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The Future of Work – Retirement in a Post-Work Future

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, Alexandra Whittington, April Koury, Karolina Dolatowska, and Maria Romero
What opportunities and challenges could arise for older workers in a post-jobs era?

Is the future for older workers bleak or blessed? So-called mainstream views of the future of work often strike highly pessimistic tones, perhaps with good reason. Some of the most-cited economic studies predict that half or more of all jobs could be taken over by machines within 20 to 30 years. The media can’t help but remind us that with those jobs go people, paychecks, and possibly an entire way of life.

The silver lining to this news is that the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) should also create new jobs. Artificial intelligence is, ironically, a technology that could provide unique opportunities in attractive new work roles, and may actually have the particular impact of allowing people to work longer and more flexibly across life stages in the future.

A Human Touch: Emotional Intelligence

While the current climate around AI is thriving with breakthrough developments (like algorithms that can develop new recipes, create new baby names, or design clothes), there are still many areas where AI is weak. So, for example, it is possible that one of the future roles for the over-50’s would be in an AI training capacity, teaching algorithms how to do non-computational things that require a human touch. While training your own replacement sounds less than ideal, it may be highly rewarding to teach AIs to use empathy in dealing with customers. For instance, helping AIs relate to clients experiencing health difficulties, or to use the right language and tone when dealing with frustrated coworkers could both lead to very positive experiences for all concerned—and the AI will never tire or lose patience.

Any attribute of employee performance requiring emotional intelligence is currently difficult to program; instead, it could become an area where retired workers, the semi-retired, or “gig workers” with a portfolio of jobs, could tutor AI programs to learn. These roles would probably allow for a great deal of personal development and greater understanding of interpersonal relationships and would resemble more of a nurturing, teaching, almost parenting-like function. They could probably be flexible in terms of hours and projects, which might be something retirees would welcome.

Guardians of What Matters

Another plausible future worth consideration for adults close to retirement is one where the rise of AI in the coming decades leads to the risk of important sources of traditional knowledge being lost. It is conceivable that nuanced things like manners, handwriting, water-cooler small talk, and humor could be some of the uniquely human characteristics that may prove difficult for smart machines to simulate. Therefore, is it imaginable that older, more experienced people could be valued for their social skills, and put to work in unconventional ways? Personalized tutoring in delicate and human customs could be a great job in which to spend our golden years.

Some people might be paid to just hang around a business in case a human touch is necessary. Visit upscale jewelry stores, boutiques, and hotels and one can see such roles already in existence. They would be reminiscent of the traditional role of elders in society, where the more experienced adults would be looked up to for wisdom, knowledge, and guidance instead of being rendered obsolete. Indeed, as technology creates pockets of artificiality via AI, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and other forms of simulated reality, it will be more important than ever to provide an authentic human context in the workplace.

Celebrating the value of the wisdom of elders is a lost tradition that might be particularly powerful for the Google generation, providing balance in a future dominated by algorithms and computation. Would humans retain their claim over important capabilities like interpreting body language and sensitivity to awkward situations? Assuming such insight remains difficult to impart via code, protecting various forms of social conventions would have a special function in the automated workplace. Older people would be able to transmit and teach knowledge to younger co-workers that would otherwise have been lost.

When Work Disappears, So Will Retirement

Obviously, it is preferable that new tools support human-centric workplaces rather than replace jobs and expertise; indeed, the desired future is often the one that’s easiest to see most clearly. In terms of AI, there’s a tremendous promise of unleashing human potential, rather than limiting it. In doing so, it could revolutionize the traditional trajectory of working life, from foundational training to retirement. However, the ideal outcome, where AI complements rather than usurps humanity, depends on its implementation. Unlike previous technological revolutions like electricity and computerization that changed work, AI represents direct competition to human employees.

Companies are salivating at the chance to cut costs and obtain the efficiency, reliability, and consistency possible with AI. However, the societal-level changes that automation will entail, such as redefining work, or education, or even our life purpose, renders a profit-driven mindset insufficient. Rather, companies should look at AI as a way to foster life-long relationships with employees; for example, could we see employers providing AI assistants at work that go on to become home-care bots in our retirement years? Authentic displays of human decency in engaging with people at any career stage might be how organizations can build AI-enabled workforces of real value.


  • How might exponential technologies improve intergenerational relationships in the workplace?
  • How could companies engage and retain experienced workers in a post-work future?
  • How might technology best be deployed in businesses that emphasize providing a human touch in the care of retirees?

This article is excerpted from The Future Reinvented – Reimagining Life, Society, and Business. You can order the book here.


A version of this article was originally published in Silver Magazine.

Image: by geralt


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