How your boss will run your life in a few years

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You might think the typical workplace is pretty Orwellian these days. You ain’t seen nuthin’, Winston.

Consulting firm PwC recently published its outlook for work in 2022, based on interviews with 500 human resources experts and 10,000 others in the United States and several other countries. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that big companies could end up so powerful and influential they morph into “ministates” that fill the void when government is unable to provide essential services. Companies will also use sensors and other gizmos to monitor employees around the clock. And workers will mostly acquiesce to this digital leash, in exchange for job security, decent pay and important benefits.

That’s the most dystopian of scenarios PwC outlines in its report, yet it’s not so far-fetched, given the dramatic ways globalization and digital technology are changing the way people work and live. An increasing share of income is flowing to tech barons, data wizards and the privileged holders of capital, while ordinary workers find it harder to earn a living. There are more minimum-wage jobs today but fewer good-paying ones than there were just a few years ago, a trend many forecasters only expect to intensify.

They could be wrong. Capitalism may yet have a conscience, and another PwC scenario is a “green world” in which social responsibility is a key part of the corporate agenda. But that’s barely happening at the margins now, and with leverage continuing to shift away from workers toward employers, a rougher form of capitalism seems likely. Here are six plausible predictions about how the workplace will change by 2022:

Companies will monitor employees like lab rats. The ostensible purpose for this will be to keep tabs on employees’ health, to cut down on medical costs, sick days and illnesses that undermine workplace productivity. “The monitoring may even stretch into [employees’] private lives in an extension of today’s drug tests,” PwC predicts. The potential for controversy is obvious, and the degree of worker pushback will probably help determine whether your boss keeps tabs on how many French fries you eat and whether you hang out with that heavy drinker down the street.

Performance will be computed like an SAT score. Firms increasingly use data and technology tools to quantify the performance of employees relative to each other, and reward the best (while dispatching the worst). They could go further by applying to workers the same kind of data-mining techniques now targeted at many consumers, using hundreds of disparate pieces of information to form an encompassing profile of each individual. It’s worth pointing out that some business leaders prefer not to risk the blowback that might come from prying into employees’ lives — even if technology makes it easy.

Corporate indoctrination (aka brainwashing) will intensify. “Leadership teams [will] have a high focus on the evolution of the corporate culture, with rigorous recruitment processes to ensure new employees fit the corporate ideal,” PwC predicts. “New staff [will be] subject to compulsory corporate culture learning and development programs.” Sounds creepy, but there have always been companies serving up the corporate Kool-Aid — often to their detriment. Companies with a rigid internal culture are notoriously slow to change and especially vulnerable to entrepreneurial disruptors.

Contract employees will displace full-timers. Companies will rely increasingly on people who can do high-quality work on a contract or project basis. Traditionalists often fret about this move away from predicable work, but people who adjust to a “portfolio career,” as PwC calls it, can benefit from the flexibility and autonomy it offers. Plus, being a contractor with no long-term commitment to a company might be one way to evade around-the-clock surveillance. But you better be good: To get the best jobs, contractors may have to demonstrate eBay-style ratings showing they performed well for past clients.

Specialized skills will continue to bring top dollar. As long as those are the skills employers most need. Without a doubt, in the future, they’ll entail various kinds of technology, along with engineering, science, data crunching and a measure of humanities. Workers whose skills hit the sweet spot will still be able to call the shots in 2022, earning the best pay and benefits, and perhaps exempting themselves from corporate micromanagement.

Workers with commonplace skills will struggle. The PwC report doesn’t spell this out, but one consequence of an economy in which big companies hold all the cards is a losing hand for underskilled workers. That could mean an even sharper slide in living standards for some families than they’ve experienced during the past several years, as incomes have flatlined and good-paying jobs dried up. We usually hope for a future that’s better than the present. The lesson for now may be that we have to work for it.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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