Work is changing and so is society as a whole. Debates on its future have been particularly animated over the past three years, (re)launched by discussions on digital technologies, self-employment, individuals with multiple careers (slashers), universal income, or questions of new forms of management, solidarity and governance.
Focusing on employment, work or management practices, these debates have had one merit: to bring to light the multiple possible futures of work.
Did you say “atmosphere”?
In its latest research note, “The future of work in 2030: four atmospheres?”, the international network and think tank RGCS offers a multi-faceted vision of the future of work.
We begin by presenting eight paradoxes at play in current work and management practices. They highlight the tensions and dilemmas that are at the heart of work transformations: mobility vs. a settled lifestyle; entrepreneurship versus dependence; freedom versus security; autonomy versus control; digitalization versus tangibility, etc.
On this basis, we reclaim the notion of atmosphere, both simple and paradoxical, in order to describe the work of today and tomorrow. Atmosphere refers to the setting, the context, the mood, everything that is difficult to describe in a living or working environment. At the same time, its components are very concrete: gestures, tools, places, practices, sensations, emotions, etc. It is “quasi-material” and sensed in the lights, words, sounds and textures that mediate our relationship with work. The atmosphere defines, in and beyond words, the space and time of work activities.
We therefore develop four scenarios, linked to four particular working atmospheres, to consider what the world of work will look like by 2030:
“Freelancing” imagines a society mainly comprised of self-employed workers and freelancers linked by global platforms. The Other is the transaction. The atmosphere becomes liquid in the sense described by Z. Bauman;
“Salaried” describes a world in which salaried employment is the central mode of operation. Permanent and fixed-term contracts are subject to legal developments, but they remain at the heart of employment and work. The Other is the contract. The atmosphere becomes territorialised and takes root;
“Hybridisation” represents a further break with current operating modes. Multi-activity forms are generalised in this scenario. Each person simultaneously and relentlessly sustains different jobs or alternates periods of salaried employment and entrepreneurship. The atmosphere becomes a layered body of sensations alternating or felt concurrently. The Other, reversible, is another self and results in the management of a “multiple self”. For some, this atmosphere is almost schizophrenic;
“Universal income” projects a situation in which the meaning given to activity takes precedence over performance and status. The forms of salaried employment and entrepreneurship persist against a backdrop of generalised solidarity. The atmosphere is characterised by acts of giving and reinventing oneself.
Of course, these scenarios and their associated atmospheres can be combined. We can thus imagine the joint development of freelancing and salaried employment alongside the generalisation of fixed-term contracts. The freelancing and universal income scenarios also seem compatible to us. Our four scenarios are practical and emotional possibilities that we can play with in order to project ourselves into the future.
To affirm this conviction, we believe that the future of work will be full of surprises and will creatively intertwine the developments we have just outlined. However, the major paradoxes and managerial challenges highlighted in this third research note will remain important in determining the balance that French society will, or will not, achieve over the next ten years.
Futures – or no future?
One summer evening in 2025 in Montpellier’s Place de la Comédie, Freelancia, Salaria, Hybridia, and Solidaria are having a discussion. These four female characters embody our four scenarios. They each carry the future of work. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events, is not purely coincidental. The dialogue (detailed in our research note) between these four individuals illustrates the specific, sometimes exclusive, life choices and social projects corresponding to each of these scenarios. Here’s an extract:
Hybridia: “Three years ago, I was still self-employed. And do you remember after secondary school, I started that little collaborative art business? But I think you’re too resistant to things, Freelancia! Why not have your cake and eat it: times with freedom and with security?”
Freelancia: “There are only 24 hours in a day […].With another activity in parallel, I would feel like I was cheating on my first activity.”
Solidaria: “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life selling hot air! You were a "consultant”, an “innovation catalyst” and now you’re “head of intrapreneurship”. What’s the next step after that? […] Don’t you want to do something a bit more meaningful? For yourself and for others?“
Salaria: "I couldn’t live on love and fresh air like you. I’m bringing up two children pretty much by myself. I know how much their education is going to cost. I want them to have a top-notch education (…) that will give them the kind of modest income you also relied on at the beginning.”
The note continues with a more specific reflection on the technological aspects behind these scenarios. It discusses the links between artificial intelligence (AI) and work (as distinct from employment). Returning to a metaphor relating to ancient Egypt and borrowed from Michel Serres, we suggest considering the future worker’s smartphone and AI as a “ka”, an autonomous double of each of us. We then raise a number of ethical issues.
To conclude, far from giving in to the temptations of the crystal ball or dystopia, our research aims to highlight choices relating to our lives, technological uses, forms of work (both old and new), votes and civic engagement that, as of today, will make possible, or prohibit, certain scenarios for the future of work.
This contribution is based on the study “The future of work in 2030: four atmospheres?”, co-authored by François-Xavier de Vaujany (PSL, Paris-Dauphine University), Amélie Bohas (Aix-Marseille University), Sabine Carton (Grenoble-Alpes University), Julie Fabbri (emlyon business school) and Aurélie Leclercq-Vandelannoitte (CNRS, IESEG). The study was conducted within the framework of the international research network RGCS (Research Group on Collaborative Spaces), which focuses on new work practices.