerate as machine learning improves. Further globalization and technological improvements also mean that more types of work can be done effectively by people in other countries, for much lower wages than those paid in the United States. Richard Baldwin refers to these workers as “telemigrants” in his book, The Globotics Upheaval (Baldwin, 2019). However the future of work is conceptualized, the present discussion relies on two significant assumptions. First, work will continue to exist, though in altered forms. Second, work is important for people’s quality of life and functioning, and individuals will continue to look for fulfillment and purpose through work.

So, What Does the Future of Work Look Like?

The threats of regional or even worldwide upheavals hang over society for the foreseeable future, making it necessary for individuals to accustom themselves to permanent vigilance and preparedness for whatever might come (Constable & Kushner, 2021). The workplace of the future is a riskier and less stable place. In addition to the possibility of new pandemics, the world is also shifting in other ways. Climate change will result in global migrations brought about by weather-induced starvation. Social unrest, both domestic and international, will undoubtedly continue. Such shifts and their associated events will increasingly affect how and whether people work. Regardless of short-term trends or government interventions, employment itself will become even more unstable because of globalization, the increased ability of employers to move jobs to labor markets that maximize profits, and the growing strength of the private sector relative to that of governments. As a result, the future seems likely to consist of continued economic and political polarization, with workers themselves relatively disempowered.

And then there are technology and data, referred to as posing an “existential threat (or promise)” for the future of work (Brown, 2021). As indicated by the duality of this quote, there are hugely disparate perspectives on what technology and data will bring. On the one hand, it is true in almost all fields that technology and data will increase the capacity of employers to monitor and control worker behaviors. Data and algorithms will more frequently be used to judge productivity and performance. And with machine learning, more jobs in health care and other fields will be automated and permanently disappear from the labor market (Selingo, 2017). It is also well-understood at this point that artificial intelligence, when not managed productively, exacerbates inequities by magnifying, expanding, and further institutionalizing human bias against others, particularly those directed toward people of color (Ntoutsi et al., 2020).

This is a deeply negative picture. From a more optimistic perspective, there will be much greater use of artificial intelligence, sensors, and big data to support (or to drive) diagnostic work. Consider the benefits in a future for kinesiology professionals when each client generates data for study and diagnosis from wearable computers that then get included in massive data sets of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people. Imagine the depth and accuracy of analysis of their health and the use of their bodies that will result from such scale and scope. There are also scenarios in which improved technologies and access to meaningful data lead to increased autonomy for workers armed with more accurate and comprehensive information (Goldsmith & Kleiman, 2017). And in the best, most progressive workplaces, data, technology, and data-supported fields such as behavioral economics will help make work more productive and fulfilling (Scott et al., 2020).

Regardless of one’s perspective on technology’s opportunities and perils for the future of work, it must be acknowledged that the pandemic of 2020 and 2021 has accelerated shifts that were already underway, including in higher education. A recent EY-Parthenon study commissioned by the Lumina Foundation stated that American higher education is 25% over capacity for what is actually needed (Lundy et al., 2020). The pace of mergers, consolidations, and institutional closures picked up significantly in 2020 (Galloway, 2020). Staff and faculty are at risk. So are programs and even institutions.

So, what does it mean to maintain permanent vigilance and responsiveness in the face of technological and other changes, within the context of higher education? First, educators must think broadly about the skills and knowledge their current and future students will require to be successful in their careers. While kinesiology programs already offer technical skills and disciplinary knowledge, there are other requisite and fundamental components of a postsecondary education to prepare for the future of work. These include the following:

  1. An ability to manage uncertainty and navigate through ambiguity.
  2. An understanding that individuals must perpetually adapt to new technologies. Students need strategic thinking skills to successfully navigate industries where jobs are disappearing and adapt themselves to new circumstances. In short, people must think about what they can do that a machine or computer cannot.
  3. An ethical underpinning for their work, a sense of social justice, and an ability to speak up and advocate constructively in the workplace and in society more generally.
  4. A willingness to actively step outside of their personal echo chambers and make connections with others whose backgrounds and perspectives differ from their own.
All of this might be summed up in the following list of traits:
  1. Curiosity
  2. Empathy
  3. Resilience
  4. Adaptability
  5. Strategic, proactive thinking

Efforts to develop some of these traits can be incorporated into the curriculum. Most educators are likely familiar with methods such as

  1. Integrating learning from a range of materials encompassing both academic and nonacademic sources, and in multiple modalities, including writing, video, and oral sources, such as podcasts.
  2. Having students demonstrate communication skills for presenting in multimedia contexts, with a specific focus on writing.
  3. Incorporating creative and current experiential learning approaches into the curriculum.
  4. Providing opportunities through case studies, for example, to grapple with the ethical dimensions of work.
  5. Helping students develop strong analytical skills and a high degree of comfort with data.
These are all important and valuable. However, higher education also has a significant opportunity to go beyond such approaches. One can also teach students the abilities and traits needed to successfully navigate the future of work by modeling values, culture, and behavior within higher education institutions themselves.

Arguably, this is a lot to ask of educators, especially at a time when so many institutions are facing massive financial and political challenges (Killian & Ingram, 2021; LeClair, 2021). However, in this rapidly changing world, the responsibilities of educators of future professionals require providing an education that goes beyond the bounds of technical knowledge and skills for a specific industry, and even beyond the base of liberal arts and sciences fundamentals to a well-conceived undergraduate education.

An example might be instructive for how to think about the role of higher education institutional culture in this approach. In 2016, Tulane University brought in new leadership to reimagine and restructure what was then known as University College as part of the university’s post-Hurricane Katrina “renewal plan.” The renamed School of Continuing Studies presented an opportunity to think more broadly about the roles and responsibilities of an institution (in this case, Tulane) in supporting working people and the economy, both within a regional and a national context. Five years later, the currently named School of Professional Advancement has changed greatly in terms of its academic programs, faculty, modes and methods of instruction, support for students, and how it presents itself to the world at large. One could say that these changes have been fundamentally motivated by two things:

  1. Preparing students to be highly knowledgeable, skilled, and adaptable professionals.
  2. Establishing the school’s working environment to model the best aspects of what the school’s faculty and staff believe will be the future workplace, with associated organizational culture, values, and attributes supported through ongoing individual and collective efforts.

Why Does Modeling Institutional Culture Matter for Students?

The traits with which educators want to imbue students, and which will help students attain success at work during this time of massive change, are the same traits that educators themselves need to successfully create and navigate institutions of higher education. Based on the EY-Parthenon report on over-capacity in American higher education, one might argue that embodying these traits is also a matter of survival for institutions themselves, because this approach also has the potential to make colleges and universities more successful and competitive. When educators demonstrate that their own workplaces manifest these values and actions, students can tell. And that improves their education and solidifies their connection to the institution.

Thinking about modeling the future workplace within the context of the higher education is quite important, even central, to institutional success. The crucial components of how educators need to function within the higher education workplace include the following:

  1. Clarity about the institution’s goals, supported by a sense of shared mission and accountability across the institution accompanied by concrete opportunities for faculty and staff to participate in shaping these goals.
  2. An explicit focus on talking about and improving racial equity, diversity, and inclusion.
  3. A commitment to continuous assessment and improvement, with a sense of urgency in bringing about positive change, supported by a focus on technology and data-driven decision making.
  4. An understanding that stepping outside of established organizational hierarchies is frequently a crucial ingredient of innovation.
  5. Humility, perspective, and an acute awareness that individuals and organizations have flaws and limitations.
  6. A willingness among leaders to make difficult decisions.
Unfortunately, one of the other hallmarks of this approach, particularly given what can feel like a permanent sense of flux in the world, is that positive organizational change is an effort that is never truly done.

Such change is a lot to ask, particularly when educators everywhere are dealing with stress from multiple and conflicting demands, both personal and at work. Some higher education employees are fearful for their own institutions and for their jobs. And yet, as part of the effort in ensuring success of generations of students for the workplace of the future, it is imperative that educators expand their activities to effectively teach and prepare students for the future. There is no clear road map for how to do this and the journey is one that never ends. The future always lies ahead for us, constantly challenging us to anticipate and adapt—our best plans include a provision that they must be constantly revised.


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 168 168 0
Full Text Views 526 526 255
PDF Downloads 63 63 21