The surprising future of work
Nobody knows the future of work, or the future of anything for that matter, there are too many interacting macro-environmental forces at play. But let’s make a few assumptions and see where that takes us:
- People have a natural distaste for despair and terror.
- Some people are curious about discovering their true potential.
- Leadership is becoming decentralised.
First, let’s consider the standard industrial era career path:
Been there. Followed that.
Most of us have had to spend time on the ‘factory floor’. Whether that is in hanging doors on vehicles, writing software or serving customers. This is where organisational strategy turns into reality. Creating reality is very uplifting when you are an artist or you run your own micro enterprise. But when you are a ‘process following cog’ in the industrial complex, it is a very different experience.
There is a deep-down sense of despair. The lack of personal autonomy makes you feel helpless. Your financial obligations ensure you turn up each day. You often day dream about the end of your shift, the weekend and perhaps even the end of your life, and I don’t just mean working life.
More positively, you dream of autonomy and a better quality of life. However, we have been wired to believe that a better of quality of life is being able to afford the things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. We look to our managers and envy their God-like power in respect of determining who does what and by when. Plus they have a nice car and an office, where they can progress all aspects of their lives (aka ‘work homing’).
Welcome to the pleasure dome
Having been seduced into believing that craft is for losers, you ascend to becoming a manager. What better metric than headcount to show disinterested relatives that you are making your way in the world. You are starting to acquire the toys, as well. What a feeling, turning up to family events in an internet-enabled four by four off-roader. A state-of-the-art vehicle that will never discover its true potential, given that it is used primarily for school runs and intimidating less well-off parents.
You enjoy some autonomy. But not too much. As a manager, you take your orders from the leaders, so you can enjoy the protection that comes with institutional helplessness.
The focus in this career phase is enjoying the spoils of having got onto the ladder. The management restaurant is quite a different experience to the shop floor ‘hoi poloi’ canteen. The hard yards are over, pleasure is the watermark for life going forward.
Eventually it takes greater hits to feel the pleasure and so debt is used to supplement income. Sitting in that country club spa, with the background hum of other arrivistes one upping each other on vehicle choice, holiday location or front lawn acreage, that sense of despair starts to return.
The top floor
On rare occasions, managers are invited to join the top team. Better car, better country club, but unfortunately ‘better’ responsibility. There is nowhere to hide. You are now in the decision-making business and those decisions can have seismic consequences. You realise that managers are merely better paid workers with a little more autonomy. But unlike shop-floor workers, they have no value creating skills. You now get to have night terrors in which you are trapped in a web where a giant spider with the face of an activist shareholder is making its way towards you.
You no longer have a sense of despair. Terrified is your new chronic state. Cracks are showing in the business model and nobody at the top table is willing to acknowledge them. Are you the only one without a parachute? Are you the dumbest guy in the room? You realise there is a new skillset required at this level and you don’t have it.
The last days of Rome
Today, you are more likely to go to a colleague’s funeral because they have killed themselves than because of a workplace accident. The industrial worker-manager-leader model has not been good to humans. The structure is rigged to keep the humans in order using status, misevaluation of what is important in life and a desire for security and pleasure. Hence the lack of human uprising. Unfortunately, security and pleasure are early indicators of empire collapse / species extinction. Security and pleasure dull the senses. Predators find dulled senses an attractive prey characteristic.
Fortunately, nature has stepped in and is giving us one more chance. Disruption, both manmade and natural, is dismantling the industrial era model.
The new world order
Hopefully, nature will embolden people to see beyond the ‘bread and circuses’. Bills must be paid. But the bills will be much smaller if your no longer buy ecologically questionable goods to bolster your downtrodden self-esteem.
Security is an illusion. The synthetic certainty of the industrial era was necessary for the factories to operate. Investors will only invest in a factory if the demand for its products will be of sufficient duration to get a return on their capital. This need for investment security required a societal sense of security, so that workers would turn up each day and crank the handle compliantly. Prior to the industrial era, uncertainty was the backdrop to ours lives. Thanks to technology and global supply chains, we are now entering an era of hyper-uncertainty.
With the collapse of the factory model, we will see the disappearance of managers. Organisations will need to flatten to respond quickly to ever increasing opportunities and threats. We will need leaders to guide us through the tumult. You will know you are a leader, not by your business card, but whether, when you turn around, people are actually following you.
Smart organisations will see leadership as not just the preserve of a few anointed ones. That is simply a waste of cognitive capacity. Anyone who influencers other people – colleagues, clients, citizens or suppliers, is a leader. Ubiquitous leadership is post-industrial era leadership.
I don’t do curious
So what about the poor guy on the factory floor? Unfortunately, worker work is process work. And process work lends itself to automation. However people do have the natural capacity to outperform algos and robots, but it requires rekindling our capacity to be curious and creative.
It would appear that it is the role of industrial era education to genetically removed these traits. This ‘genetic mutilation’ also served the purpose of making people less inclined to explore better ways of working and living.
But for those who can reignite their humanity, particularly their curiosity and creativity, they will be much needed in a world of work where innovation is the lifeblood that keeps the organisation in the game. Work then becomes less about the economic and more about mastery and purpose.
So which are you?
This raises the question as to whether you should be this creative talent or a leader. I believe it is both. Such is the nature of ubiquitous leadership and of being human. The fact that we are careering towards a world where the gig economy impinges not just on delivery / taxi drivers but on Fortune 500 executives, we should expect to be swapping roles on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
The future of work is less about a career for life, but more about a series (or even ‘parallel’) of gigs that help us develop as humans and in turn help our fellow humans. I am confident that this is how it will play out because, ultimately if we are to avoid a species implosion, we don’t have a choice.