‘In the future we will all have multiple jobs’

Ying Zhang

Ying Zhang is Associate Dean for China Business and Relations at Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), and also Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation – for which she was named one of the world’s 40 best business school professors under 40 by Poets&Quants in 2015. ‘Yes, I actually have two jobs,’ says the 36 year-old professor sitting in front of me at Starbucks, with an eight-month-pregnant belly. To be fair, she has three: she also teaches tai chi on campus. She is the co-founder of the ZPA Mindbody Institute in Boston, dedicated to yoga and tai chi, which studies and offers Mind-Body Wellbeing practices and knowledge. Having multiple jobs – or ‘doing a lot of things’ – is exactly what she predicts everybody will have in the future. 

On April 17, she gave a lecture about the future of jobs. In her view, the concept of ‘job’ will no longer exist. Instead there will be a concept for developing and applying singularity (being equal) and adaptating towards a new dynamism of ‘slash positions’. This means we won’t have what is known as (un)employment now, and won’t need to deal with job-replacing innovations. We will have a (r)evolution to see the positive change in institutions, education, selection, and evaluation system take place. 
This was the introduction to your lecture about the future of jobs. It sounds nice, but how are we going to get there?
‘The key point of my lecture was: you shouldn’t focus on just one position. We’ll all have multiple positions and identities. If people ask you: "What do you do?" They usually want to know what do you do to earn money. But you do a lot of other things as well, apart from holding down a job to earn money. There are other values than money. Being a parent might be one of the most important jobs in the world, raising the next generation. But we usually do not consider this a ‘job’. 
The problem today is that, for example, we don’t know how to convert social value into economic value – that’s a shortcoming of our economic framework, built on the principles of capitalism. From this traditional point of view you might think: we’ll lose our jobs in the future because of technology. But we won’t. Maybe we will be losing some economy-based jobs defined by our current ‘economic dictionary’.’

Ok, but we still need money to survive. And our system is based on money.
‘One student asked me this: how do we deal with the fact that young people cannot get a mortgage if they change jobs often, or have multiple jobs, as so many do these days? This is indeed a universal problem for the younger generation. All of them switch jobs easily, work freelance and have multiple gigs, but they have a hard time obtaining a mortgage. The banking sector still needs to innovate. Banks should change their system, the way they evaluate a person’s credit. Otherwise they will be disrupted by more inclusive finance soon – this already happened in China. An example of a traditional institution versus the young generation.
What we’re seeing is that technology and new generations are disrupting traditional jobs. That’s another reason why we need to improve people’s skill levels and redefine skills. For example, a housekeeper can be easily replaced by a machine. People with low-skill jobs need to get help to improve their skills and move on to middle or high-skilled jobs. Additional education is required, and should be free to them. Schools and universities will play a big role in upskilling and reskilling the workforce in the future.’

'And faculties should openly work together – I’m very in favour of multidisciplinary research and education.'

Ying Zhang

Professor and Associate Dean, Rotterdam School of Management

You’re not afraid machines will take over?
‘Human beings never get enough. They will always create new demand, and supply that by new products they’ll innovate. That’s the magic part of capitalism, it’s continuously generating innovation.  As long as there are people, they will never get enough, and this principle will guarantee us more jobs and more qualified jobs in new sectors. But the issue is as I said before; in low-skill sectors jobs will be lost. Machines can execute many of our physical or mental processes easily and much more efficiently. But there are things that are quite difficult for machines to catch up with: jobs that require cognitive capabilities and emotional intelligence. 
So what we can do, is prepare our kids for the future: develop their cognitive capabilities and emotional intelligence, beyond other hard skills. It will become more important to know how humans function and how they learn to take responsibility and interact with people. You can have a smart everything nowadays - smartphones, smart machines, but we tend to forget the importance of social skills. A simple example: young people are okay with sending messages, but don’t like to pick up the phone to talk to people. In the future, human-to-human communication abilities might decline – that’s dangerous and will ruin the foundation of humanity. We need to make sure we don’t lose this ability. 
Also, what is our relationship with the environment, how can we restore it? You see nature coming back at us. We should work hard to recover our bond with nature. 
These human relationships and our bond with nature are elements of prosperity we need to maintain as well –very important parts, although that’s not properly being expressed by our current system, at least right now.’

What other important changes do you see in the near future?
‘I believe the economy will change from not-trusting-each-other to an equality-oriented system, based on the disruptive effect of technology. It’s already happening. In the future, new kind of jobs will force us to trust each other. Peer-to-peer trust. For example, if you invite me to do this interview, you not only represent your organisation, but also yourself. And I know I can trust you, because if you do not deliver a good job, your credit will be damaged. Society will be much more transparent than it is now, and all data about you in relation to others will be saved.’

So how can we prepare ourselves for this future?
‘Reskilling and upskilling are the essence. Our skill package is never complete. It needs to be upgraded all the time. For example, at this moment students from different faculties only know their own study field. In the future we’re expected to become generalists, beyond specialists. First you had multiple people to do one job, now you will need one person who does multiple jobs. 
In the future you’ll need a fully pack of skills: you need to know the technology part, the law part, the sociology part. Educational curricula should be broader, I believe. And faculties should be first to own up to that and freely collaborate – I’m very much in favour of multidisciplinary research and education. Some universities have already started to promote multidisciplinary research. The education sector as well as family education will play an important role in changing society.’ 

More information

Faculties working together is one of the goals of Challenge Accepted, a joint campaign from Erasmus University Rotterdam and Erasmus Trustfonds to tackle the grand challenges of the 21st century.
Ying Zhang is a member of EUR Connect. You can also expand and leverage the power of your network, by connecting to present and future leaders found among alumni, scientists and students through EUR Connect

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