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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

The 6 worker archetypes for the future of work

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Andrew Schwedel

Many predictions about the future of work have not exactly played out as forecast. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that continued economic growth over the course of the coming century would reduce the work week to 15 hours. Nikola Tesla echoed this sentiment in 1935, when he predicted that robots would replace most human labour in the next hundred years. In 1964, the RAND Corporation predicted that we would be breeding intelligent apes to perform manual labour by 2020. And in 1959, the U.S. postmaster general predicted that today’s mail would be sent by rockets (e-mail turned out to be a more cost-effective option.)

The pandemic has undoubtedly triggered lasting changes when it comes to work. Many of us were part of a forced experiment in remote working that has shifted perceptions about such arrangements. Others found themselves in jobs that required them to personally confront the virus on a daily basis, just to keep society running. But all of us had cause to reflect on what we want our work to look like and what role we want it to play in our lives. According to a Bain & Company survey, 58 per cent of workers across 10 major economies feel the pandemic has forced them to rethink the balance between their work and their personal lives.

The relationship between workers and firms is changing radically, forcing leaders to rethink their approach to talent. And there has never been a more critical time to do so; talent is rapidly becoming the firm’s most precious resource. Much of the prevailing thinking about work was forged in a very different world than today’s, where workers were viewed simply as ‘factors of production’ in the machine of enterprise. Today’s organizations require a new mental model that rehumanizes the way we think about work. Rather than inputs, workers are more like the atomic building blocks of the modern firm. Yet our understanding of workers — their hopes and desires, their untapped potential, their emotional state — is often superficial.

The pandemic has also brought one reality into stark relief: the war for talent is not just about cultivating a pipeline of future executives. Between February 2020 and February 2021, more than a quarter of American workers, most of them in front-line roles, changed employers in the most rapid reshuffling on record. While much of this churn was involuntary, recent surging attrition rates suggest that many workers are using the pandemic-induced job disruption as an opportunity to re-evaluate what they want from their work. As a result, many companies are struggling to fill shortages in key front-line roles, threatening their ability to return to full capacity as the crisis subsides.

Business leaders are aware that they need to change the way they think about their workforce to stay ahead of the whirlwind of technological and sociological changes. Yet they struggle to determine which actions will make a real difference. A year of in-depth research has helped my colleagues and me define five broad implications of the future of work and the steps firms need to take now to get ahead in the shifting war for talent. In this article, I will focus on the first implication: Motivations for Work Are Changing. Interested readers can download the complete report online.

Motivations for Work Are Changing

It is perhaps unsurprising that Nikola Tesla and John Maynard Keynes foresaw a gradual disappearance of work when one considers what happened in the decades prior to their predictions. Between 1870 and 1930, the average weekly hours of a non-agricultural worker in the U.S. fell by a quarter, from 59.5 to 44.5.

At the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the working week was as long as physically bearable, and survival was the primary motive for work for all but a fortunate few. That all began to change as industrialization brought immense advances in living standards. By the early 20th century, working hours were falling, allowing more workers to spend their time as they chose. As growth decelerated in the West in the latter part of the last century, this trend began to taper, although it persists today. For instance, one study of time use in the U.K. found that average weekly leisure time increased by seven hours for men and five hours for women from 1961 to 2000. The average time spent caring for children also increased, by four hours a week for both men and women.

In addition, the subjective importance we place on our jobs compared with other life factors has declined across successive generations. According to the World Values Survey, younger generations place a lower importance on work relative to leisure time compared with respondents in older generations who completed the survey at the same age. The only outlier is Generation X — who were hit particularly hard by the 2007-09 financial crisis in terms of wealth and career prospects. We found a similar pattern in the importance of work compared with family.

This trend is not confined to the West. In general, as countries grow their GDP, workers gain greater economic freedom to spend time on other pursuits. For instance, workers in China and India are also starting to place less importance on work relative to leisure.

Does this mean that Tesla and Keynes were simply too early in their predictions of the demise of work? We expect not. As of 2017, only 28 per cent of people surveyed said they would stop working altogether if they had enough money for the rest of their lives, down from 34 per cent in 1995. As workers have become richer, they’ve recognized that a job can serve more than their basic economic needs. Globally, the richer a country, the lower the share of the population that believe a job is just a way to earn money.

According to our survey, only 22 per cent of workers globally rank compensation as the thing that matters most to them. This isn’t to say that people will accept a job without fair pay: Compensation still ranks higher than all other job attributes, including ‘"interesting work" at 15 per cent and "an inspiring company" at five per cent. It also ranks in the top three factors for 56 per cent of respondents. But it is evident that a coin-operated view of workers, where leaders see employment as a purely financial transaction, underestimates deeper human motivations. And dissatisfied workers rank compensation higher than satisfied workers, suggesting that money is more often a source of demotivation for workers who feel underpaid than it is a source of inspiration for others.

In rich countries, several social changes have likely broadened workers’ expectations around the needs a job should fulfil. As community institutions such as sports clubs and volunteer associations have declined in prominence, work has become a more important source of social connection. Similarly, as religious observance has decreased in many countries, new generations of workers may have turned to their careers to provide a sense of higher purpose.

A shift in the nature of social class, which is now primarily reflected in one’s occupation, has also likely played a role in this change. In the U.S., there has been an inversion of the relationship between income and hours worked over the past century. Far from the idle leisure class of bygone eras, the upper echelons of today’s society work the longest hours of all. Busyness has become a sign of status and importance. Those at the bottom of the income hierarchy work the least hours, as they are often unable to secure the stable full-time employment they desire. As the world has become richer, workers have increasingly shifted their focus from survival to meaning, with profound implications for how we think about work. Importantly, individuals can find a sense of purpose in many places, whether in a sense of achievement and upward mobility, mastery of a skill set, directly helping others or simply being fully present in one’s family life.

As attitudes toward work continue to fragment, six worker archetypes are emerging:

Operators find meaning and self-worth primarily outside of their jobs and see work as a means to an end. They’re not particularly motivated by status or autonomy and generally don’t seek to stand out in the workplace. They tend to prefer stability and predictability. Thus, they have less interest in investing to change their future compared with other archetypes. At the same time, Operators are one of the more team-minded archetypes, and often view many of their colleagues as friends. At their best, they are the team players who form the backbone of an organization. At their worst, they are disengaged and lack proactivity.

Givers find meaning in work that directly improves the lives of others and are the archetype least motivated by money. They often gravitate toward caring professions such as medicine or teaching, but can also thrive in other lines of work where they can directly interact with and help others. Their empathetic nature typically translates into a strong team spirit and deep personal relationships at work. At the same time, their more cautious nature means they tend to be forward planners who are relatively hesitant to jump on new opportunities as they arise. At their best, they are selfless, helping build the trust every organization needs to function. At their worst, they may be impractical or naive.

Artisans seek work that fascinates or inspires them and are motivated by the pursuit of mastery. They enjoy being valued for their expertise, although they are less concerned with status in the broader sense. Artisans typically desire a high degree of autonomy to practice their craft and place the least importance on camaraderie of all the archetypes. While many find a higher purpose in their work, it is more about passion than altruism. At their best, they are able to solve even the most complex of challenges. At their worst, they can be aloof and lose sight of bigger objectives.

Explorers value freedom and experiences. They tend to live in the present and seek careers that provide a high degree of variety and excitement. Explorers place a higher-than-average importance on autonomy and typically don’t rely on their job for a sense of identity, often exploring multiple occupations during their lifetime. Explorers tend to adopt a pragmatic approach to professional development, obtaining only the level of expertise needed. At their best, they will enthusiastically throw themselves at whatever task is required of them. At their worst, they are directionless and lack conviction.

Strivers have a strong desire to make something of themselves. They are motivated by professional success and value status and compensation. They can be relatively risk averse and opt for well-trodden paths to success. Strivers are willing to tolerate less variety so long as it is in service of their longer-term goals. They tend to define success in relative terms, and thus can be more competitive and transactional in their relationships than most other archetypes. At their best, they are disciplined and transparent. At their worst, their competitiveness degrades trust and camaraderie within the organization.

Pioneers are on a mission to change the world. They form strong views on the way things should be and seek the control necessary to achieve that vision. They are the most risk tolerant and future oriented of all the archetypes. Pioneers identify profoundly with their work. Their vision matters more than anything, and they are willing to make great personal sacrifices accordingly. Their work relationships tend to be more transactional in nature. Their vision is often at least partly altruistic, but it is distinctly their own. At their best, they mobilize their infectious energy to bring about lasting change. At their worst, they are uncompromising and imperious.

What does all of this mean for leaders trying to stay ahead in increasingly competitive markets? First, winning firms will pivot from being talent takers to talent makers. This requires scaling investments in learning, thinking laterally about career journeys and cultivating a growth mindset in their organization. Second, leaders will stop managing workers like machines, instead supporting them to build personal capacity and create a career that matches their individual idea of a meaningful life. As part of this, leaders will reorganize workflows to help individuals best utilize their uniquely human advantages.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, winning firms will build an organization that offers a sense of belonging and opportunity for its many unique workers while remaining united through a shared vision and communal values.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Rotman Management magazine. Published in January, May and September, each issue features thought-provoking insights and problem-solving tools from leading global researchers and management practitioners. Subscribe Today

Andrew Schwedel is the co-chair of Bain Futures, a global think tank that tackles the business implications of coming trends. He also leads Bain’s macro trends group. The complete report, “The Working Future: More Human, Not Less” (copyright Bain & Company, 2022), can be downloaded online.