The future of work, and why its better to be wanted than needed

When it comes to the future of work, the key question that everyone wants the answer to is whether their work has a future.

Automation promises/threatens to make many roles that exist today unnecessary, leading to somewhat scary outcomes for a number of careers.

But perhaps there is a different way to think about the future of work – one that is based more on human preferences and behaviours rather than technical possibilities. And it might just help us find where the new opportunities will be, or at least evolve what we are currently doing into something that is a little more future-proof.

Let me start by first placing some definitions around two important words – ‘want’ and ‘need’.

Let’s say for example that I ‘want’ to go to London. In order to get to London, there are certain things I ‘need’. For starters, I ‘need’ a method of transportation. I also ‘need’ a ticket, a passport, and potentially a bunch of other things – just so I can get what I ‘want’.

Now consider what I would have ‘needed’ to get to London a couple of decades ago. Firstly, I needed a paper ticket. To get one of those, I needed a travel agent.

Thanks to the internet, all I ‘need’ now is few minutes online. The time and effort to get from what I desire to what I want has been compressed by the removal of that step. I still need a passport (for now) and a mode of transportation (at least until someone invents the Star Trek transporter). But any airline that still only accepted paper tickets issued through travel agents would not be long for this earth.

This pattern is repeating itself over and over again. Decades ago, if I ‘wanted’ a book, I ‘needed’ to go to a bookstore. I didn’t want a bookstore though, I wanted a book – cue the demise of many booksellers. If I ‘wanted’ to watch a movie at home, I ‘needed’ to rent or buy it from a store. I no longer need to do that. Cue the demise of the video rental industry. And so on.

That same logic is putting pressure on many other professions. If I ‘wanted’ investment advice I might have ‘needed’ to speak to an investment advisor. Now AI-based robo-advisors can play that role.

What this means for each of us is that even if we are currently essential to helping a person get what they want, there is probably someone, somewhere, working on a solution which will help that person get what they want without us.

And if they can do so at cheaply enough, you’re looking at a limited professional lifespan. Bye bye to the ticket issuing function of travel agents. Bye bye to investment advisors, accountants, lawyers, etc. etc. If we are not providing the actual ‘thing’ that the person wants – – advice, business compliance, legal advice – but simply providing them with something they need to help them get it – we could be in trouble.

That doesn’t of course mean that all bookstores have died. There are instance where I might ‘want’ to go wandering through a bookstore, perhaps simply for the pleasure of it, or for the serendipitous discovery that can take place. I might ‘want’ to talk to a travel agent about where to visit in London, rather than simply turning up. I might also ‘want’ to speak to an investment advisor because I value their specific experience, or feel more comfortable speaking to a person (at least for now).

Also, there are many tasks that are needed that may prove too difficult or expensive to eliminate – at least in the short term. Getting to London quickly without an aircraft is unlikely to happen in my lifetime, for instance. Unless perhaps I am happy to ‘go there’ in a virtual reality experience without even leaving my home …

To stay relevant in the future of work, you need to really think about whether you are giving your customers what they want, or just what they need. If you are in fact a ‘necessary evil’ when it comes to why your customers are spending money with you, there is a good chance you won’t be necessary forever.

But if you can give a customer something they really want, they might keep you around a little longer.