Why I'm obsessed with the future of work and how it's only just begun.
Nearly a decade ago I woke from my slumber. I was in a toxic business partnership and badly needed to change directions. So I pulled up my trousers, and went back to school. Colliding with a bunch of kooky creatives, I’ve since made a life of work I love.
Along the ride, I keep attracting (or more likely seeking out) other’s that love what they do. I’m electrified every time I ask one of these elated souls ‘what are you working on?’ The words flow so fast, their mouths struggle to keep up. It’s evident that for this lot — the distinction between work and life doesn’t exist.
Yet soon I appreciated that like me, these folks were anomalies. The majority of the working world (87% to be exact) simply aren’t engaged in their work. While many actually dread it, hundreds of millions of others don’t even have work to complain about. If this is the current state of play in our world, what might the future hold? I don’t really know. But I do have some ideas. Lots of them actually (and I have even more questions).
Here’s what I can serve up for now:
Today, the richest 62 people in the world have the same wealth as 50 percent of the entire world’s population.
In 7 years, millennials will make up 75 percent of the world’s workforce.
In 9 years, freelance workers will make up more than 50 percent of the American workforce.
In 12 years, people living in developing nations will account for 85 percent of the world’s population. (Yes, you read that right).
We are on course for massive unemployment (as well as underemployment) like we’ve never seen before. Many leading thinkers call this scenario post-work. It’s a world without the traditional jobs as we know them. And there is very likely some form of universal basic income (UBI) required to help supplement those working as well as those not working.
The issues are rooted in a compound of inevitable realities:
The continuing disparity divide, a shortage of workers for growing occupations, a widening skills gap for job categories yet to exist, algorithms and automation that keep eating the world, and a new generation of workers desperate to find meaning in work.
These are just some of the issues likely to be overheard at the World Economic Forum just as they are at your local college campus.
So how do we start to address these concerns and step outside our reality distortion field?. I think one place to start is with a public discourse around values, intelligence, and work itself.
It’s not that a Gen Xer like me, nor an ‘entitled millennial generation’suddenly resolved to find purpose in their work. Finding meaning in work is a deep-seated human impulse but something so often absent from the traditional workplace.
I recently asked President of the New America Foundation, Anne-Marie Slaughter, about the importance of finding meaning in work and how it could help build a more resilient society. She explained that deriving purpose in work is vital. The truth however, is that many Americans just want the reassurance of a regular paycheck. Herein lies the problem. Until the turn of the century, craving stability of income made sense. But the safety a job might yield today is a myth.
The emerging workforce yearn to have their values and purpose aligned with the work they do. It’s a big reason why so many are striking out on their own. And several pioneering organisations are also taking note. These companies are going the extra mile by catering to, and evolving with, the ambitions of their workers. Call it a “retention strategy”, “employer branding”, or what you will — I call it good business.
In developing countries, many people don’t and won’t have the luxury of finding meaning in work. While some may learn to turn the job they have into one they love, the stark reality is that many won’t have any work at all. Slaughter explained that for UBI schemes to fly, they must function as a support mechanism that is intrinsically tied to work. Already the schemes piloted around the world are proving promising.
In Kenya, one crafty recipient took his stipend and invested in a motorbike to provide taxi rides. He then set up a small soap business. And then a barbershop (you get the picture). The potential for a vibrant ecosystem of micro-entrepreneurs in developing nations is real. Most notably, these innovative schemes could enable dependent countries to be increasingly self sustaining. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg in tackling the myriad of issues at play — but it’s a start.
Automation has always killed jobs just as it has created new ones. The issue is that when algorithms replace the jobs of some folks, these displaced workers are often unable to manoeuvre into the newly designed ones. One Silicon Valley tech worker I interviewed remarked, “I can’t imagine what people will go to college for in 20 years time.” I’ve heard similar echoes from academics, entrepreneurs, parents, and peers.
We also still tend to think of intelligence as a single dimension. Yet we know there are a host of intelligences; from creative to the intellectual, from interpersonal to existential, and beyond. Intelligence is not linear but something beautifully expansive and as Kevin Kelly argues more akin to a genealogy mandala (see image below). Techno-optimists like Kelly and Nicky Case claim we should be welcoming the benefits of artificial intelligence. They dont’ advocating for a superintelligence, but a cognitively diverse set ofintelligences.
The geniuses of tomorrow will be dynamic superteams made up of both human and mechanical minds. Case advances that we need to design today for what we will all eventually become tomorrow; centaurs. Our brains will work together with, not against silicon brains. We are already seeing this coupling in healthcare, transportation, manufacturing, and the military. Arguably we already see it in the workplace, and it will continue to transform our professional lives. Instead of thinking of artificial intelligence as a threat we should be thinking about it as artificial augmentation — a turbo boost to our minds — and one of humankind’s greatest opportunities to flourish.
As we redefine what it means to be human and creative in an era of biohacking and AI— we will also redefine the very meaning of work. Emotional work, so often associated with women and caring for family (both young and old), may finally be given its proper recognition. Investment bankers, real estate brokers, telemarketers and quasi-Instagram public-figures might soon go the way of the dodo bird.
“We need to value work in different ways…and recognise unpaid work as work,” Slaughter appeals. After our basic needs are met, finding purpose in work is critical. She urges us to include and honour caring, volunteering and all of the important work that people do everyday that is not financially compensated. We need to shift our thinking and appreciate that work, as it was once known, is no longer.
As work becomes increasingly fluid, we’ll also need portable worker benefits to be tied to work (and not just job titles). This is merely an extension of what already happens in Hollywood when actors flow from movie to movie yet still receive benefits from unions. We can take the cue from initiatives like the New York Livery Fund, where NYC taxi drivers can draw down compensation and benefits.
For the hundreds of millions of unemployed people around the world, we don’t need jobs — we need work. And with nearly all of the world’s population growth taking place in less developed countries, it’s here where the opportunities for work can be created*. Through technology, education, skills development and other support — our duty is to help make a new world of work, actually work.
Preparing to Pivot
To be fit for the future of work — we’ll need to distribute work in a much more inventive and equitable fashion. Think job-sharing programs on steroids.Labels like full-time, part-time, contractual, contingent, unpaid, and untraditional work should be trivial and de-classified in lieu of a new system of work.
Yes, the kinks of this new world order would need ironing out, but loosely speaking work will need to be divided based on both skill (currently capability) as well as need (future capacity). We need to continue asking hard questions about how to best achieve this and swiftly test and refine viable solutions.
Is this all some type of libertarian aspiration? You betcha. Is it more ethical than today’s work practices? Damn straight. If we’re going to school a new generation and create a resilient future of work, we must approach it with a completely new mindset. We need new models of organising and better ways of working. It’s why I made a change in my career and why nearly ever new worker will need to make significant changes throughout theirs.
To thrive in the digital age, we’ll need to cultivate curiosity and bake the capacity to change right into education. As the future comes rushing towards us at warp speed, we can brace ourselves for a brave new world of work and as social entrepreneur Van Jones declares, “Be prepared to pivot.”