fbpx Skip to main content

THE TRANSFORMATION IS INEVITABLE—The Industrial Era gives way to the Age of Digital Dominance

(2nd article in a series)

During the next decade, industries, local economies and the nature of work will be transformed on a massive scale and at an accelerating pace. In the U.S., 40% of our workforce is employed in an occupation that could see significant job losses(1).  Although many new jobs will be created, the net impact on jobs will be felt unevenly by industries, communities and workers. Rural and middle America that prospered during the Industrial Era are at a greater risk in the Age of Digital Dominance, as many jobs requiring lower skills will be disproportionally disrupted by six unstoppable forces.


Three persistent forces are pushing this transformation forward. Each of these forces are already at work. They have been disrupting industries, communities and workplaces for years, but their future impact will be unprecedented.

1) Globalization

Global markets and competition will continue to grow. Despite recent trade tensions, the largest economies and organizations benefit economically from open trade between nations. During the past one hundred years, total exports by countries have grown 40 times(2).  While the globalization of markets and suppliers has driven GDP growth for most countries, there have been winners and losers within each country. Competitive advantages have enabled some industries within each country to prosper while others, those at a disadvantage, have been forced out of the global market. Growing global markets and increasing competition (and motivations for profit and growth) will require industries and companies to continually reduce costs, improve quality and innovate in order to survive.

2) Knowledge Growth

The world’s collective knowledge is growing and will continue to grow at an accelerating rate. The rapid advancement in knowledge and the resulting gains in technology are driving expectations of consumers and global competition. Although the rate of knowledge growth is hard to quantify, researchers in the mid-20th century believed knowledge to be doubling every 50 years. By 2004 some postulated that it was doubling every 18 months. In 2010, IBM estimated that knowledge was doubling every 18 hours(3). Companies will be forced to discover, accumulate and apply their increased knowledge ever faster to improve processes, products and services in order to gain or maintain a competitive advantage over their competitors.

3) Technology Adoption

The rate of technology adoption by industries is also accelerating. It is this force that is most concerning for many communities and labor organizations in middle and rural America. Over the next decade, it has been estimated that industrial robots will displace over 1.5 million jobs in the U.S. manufacturing industry(4). Additional jobs will be lost in the agriculture, warehousing and transportation sectors with the influx of robots. The proliferation of robots is the result of the rapidly expanding capabilities of robots at a time when their costs are plummeting. 

How fast are cost falling? Consider the cost of computing power, a critical element enabling all robots. In the 1960s, when the US manufacturing sector was the envy of the world, the cost of the computing power needed to run the equivalent of an iPad cost over one million times more that is does today(5). As this downward trend continues, companies will trade an increasing number of robots for workers in low skilled, repetitive jobs with the need to deliver lower costs, improved quality and predictable capacity. Unfortunately, this is not just a blue collar issue.  Digital bots with AI (Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning) are predicted to displace as many lower skilled, white collar positions within office support and clerical functions by 2030(6)


Three insatiable pull forces are feeding these three punishing push forces. These pull forces are demanding change. They have traction. They are relentless and growing.

1) Consumer Demand

Of course, manufacturers aren’t to blame for all workplace disruptions. They are responding to consumers worldwide who are demanding more every day: More products, more often, with more features, higher quality and, if possible, lower prices. A simple illustration of this accelerating trend can be seen in the adoption rates of consumer technology in the U.S. It took over 80 years for the telephone to penetrate 50% of U.S. households. Cell phones only needed 20 years to reach this milestone. Smart phones achieved this feat in just 10 years(7). Globally we will see these trends magnified as the world’s population grows and economic development spreads.

While consumer demands are growing, so too are their numbers. The world’s population is approaching eight billion(8) and that number continues to grow at an alarming rate. Consider that in 1804, when the Industrial Era was just beginning, there were only one billion inhabitants on earth. It took 123 years to double the world population (by 1927). It only took 47 years to double again to four billion by 1974(9). And, we have almost doubled again by 2019, with just short of eight billion people walking the earth. The global consumer market is growing even faster as one billion consumers are now graduating into the middle class every seven years.  In fact, it is projected that over half of the world’s population (four billion) will be in the middle class by 2020 for the first time ever. Another 1.2 billion consumers will join them by 2028(10).

2) Demographic Shift

Baby Boomers have dominated the industrialized world for the past half century. This generation was born between 1945 and 1964. They lived the American dream. The Boomers experienced a U.S. that dominated in both product innovation and production. And they created the policies, practices and norms that still govern most workplaces today. The dominance and influence of Baby Boomers is waning however, as the Millennial generation establishes itself in the workforce. Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) will represent 50% of workers in 2020. And, with more Millennials entering the workforce and thousands of Baby Boomers retiring every day, their representation is expected to reach 75% of the global workforce by 2025(11) (in just five years!). 

3) Cultural Revolution

Millennials will be a cultural force that will reshape the future of work. Notably, many Millennials faced the harsh employment realities of the Great Recession just as they were entering the workforce. This may have a large impact on their collective views for many years. Currently, Millennials think differently than their parents. While their parents often chose ‘work or life’, Millennials are choosing to ‘work like life’. The majority of Millennials value having experiences over accumulating material goods and are skeptical of corporations. Surveys have also discovered that 74%(12) of this new workforce enjoys collaborating in small groups and 75%(13) expect to have the ability to work remotely. These expectations will challenge organizational structures, human resource policies, and management processes. 


There are six significant forces pushing and pulling this rapid workplace transformation.  But there are also three important enablers that are greasing the wheels of change.

1) Digital Communication

The penetration of digital communication technologies and their acceptance by Millennials is allowing for a redesign of the workplace paradigm. Millennials are very comfortable communicating and collaborating through electronic means. They have grown up with social media, smart phones, FaceTime, and Google’s suite of collaboration tools.  In fact, 75% of U.S. households have smartphone technology and even more are linked to social media(14). Digital communication tools will continue to improve. With increasing bandwidth, accessibility and high definition conferencing capabilities, business managers can no longer hide behind technology barriers in order to discourage remote work.

2) Marketplaces and Co-working Spaces

The Gig Economy is thriving in the US. Contract and freelance work is growing three times faster than other forms of employment. There were 57 million freelancers in 2018(15) – over one third of the U.S. workforce had done some amount of freelance or contract work that year. This new norm has been aided by the explosion of coffee shops allowing extended stays, and purpose-built co-working spaces which are projected to grow in number from 4,000 in 2017 to an estimated 6,000 worldwide by 2020(16). Marketplaces have also been created to make matches and transactions between freelancers and employers easier. UpWork.com boasts more than 14 million freelancers and 5 million clients listed on their site. Angie’s List and Craigslist have also enabled millions of transactions for contract work. It is now not only considered normal to work remotely and/or as a freelancer, but one or both of these work scenarios are preferred by millions of Millennials.

3) Social Supports

The Great Recession of 2008/9 caused 8.8 million jobs(17) to be lost just as many Millennials were joining the workforce. Millennials, facing this adversity, became most of the freelancers that drove the Gig Economy. Their desire for experiences despite a limited budget also spawned the Sharing Economy. This ‘work as life’ choice was made easier with: 1) the growth in availability of personal credit after 2010; 2) improved access to healthcare for those who needed it (through the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010); and 3) the latest venture capital boom, which has grown from $27 billion invested in 2009 to almost $130 billion(18) in 2018.


The transformation from the Industrial Era to the Age of Digital Dominance is assured. This transformation is underway. The six forces driving the changes are massive, unstoppable and aligned. 

Unfortunately, some industries, communities and workers will be impacted more than others. Those of us concerned about the future of work and life in rural and middle America must come together to chart a path forward. My community (and its small businesses) is one of those at risk of falling further behind. We, in the community, are engaged and motivated. But, we like many other communities facing similar challenges, can’t do it alone. We need a movement that results in new education paradigms, business development, investment in infrastructure, innovative tax incentives and new privacy, antitrust and intellectual property laws. We can do this if we work together.

Many organizations and thought leaders are attempting to predict the future of work during this time of unprecedented change. This article is part of a series written to add to that dialog with hopes of energizing action on solutions that will drive economic development and prosperity for workers, businesses and communities in rural and America. (Author note: This article was originally written six months before Covid-19 hit. The pandemic will only accelerate the trends described).


Other articles in this series:

(1) Robins, Duncan, The Future of Work is Here, September 2019, The Future of Work.org

(2) Robins, Duncan, The Transformation is Inevitable, September 2019, The Future of Work.org

(3) Robins, Duncan, Winners and Losers, September 2019, The Future of Work.org

(4) Robins, Duncan, Organizations of the Future, September 2019, The Future of Work.org

(5) Robins, Duncan, The Age of Digital Dominance, September 2019, The Future of Work.org


(1) Lund, Susan, James Manyika, Liz Hilton Segel, André Dua, Bryan Hancock, Scott Rutherford, and Brent Macon, The future of work in America: People and places, today and tomorrow, McKinsey Global Institute, July 2019.

(2) Ortiz-Ospina, Esteban, Diana Beltekian, and Max Roser, Trade and Globilization, October 2018, OurWorldinData.com

(3) Lindsay, Marsha, The Need for Marketing Speed, April 2012, Forbes.com

(4) Lardieri, Alexa, Robots will Replace 20 Million Jobs by 2030, June 2019, US News.com

(5) Cost of Computing power Equal to an iPad2, August 2011, HamiltonProject.org

(6) Lund, Susan, James Manyika, Liz Hilton Segel, André Dua, Bryan Hancock, Scott Rutherford, and Brent Macon, The future of work in America: People and places, today and tomorrow, McKinsey Global Institute, July 2019.

(7) McGrath, Rita Gunter, The Pace of Technology Adoption is Speeding Up, November 2013, Harvard BusinessReview.com

(8) World Population by Country, September 2019, WorldPopulationReview.com

(9) The World at Six Billion, United Nations Secretariat, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, September 2019, AnnenbergLerner.com

(10) Kharas, Homi, The Unprecedented Expansion of the Global Middle Class, February 2017, TheBrookingsInstitute.com

(11) Economy, Peter, The (Millennial) Workplace of the Future is Almost Here, January 2019. Inc.com

(12) Economy, Peter, The (Millennial) Workplace of the Future is Almost Here, January 2019. Inc.com

(13) The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019, Deloitte 2019

(14) Holst, Arne, Smartphone User Penetration, May 2019. Statistica.com

(15) Freelancing in America, Edelman Intelligence, a report commissioned by UpWork and Freelancers Union, 2018, UpWork.com

(16) Mazareanu, E, Number of Coworking Spaces Worldwide, August 2019, Statistica.com

(17) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019

(18) US VC Activity, January 2019, Pitchbook.com

Orginally posted on www.thefutureofwork.org