The Future is Ours – Ideas to Ponder for 2040


by Elizabeth Gartner, Prem Kumar, and Ross Smith

Study the past, if you would divine the future. – Confucius

In Greek mythology, Apollo gave Cassandra the power of prophecy in an effort to win her heart, but when she refused him, he cursed her with the affliction of her predictions to never being believed. Cassandra made many important predictions, including the soldiers hiding in the Trojan horse, but went through life without anyone listening to her predictions.

Often times we’ve seen History itself hold answers, leaving those who believe its lessons with seemingly prophetical powers. 

Almost 25 years ago, in 1990, the United States passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Beginning in the 1950’s, war veterans and activists started to speak up on behalf of individuals with disabilities in efforts to equalize the opportunities for all. In 1968, the Architectural Barriers Act declared that all buildings built with federal funds need to be accessible by the disabled. In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act prohibited discrimination against individuals with disabilities in federal agencies and all organizations receiving federal funding. [i] The physical equality gap in human beings had been significantly reduced based on rules society had put into place.

Twenty five years from now, in 2040, the world will be a very different place and so might the very way by which we look at physical equality and how it is managed. Technology is advancing exponentially – and these advances build on themselves – we learn more about how the brain works in the last 12 months, for example, than at any time in human history – perhaps cumulatively throughout.

The American Psychological Association (APA) perceive that a healthy level of stress in adults is 3.6 on a 1-10 scale. In a 2013 survey, adults reported an average 5.1 stress level. We’ve seen current HR trends to implement wellness programs and virtual workspaces in response to information like this. Our workforce is asking for the flexibility to balance their schedules and prioritize their lives. With our workforce focusing on their health and workload reallocation, what changes should be made in the office? What if artificial intelligence was able to free up your day? Everyone in a virtual workspace that clears the daily commute and allows for flexible family care. Businesses drastically reduce overhead cost and improve their telecommuting options. Robots complete manual tasks and OSHA violations disappear. As the workforce focuses on innovative thinkers that can create solutions virtually, the academic pressure drives students to higher performance. The APA notes teen stress is higher than adults in 2013. Teens in a school year were 1.9 points higher than their perceived healthy stress level of 3.9 at a dangerous 5.8. How will they handle an increase to academic pressure?

In 2008, the Genetic Information Discrimination Act was another interesting and relevant piece of legislation, “designed to prohibit the use of genetic information in health insurance and employment.[ii]

What does the world look like in 2040? As Confucius suggests, a great way for all of us to envision the future is to look at the past. We know there will be a distribution of capabilities, talent, and skills. However, perhaps for the first time, technological advances will enable humanity to go in a different direction – augmentation.   

We hope this series will provoke some deep thinking about the future. There’s no pretense, proposal, or answer – just some thought-provoking ideas to stimulate discussion.

We’ll cast these as a set of rhetorical stories, offering some context while leaving the implications to be pondered. A series of HR related Twilight Zone like episodes offered for your consideration.

Story Number One – Genetically Engineered Super Humans

Advances in genetic engineering will significantly change the make-up of humanity by 2040. The basic norms for the human body and its capacity will change.

The question is whether or not the governing influences humanity has constructed can adapt and evolve to keep pace with these changes – and if so, how?

How can freedom, ethics and competition be reconciled in this brave new world?

In this post we will specifically focus on the impact genetically engineered human beings could have to the HR field – taking into account common sense assumptions around laws and such that could quell the projected growth in the genetics space.

The race to create, invent, legalize and ultimately use genetic modifications is actually already upon us -- and it is indeed a race. It is important that HR has proper plans in place to address the tough decisions that will need to be made in the near future.

One of the first places this will (and has) appeared is preventing disease, where forms of gene therapy will be hugely important.  Specifically “Gene therapy is a form of therapy that involves inserting one or more corrective genes that have been designed in the laboratory, into the genetic material of a patient's cells to cure a disease. The expression of the new gene or genes can then alter the DNA or RNA transcript used to synthesis proteins and therefore correct the disease. Gene therapy is still in the experimental stages and its use is therefore not yet widespread.”[iii] The implications, however are mind boggling.

Another recent example of altering genetic makeup to prevent disease is recent research on mtDNA – where mitochondrial DNA from a donor is combined with that of a newborn to help prevent disease and improve wellbeing.

Meanwhile HR as a field is seeing technology-based advancements of its own. As Accenture’s analysis of the “future of HR” suggest “HR is changing as new insights into brain science and human behavior are being made at unprecedented levels by scientists, and as analytics are enabling organizations to test hypotheses and form conclusions by analyzing a newly available treasure trove of big data.”

So in a nutshell, the ability to modify one’s genetic makeup is seeing huge advancement – while HR is getting better and better at analyzing performance based not only on results but the behaviors that could predict future results.

This could bring into play many ethical HR dilemmas.

Let’s take an example.

Say that Prem, Elizabeth, and Ross are peers and all work together on a team in 2040. Keep in mind, the influence of the 50 year influence of the Americans with Disabilities Act - Prem comes from a well-to-do background that has afforded him gene therapy his entire life. He never gets sick and is able to be productive 19 hours a day, and has an abundance of adrenalin in his bloodstream, along with high levels of dopamine and oxytocin in his brain, leading to much higher productivity – particularly when compared to what Elizabeth and I are capable of. HR is also able to detect based on Prem’s behavioral patterns that he is more likely to be successful in a management role than his peers – although he hasn’t yet had such an experience.

The ADA prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity – and in this 2040 scenario, it’s pretty easy to see how employers might choose genetically enhanced employees like Prem over folks like Elizabeth and me.  

The United States was founded on the principle of equal opportunity – the American Dream is based on opportunity and upward mobility. Globally, the upward mobility in India and China in particular is notable. As we think about life in 2040, where some will have access to genetic-based capabilities that others do not, how do we define “equal” opportunity?

If some countries make perceived ethical sacrifices in favor of genetic “progress” how will that affect our global economy?  Just as we have tax havens today, will we need to legislate around genetic havens in the future? Will there be constraints on work “visas” for genetically modified workers from these havens? Will corporations “off-shore” to these countries?

Story Number Two – Big Data and Workplace Privacy

Advances in technology - from virtual conferencing, avatars, travel and communications – will enable work to transcend the typical hours and locations that it does today. We have already begun to see the blurring of work and life. In April 2014, the Office of Science and Technology Policy released a report on Big Data and the Future of Privacy.  In it, they talk about how the “ongoing collection of personal information in the United States without sufficient privacy safeguards has led to staggering increases in identity theft, security breaches, and financial fraud.”[iv] If we fast forward 25 years, the amount of data collected will be staggering. As we move to an era of an “internet of things” your toaster will collect information on your preferences and sync with the grocery store to make sure your white bread toast never runs out. Your frying pan and fridge will also be in touch with the grocery store or food service to ensure your Saturday morning bacon and eggs will always be ready. However, if one day your doctor diagnoses you with high cholesterol and you have to reprogram all your appliances. In July 2014, Bing joined the “Right to be Forgotten” movement[v] and now your toaster, fridge, and frying pan all need to subscribe. So, you’re able to re-do things and move to bran muffins, whole wheat toast, and cholesterol free egg substitutes – but you’re horrified to discover that anomaly detection algorithms trigger a raise in your insurance rates, which triggers a change in your payroll deduction for the government-supplied health care, and before you know it, your boss is asking about your health and you realize that it’s not just your health, but your job might be in jeopardy as well.

What started off as a convenience and a fun frying pan purchase at a big box electronics store has turned into a futuristic nightmare.

Or perhaps you are playing ball with your kids in the park and you fall and skin your knee. You don’t even have to buy a Band-Aid – security cameras in the park set off anomaly detection algorithms all around the world– and you’re flooded with healthcare ads, offers for gym memberships, wheelchair rentals, and child care.  Variable insurance rates predict your rate of recovery, chance of infection, and adjust your deductible and your boss gets an alert - before you even get up from your fall.

Story Number Three – Academic Doping – University PEDs

Students using drugs – a 50 year old concept – but this is a bit different than the 60’s. Students using drugs to enhance their performance – and it’s already a story today – Wikipedia also refers to this as cognitive enhancement or neuroenhancement - is the off-label use of a class of drugs called “nootropics” for the purpose of improving cognitive ability or academic success.[vi]

So the question for recruiting, staffing, and human resources – now on par with the major sports leagues: Should testing be done for performance enhancing drugs? And since testing is not done in universities, how does a 4.0 GPA achieved on PED’s equate to a 3.5 GPA without drugs, and how does one tell the difference? Does academia go the way of professional sports and introduce drug testing, or is it left to employers?  What are the ramifications for HR departments? Advances in the understanding of cognition and brain makeup further the chemistry around brain enhancement, and this will show up first in trials, of which students will be a part.  How do employers view GPA and student accomplishments in the world of academic doping and PED’s in university?


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