The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here. Now what?

World Economic Forum economist Saadia Zahidi explains how organizations can thrive in the age of automation by focusing on humans

The robots are coming for your jobs—or so headlines about the future of work claim. Automation and AI have transformed countless industries, but will robots replace us at work? All work?

Not any time soon. This explosion of technology and the rapid pace of technological change are instead proving that the future of work is decidedly human.

As the managing director of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the New Economy and Society, Saadia Zahidi has studied the state of work at some of the world’s largest multinational companies. Here, she breaks down how leaders can prepare their organizations to thrive in this new era.

What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and why should I care?

Zahidi describes the current Fourth Industrial Revolution as “a coming together of digital, physical and biological systems, leading to the rise of machine learning; the applicability of technology across many different fields; and the creation of wholly new fields, markets and sectors.”

It’s defined, in particular, by how fast it’s taken off—exponentially faster than the previous three industrial revolutions, which were characterized by mechanization (First Industrial Revolution), mass production (Second Industrial Revolution) and digitization (Third Industrial Revolution). Of the thousands of companies surveyed in WEF’s Future of Jobs Report last year, most expect to expand their adoption of new technologies over the next few years. Eighty-five percent of companies anticipate using big data analytics, and 73% plan to adopt machine learning.

Percentage of companies adopting technology by 2022:

  • 85%

    big data analytics

  • 75%

    app- and web-enabled markets

  • 75%

    Internet of Things

  • 73%

    machine learning

  • 23%

    humanoid robots

  • 19%

    aerial or underwater robots

Source: Future of Jobs Survey 2018, World Economic Forum

While these highly sophisticated technologies are radically changing the way organizations operate today, their presence is not replacing a human workforce after all. According to the Future of Jobs Report, some 75 million jobs will be lost in the coming years to automation and machine learning, but 133 million new jobs will emerge as a result of this new paradigm.

So if it isn’t “the end of work,” how will work change?

Zahidi recommends not thinking about this revolution in terms of jobs—if anything, it’s more accurate to say that “the robots are coming for your tasks.”


“There’s been a lot of doom and gloom reporting around the disappearance of a certain set of jobs, but we think it’s really important to focus on tasks, because it’s the tasks that might be disappearing,” she says. “It’s actually almost unheard of for entire job categories to disappear.”

The core skills necessary for people to perform the jobs of the future will change significantly—by 42%, to be exact, WEF researchers found. “We found that, three years from now, almost half of what somebody is going to be doing in the average job on a day-to-day basis will be different than what that same job looks like today,” Zahidi explains.

And that’s where the real transformation begins. According to the WEF Future of Jobs Report, by 2022, all workers will need, on average, 101 days of learning to do their (new) existing jobs.

The State of Work

A survey by Slack and GlobalWebIndex of 17,000 knowledge workers, managers and executives on the state of work today.

Read the Report

What can be done to prepare organizations for this new world of work?

For leaders and organizations, the key is to invest in employees by developing their uniquely human skills. “Collaboration comes up over and over as a Top 10 skill, regardless of sector, regardless of geography,” Zahidi says.

And in a business era of rapidly changing priorities, aligning knowledge workers around a set of explicit goals is essential. “If organizations want to create collaborative cultures, they also need to have incredibly clear objectives. It’s through the creation of those very, very clear objectives that you get the right kind of collaboration incentives,” Zahidi says.

Collaboration comes up over and over as a Top 10 skill, regardless of sector, regardless of geography.

She also emphasizes the importance of nurturing skills like empathy, critical thinking, active listening, reasoning and complex problem-solving. “For a lot of knowledge workers, it is about being able to relate to your client in a different way. It’s about being able to make a sale in a more humanized way. It’s about being able to work and relate with your teams in a different way,” she says.

The good news?

“I don’t think there is a predetermined future of work. When we did this report in 2016, it painted a much gloomier, more rudimentary picture,” Zahidi says. “Now, the future-of-work conversation has become so much more nuanced and sophisticated. The debate has moved on, which has helped bring a little bit more optimism to what the outlook might be like. But I don’t think that any of this happens without specific efforts and decisions today.”