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Technology and the future of work

Automation, digital platforms, and other innovations are changing the fundamental nature of work. Understanding these shifts can help policy makers, business leaders, and workers move forward.

The world of work is in a state of flux, which is causing considerable anxiety—and with good reason. There is growing polarization of labor-market opportunities between high- and low-skill jobs, unemployment and underemployment especially among young people, stagnating incomes for a large proportion of households, and income inequality. Migration and its effects on jobs has become a sensitive political issue in many advanced economies. And from Mumbai to Manchester, public debate rages about the future of work and whether there will be enough jobs to gainfully employ everyone.

The development of automation enabled by technologies including robotics and artificial intelligence brings the promise of higher productivity (and with productivity, economic growth), increased efficiencies, safety, and convenience. But these technologies also raise difficult questions about the broader impact of automation on jobs, skills, wages, and the nature of work itself.

Many activities that workers carry out today have the potential to be automated. At the same time, job-matching sites such as LinkedIn and Monster are changing and expanding the way individuals look for work and companies identify and recruit talent. Independent workers are increasingly choosing to offer their services on digital platforms including Upwork, Uber, and Etsy and, in the process, challenging conventional ideas about how and where work is undertaken.

For policy makers, business leaders, and workers themselves, these shifts create considerable uncertainty, alongside the potential benefits. This briefing note aims to provide a fact base on the multiple trends and forces buffeting the world of work drawing on recent research by the McKinsey Global Institute and others.

 

The challenges independent work presents

Working nine to five for a single employer bears little resemblance to the way a substantial share of the workforce makes a living today. Millions of people assemble various income streams and work independently, rather than in structured payroll jobs. This is hardly a new phenomenon, yet it has never been well measured in official statistics—and the resulting data gaps prevent a clear view of a large share of labor-market activity.

To better understand the independent workforce and what motivates the people who participate in it, the McKinsey Global Institute surveyed some 8,000 respondents across Europe and the United States. We asked about their income in the past 12 months—encompassing primary work, as well as any other income-generating activities—and about their professional satisfaction and aspirations for work in the future.

The resulting report, Independent work: Choice, necessity, and the gig economy, finds that up to 162 million people in Europe and the United States—or 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population—engage in some form of independent work. While demographically diverse, independent workers largely fit into four segments (exhibit): free agents, who actively choose independent work and derive their primary income from it; casual earners, who use independent work for supplemental income and do so by choice; reluctants, who make their primary living from independent work but would prefer traditional jobs; and the financially strapped, who do supplemental independent work out of necessity.

Creating workforce development programs

The ‘‘skills gap’’ in the United States is serious. Here is how to do better.

“The land of opportunity”—that is the promise of the United States. And one of the reasons the country has been able to deliver on that promise is that it has been able to develop the talent it needs to create wealth and to adapt to ever-changing economic realities. But there are concerns that the United States can and should be doing better. This will require policies and actions on many fronts, for example on trade, taxation, regulation, education, and fiscal and monetary policy. In this article, we focus on a single subject: preparing people without college degrees for jobs with promising career paths. The need, for both business and society, is clear.

On the one hand, almost 40 percent of American employers say they cannot find people with the skills they need, even for entry-level jobs. Almost 60 percent complain of lack of preparation, even for entry-level jobs. On the other hand, this “skills gap” represents a massive pool of untapped talent, and it has dire consequences, including economic underperformance, social unrest, and individual despair.

The skills gap takes different forms. In some cases, it is a matter of youth struggling to enter the workforce; in others, it is midcareer learners who have lost their jobs because of factory closings or layoffs, and who now must adapt. Whatever the circumstance, when people are disconnected from the workplace, they often disconnect from other social institutions as well. This is not healthy—neither for those left out nor for the societies in which they live.

Recognizing the importance of this subject, McKinsey has done extensive research on global workforce-development programs and economic strategies.1We have also worked with a number of state, local, and national governments.

Strategic and organizational on business

t’s no secret: innovation is difficult for well-established companies. By and large, they are better executors than innovators, and most succeed less through game-changing creativity than by optimizing their existing businesses.

Yet hard as it is for such organizations to innovate, large ones as diverse as Alcoa, the Discovery Group, and NASA’s Ames Research Center are actually doing so. What can other companies learn from their approaches and attributes? That question formed the core of a multiyear study comprising in-depth interviews, workshops, and surveys of more than 2,500 executives in over 300 companies, including both performance leaders and laggards, in a broad set of industries and countries (Exhibit 1). What we found were a set of eight essential attributes that are present, either in part or in full, at every big company that’s a high performer in product, process, or business-model innovation.

Since innovation is a complex, company-wide endeavor, it requires a set of crosscutting practices and processes to structure, organize, and encourage it. Taken together, the essentials described in this article constitute just such an operating system, as seen in Exhibit 2. These often overlapping, iterative, and nonsequential practices resist systematic categorization but can nonetheless be thought of in two groups. The first four, which are strategic and creative in nature, help set and prioritize the terms and conditions under which innovation is more likely to thrive. The next four essentials deal with how to deliver and organize for innovation repeatedly over time and with enough value to contribute meaningfully to overall performance.

Grow fast on your business

Our latest research on growth in software and online-services companies has some surprising findings about the benefits and risks of buying growth.

Acquisitions, done well, can be a powerful tool to accelerate revenue growth. And pushing for gains is vital in software and online services, where the rate of growth typically determines whether a company thrives, survives, or dies. While 20 percent revenue growth is enviable in most industries, companies in software and online services are expected to deliver numbers that are markedly higher. In fact, we’ve found that software and online-services companies with revenue that grows by more than 60 percent annually when they hit $100 million in sales are eight times more likely to eventually pass $1 billion in annual revenue than players with revenue that grows by less than 20 percent annually.1

However, acquisitions, done episodically, can also stifle growth. Our research shows that acquiring companies infrequently may actually disrupt organic growth and slow overall revenue gains. We examined the acquisition activity of 578 software and online-services companies that surpassed $100 million in annual revenue2and identified three lessons:

  • Low-volume acquisition programs disrupt growth; high-volume programs accelerate growth. The software and online-services companies whose revenue grew most rapidly had high-volume acquisition programs.
  • Successful acquisition programs complement organic growth. Among software and online-services companies that reached $1 billion in annual revenue, acquisition efforts preserved or accelerated organic growth. These companies completed more deals, squeezed more growth out of each deal, and managed to preserve high organic growth while investing energy in finding and incorporating acquisitions.
  • Successful acquisitions align with growth strategy. Companies that accelerate revenue growth through acquisitions don’t treat deals as an opportunistic event to capture cost synergies. They use several different deal archetypes—all linked to their fundamental growth strategy.

Growth matters more than ever

Growth is magic. It makes it easier to fund new investments, attract great talent, and acquire assets. But the environment for growth has been difficult since 2008, and while there are signs that the Great Recession is at last receding, significant challenges remain. Real-GDP growth in the United States remains below historical averages; the economies of most European countries are still sluggish; and growth in emerging markets, particularly the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—is slowing down.

For more than a decade, we’ve been building and mining a global-growth database containing hundreds of the largest US and European companies. Recently, we’ve been revisiting some of the core analyses in the 2008 book, The Granularity of Growth,1to see if the challenging environment of recent years has shifted the picture of fundamentals we painted before the financial crisis. The answer is no, though the economic context arguably has increased the importance of an effective growth strategy.

Healthy growth boosts corporate survival rates, which was true in 2008 and remains true in the United States and in other developed markets. From 1983 to 2013, for instance, roughly 60 percent of the nonfinancial companies then in the S&P 500 were acquired—it’s grow or go, and they have gone. Consider these findings over that period:

  • Sixty of the 78 S&P 500 companies that generated top-line growth and improved or at least maintained their margins outperformed the S&P 500.
  • Companies with deteriorating margins performed less well, even if these companies were growing; just 8 out of 30 outperformed the index.
  • A higher percentage (56 percent) of companies that grew slowly, but also aggressively distributed cash to shareholders, outperformed the S&P 500.

As analysis of these companies’ total returns to shareholders (TRS) suggests (Exhibit 1), growth is only a means to the ultimate end: creating value. Not all growth opportunities are equal. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that growth is a critical driver of performance as measured by total returns to shareholders. And TRS underperformers are far more likely to be acquired.

New global competition

A new McKinsey Global Institute report finds that a 30-year period of unprecedented corporate-profit growth could be drawing to a close. Competition is intensifying as emerging-market companies go global and technology and technology-enabled firms make rapid moves into new sectors.

The world’s biggest corporations have been riding a three-decade wave of profit growth, market expansion, and declining costs. Yet this unprecedented run may be coming to an end. Our new McKinsey Global Institute report, Playing to win: The new global competition for corporate profits, projects that the global corporate-profit pool, which currently stands at almost 10 percent of world GDP, could shrink to less than 8 percent by 2025—undoing in a single decade nearly all of the corporate gains achieved relative to the world economy during the past 30 years (exhibit).

From 1980 to 2013, vast markets opened around the world while corporate-tax rates, borrowing costs, and the price of labor, equipment, and technology all fell. The net profits posted by the world’s largest companies more than tripled in real terms from $2 trillion in 1980 to $7.2 trillion by 2013,1pushing corporate profits as a share of global GDP from 7.6 percent to almost 10 percent. Today, companies from advanced economies still earn more than two-thirds of global profits, and Western firms are the world’s most profitable. Multinationals have benefited from rising consumption and industrial investment, the availability of low-cost labor, and more globalized supply chains.

But there are indications of a very significant change in the nature of global competition and the economic environment. While global revenue could increase by some 40 percent, reaching $185 trillion by 2025, profit growth is coming under pressure. This could cause the real-growth rate for the corporate-profit pool to fall from around 5 percent to 1 percent, practically the same share as in 1980, before the boom began. (For more, see sidebar, “The future and how to survive it,” an excerpt from a companion article in the October 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review.)

Part of the slowdown in profit growth will stem from the competitive forces unleashed by two groups of hard-charging competitors. On one side is an enormous wave of companies based in emerging economies. The most prominent have been operating as industrial giants for decades, but over the past 10 to 15 years, they have reached massive scale in their home markets. Now they are expanding globally, just as their predecessors from Japan and South Korea did before them. On the other side, high-tech companies are introducing new business models and striking into new sectors. And the tech giants themselves are not the only threat. Powerful digital platforms such as Alibaba and Amazon serve as launching pads for thousands of small and midsize enterprises, giving them the reach and resources to challenge larger companies.

Change in the next economy

Tim O’Reilly talks to McKinsey’s James Manyika about the interplay between technology, the economy, and the future of work.

Tim O’Reilly: I’ve been using the term “the next economy” to wrap up a whole load of concepts around technology and the future of work. We see a lot of concern about artificial intelligence, on-demand services, and robots, and we have this notion that these technologies are going to take away jobs. You hear people say, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to wipe out truck driving.”

What we haven’t created is an affirmative vision of what this technology could do that is today impossible and what is the work that needs doing. For me, there’s a cluster of principles that we can start with to identify what makes next-economy companies. One is that they enable humans, workers. You use technology to enable workers to do things that were previously impossible. I like to use Uber as an example.

James Manyika: Right.

Tim O’Reilly: You could call a cab on the street, you could call a cab by phone. But we had this latent capability in our smartphones to know exactly where the passenger and the driver are at all times. Uber said, “Oh wait. We can do this thing that was previously impossible. You can call a cab from anywhere. The driver can find out where you are and come right to you.” Magical, you know?

We’ve all been there in the old days, standing on some street corner in New York, waving vainly for a cab when, no doubt, there was an empty cab driving by two blocks away. Here was this new thing—augmenting the drivers made something new possible.

There’s another pattern that you see there, which is the platform pattern. It’s this idea that, increasingly, we see companies not as organizations that employ people full time but as organizations that create “affordances,” if you like, for those people to use the platform to perform quasi-entrepreneurial activity. So those two things alone are deeply transformative.

In a lot of ways, when you look at a platform-style business, it is empowering people to make decisions. There are a lot of critics who will say, “Well, an Uber driver isn’t really an entrepreneur. An Airbnb host isn’t really an entrepreneur.” And yet they are. They’re not told when to show up. They actually are encouraged to study what are the times when their income is going to be best. You have to figure out where are the best places to go. Uber says it will provide tools to help you understand that.

Slowdown in US productivity

Can the productivity puzzle be solved? Fresh analysis examines the issue and highlights opportunities for companies and policy makers to act on.

In the United States, productivity growth has declined sharply since 2004, yet digital technology has been widely apparent during this period. Even more startling, in 2016, measures of productivity growth flirted with negative territory. The answer to this puzzle holds the key to future prosperity, because now more than ever, as low birthrates slow the expansion of the labor force, the US economy depends on productivity improvements for long-term economic growth. Economists have proposed competing explanations for declining productivity growth but so far have failed to reach a consensus. That has left decision makers in the public and private spheres without a clear perspective from which to chart a path forward.

A McKinsey Global Institute discussion paper, The productivity puzzle: A closer look at the United States (PDF–449KB), undertakes a microanalysis and identifies six characteristics of the productivity-growth slowdown. These characteristics are low value-added growth during the recovery after the financial crisis; a shift in the composition of employment in the economy toward lower-productivity sectors; a lack of productivity-accelerating sectors after the financial crisis; weak capital-intensity growth; uneven rates of digitization across sectors, where the least digitized often are the largest sectors, with relatively low productivity; and diverging firm-level productivity, with slowing business dynamism.

A closer look at just one of these characteristics, the lack of productivity-accelerating sectors, is revealing (exhibit). The productivity performance of businesses and sectors does not slow down or speed up in unison. Rather, shifts in aggregate productivity growth are the result of individual sectors accelerating and decelerating at different times. The productivity boom of 1995 to 2000 was characterized by an exceptional combination of sectors experiencing a productivity acceleration. Sectors with large employment, such as retail and wholesale, experienced accelerating productivity at the same time as rapid productivity growth was occurring in sectors such as computer and electronic products. Together, these drove the productivity boom.

What executives think about the economy

This continually updated interactive tracks how executives around the world have viewed economic conditions and the economic prospects of their companies, and how those views have differed over time and across industries, regions, and types of company.

Every quarter since early 2004, McKinsey has asked executives from around the world about their expectations for the global economy, national economies, and their own organizations. Since September 2008, as these topics have grown in urgency, we have added additional questions, including some on customer demand and company profits.

This interactive feature will allow you to explore how different regions, industries, and types of companies have been affected by recent changes in economic conditions, and what executives expect to see in the future.

A McKinsey Global Institute discussion paper, The productivity puzzle: A closer look at the United States (PDF–449KB), undertakes a microanalysis and identifies six characteristics of the productivity-growth slowdown. These characteristics are low value-added growth during the recovery after the financial crisis; a shift in the composition of employment in the economy toward lower-productivity sectors; a lack of productivity-accelerating sectors after the financial crisis; weak capital-intensity growth; uneven rates of digitization across sectors, where the least digitized often are the largest sectors, with relatively low productivity; and diverging firm-level productivity, with slowing business dynamism.

A closer look at just one of these characteristics, the lack of productivity-accelerating sectors, is revealing (exhibit). The productivity performance of businesses and sectors does not slow down or speed up in unison. Rather, shifts in aggregate productivity growth are the result of individual sectors accelerating and decelerating at different times. The productivity boom of 1995 to 2000 was characterized by an exceptional combination of sectors experiencing a productivity acceleration. Sectors with large employment, such as retail and wholesale, experienced accelerating productivity at the same time as rapid productivity growth was occurring in sectors such as computer and electronic products. Together, these drove the productivity boom.