The real future of work
Definitions of work typically assume that there is a worker involved. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, ‘work is defined as an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.’ This definition first started to fray around 3.3 million years ago when the first stone tools were created. Of course a worker was still needed, but technology was required to get the job done. Over the millennia, technology has played an ever-growing role in the world of work.
Today technology has obviated the need for certain roles, eg. fruit picker, ticket collector, typist, foreign exchange salesperson. It’s not just roles. Some sectors are gravitating towards full automation.
We are all familiar with digital disruption and the need for transformation and automation. Biological disruption in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic is dismantling industries as I write. The associated uncertainty is giving rise to the gig economy, characterised by economic precariousness. The media would have us believe that AI will increasingly scoop up what is left of the work, making humans economically irrelevant. So is it ‘game over’ for humans in respect of work? Should we be cursing ourselves for that fateful decision to augment ourselves all those years back.
Who would have guessed back then that at some point the tool would no longer need a wielder?
What about my career?
There is also that self-identity matter of careers. The modern-day notion of a career: post-room to boardroom has been around circa 300 years. But careers have been around for circa a millennium in the form of guilds with their apprentice – journeyman – master progression. So are we converging on a career cataclysm?
Let’s first assess where we are in terms of human work and then explore how we move forward if future generations are to avoid a life of ‘idle hands’.
We have the following layers:
Unemployable – People in this layer typically live in economic blackspots, where families have suffered generations of unemployment. They have thus never experienced employment and the constraints under which workers must subject themselves to in order to stay employed.
Unemployed – These people have work experience. They now find themselves out of work because their skills are no longer required by their employer or the related skills can be acquired at lower cost. Again automation might well be a factor here, along with other forces including globalisation, demographics, politics and demand fluctuations.
Factory worker – Factory work is characterised by the presence of materials and their progression from a raw state to a finished product. Factories often sit along a supply chain. The factory of one company assembles the car, the factory of another assembles catalytic converters. Factories produce physical things. Factory workers must adhere to the operations manual. Efficiency is the goal and so deviations from the process will not be tolerated.
Office worker – These workers are in many ways no different to factory workers despite the absence of conveyor belts, boiler suits and hard hats. You might say that the Internet is the conveyor belt and data is the material under process. Like factory workers process adherence is paramount to the operation of the office. Offices might be considered as well-furnished factories. Office workers generally are paid more than factory workers because there is slightly more latitude for cognitive discretion. Thus investment banking traders are paid more than those that paint on the realistic finishing touches to silicone sex toys.
Cognitive worker – Some workers are paid to create or operate in environments where a process manual is of limited value. Their brain needs to be fully alert if they are to achieve success. This is why the market for daydreaming steeplejacks is non-existent. Oddly, cognitive workers are both the highest and lowest paid workers. Product designers and architects are well remunerated. Care workers and call centre staff are not. By the way, if you think call centre workers are not cognitively engaged, then wait till you have a challenging issue to be resolved and your only path of recourse is via a chatbot. This is perhaps a reflection of a society that places profit above people.
Artificial intelligence (AI) today is overhyped It might well be labelled ‘artificial artificial intelligence’ (A2I). Machine learning (ML) is enabling us to do impressive things but general and even conscious AI are some way off. Nonetheless A2I is making an impact on the world of work and that will only increase. The only way to stay ahead of this technology bulldozer is by doing work that makes full use of our cognitive capacity.
Humans have the upper hand cognitively. Admittedly we can’t process massive datasets instantaneously (though in many cases nor can AI), but we can pick up on weak signals in very small datasets, eg. facial expressions.
Our ability to think in constructs, link concepts and generally be more creative are also positive differentiators. The problem is that most work is not optimised to capitalise on these capabilities. Sadly, neither are many workers preferring to go through the motions, sleep working their way through life with comfort and convenience being their primary desires.
Over time, cognitive work will be the only work where humans will have a role to play. It’s sayonara if you are a factory or office worker. Wearing a suit and using a laptop might make you a knowledge worker but knowing isn’t enough anymore. And those that manage such workers are already marked for extinction.
What do we do with the rest?
Surprisingly perhaps, the unemployables will be significantly impacted by this emerging reality. You would think that unemployable during the industrial era would dovetail seamlessly into unemployable in the digital age? But there’s a twist. Unemployable people do not suffer the industrial era condition of ‘comfort with compliance’. From an industrial era recruitment perspective, unpredictable ‘cogs’ are not good for the smooth running of the factory machine. Hence economic blackspots were not typically targeted by talent scouts.
However, being unemployable typically requires a sharpness of mind to survive in a society that has essentially ignored them. This results in a street smartness or quickness of wit that makes such people perfect for the cognitive economy.
I am of course generalising. But it cannot be denied that the unemployable pool comprises people who are anything but process-robots and who in many cases live by their guile. Their brains are fully engaged during working hours, despite the lack of work. Again these people, despite their lack of qualifications and blue-chip corporate experience, or more specifically because of this lack, are strong candidates for the new world of work. Those of us who are qualified to the gills and have a CV that looks like a stock picker’s buy list, and who have worked very hard to achieve this, are the most vulnerable going forward. This is somewhat ironic, given the advice you received from respected authority figures in your formative years.
I believe the future of human work boils down to four categories:
- Culturist – Creates work that will benefit society for the longer term.
- Artists, authors.
- Designer – Develops abstract models that form the basis of new products, services, experiences and journeys.
- Building architect, policy maker.
- Engineer – Takes these abstract models and turn them into reality.
- Legal engineer, construction engineer.
- Carer – Ensures that the consumer experience is optimised.
- Teacher, policeman, account manager, nurse.
Culturists have always had the problem of doing great work and remaining penniless. It is even more galling when your creativity is discovered posthumously. JK Rowling has mastered the art of creative and commercial success, but she is relatively rare. We need to ensure that this important category is not solely populated with over-pampered individuals who as a result of being unable to thrive in the other categories have ended up here and who despite their lack of creativity are unlikely to become destitute because of the Bank of Mum and Dad.
Humans outperform technology in all these categories, at least for now. The associated roles each have their own required traits, capabilities and skills. So even the most streetwise unemployable person will have to undergo some sort of development before they can become economically productive.
Educationalists will need to consider new approaches where the primary goal of the intervention is not to break the spirit of the individual, thus making them less of a HR headache when they eventually enter the world of work.
But this might be too tall an order. Possibly we need to write off unemployable people above a certain age and start afresh with the next generation. Again by reengineering primary education to be less about control and more about cognitive application. In any case, we should provide a mechanism for everybody to have access to the education they need to become economically active. Failure to adapt to this new approach should be regarded as a failure of the system, rather than the student.
Ultimately, no matter how learning friendly the educational programme might be, some people will simply not cope. This would be indicative of a cognitive disability and so some sort of welfare model would be required to ensure such unfortunate people can still meaningfully partake in society.
Yes, but what about me?
You might be thinking, addressing the unemployable strata of society is all well and good, but what about me with all my qualifications, excellent attendance record and enviable employment history.
Well here’s the bad news: the market no longer values qualifications and experience, it simply values value.
That’s not to say you cannot deliver value, but that you are not in any way entitled to employment simply because of your industrial era track record. You too will need to join the programme.
But what if I am a lawyer? The reality is that in due course, we won’t need lawyers. Algorithms will handle that. But we will need legal engineers to tune the algorithms and generally carry out the exception handling of unusual cases. It’s the same with all professions. Once actors have articulated a set of words, facial expressions and movements, they will no longer be physically needed in the production of a film.
Ultimately, we all need to map a path from where we are today to one of the aforementioned future work categories. You may have a head start in becoming a medical engineer, because in the past you were a doctor. But the path from school leaver to becoming a medical engineer will be quite different to the path taken by doctors.
We might want to reconsider how we remunerate people in this post-industrial world. The industrial era remuneration model is predicated on profitability, often with little regard for society and the environment.
Perhaps we could subdivide salary in respect of the workers contribution in respect of:
- Consumer delight – It makes sense to correlate the fortunes of the employee with the delight of the market.
- Risk taking – The extent to which the worker is stretching the envelope in the quest for ‘better’.
- Personal development – The extent to which the worker has acquired new skills.
- Development of others – The extent to which the worker has supported the development of others.
This could work well for both a social enterprise and the most-profit hungry societally indifferent organisation.
We can tackle the societal / environmental impact of work by how the employer’s organisation is taxed. Organisations that deliver long term positive societal changes will incur lower taxes, whilst avaricious sociopathic profit monsters will be taxed to the hilt. This would require a significant shift in governance away from corporatism and would also require the dismantling of the lobbying industry. So not an easy fix.
Clearly, we have work to do to repoint our societies for the post-industrial world. Some governments will not take the medicine and will simply react by adding increasingly more people to welfare support. This is not sustainable. Though there is an outside chance that technology will be sufficiently self-standing to maintain the economy without the need for humans. But that is unlikely to happen if the social unrest that precedes it leads to social collapse, where failed states become the norm.
I feel it is the role of the government to alert their citizens to the reality of what lies ahead and to provide the means to enable citizens to prepare and adapt accordingly.
Society needs a reset and that has economic implications for all of us. The first step is for government leaders to realise that radical action is required. However the underlying problem is that the typical tenure of a government leader is too short for such consideration, much less execution. This is perhaps both a commercial and CSR opportunity for the private sector?