This topic has been done to death in recent years, yet we see no change in peoples’ planning or actions for their future working lives. Even policymakers remain in a stance that could be best defined as ‘inert’ in the face of the coming challenges. One must ask why.
From artificial intelligence, robots, and automation, to universal income and the inevitable new division of labor, this discussion is becoming more and more important; not just for the future of work, but for the future in general
“Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased.” — Adam Smith
Of course, Adam Smith was quite correct in his day. Today, however, we have an entirely different economic and monetary system in place, which, some might argue, has begun to undervalue labor as a concept as we approach this transition to a more automated and yes, labor-free future.
I always thought that the word “work” represented a desire for freedom and the ability to rise and create value. As such, ever since the first people used their skills to exchange value with each other, we can’t talk about the future of work without talking about the future of the economy. We originally designed the economy as a set of tools to help individuals to better manage their resources. While some will define “resources” as a stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization to function effectively, (Oxford English Dictionary). I tend to like the idea that resources are a set of actions and collaboration strategies we devise, adopt and used to better re-imagine ourselves and push the boundaries of productivity and efficiency.
The economic model that we have been using is the deductive system we use to reward the inductive work of the body and mind to generate growth. The relationship between the system and the worker has traditionally been defined by the tools developed to improve the desired outcome of the task in hand. This is where change will be felt the most.
Since the invention of the axe, through Watt’s steam engine, sewage systems, elevators and shipping containers, to screens, smartphones, processing power and machine learning, it has always been actions that were reasoned in creativity, imagination, and invention. Human curiosity has literally designed and built the very world we live in. And now, when we enter a new era in human and societal evolution, it’s more crucial than ever that we do not lose this reasoning.
We live in a world where technology is augmenting almost every aspect of our lives and enabling us to enhance our virtual presence using code. Empathy, freedom, well-being, intelligence, education, governance, creativity, economics, and politics are primary benefactors of the exponential growth and impact of technology.
For the first time in the history of mankind, natural evolution has reached the zenith of its potential. There is no place to go from a biological perspective. Yes, we might become a little faster and jump a bit higher, but we have reached a point where our organic structure just cannot evolve much more, or fast enough, to make any real difference to our lives. Even with genetic modifications – eventually – we will hit the limit of our evolutionary potential.
Limited mental abilities
It is not only our organic structure that is facing evolutionary ends; our mental abilities are also severely limited. This is evident in the narratives through which we create the surrounding reality. From geopolitics and global c-suites, we have managed the world with a limited understanding of the challenges that lie ahead and thereby under-utilized our evolutionary potential in almost every arena.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions given the parade of tech celebrities and the list of studies, surveys, and op-eds that present us with apocalyptic scenarios for the future of work:
- “AI will make jobs kind of pointless” – Elon Musk
- 75 million jobs are going to disappear. Robots will take over our factories. Millions of truck drives will lose their jobs.
- Oxford academics, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, estimated that 47% of American jobs are at high risk of automation by the mid-2030s.
- McKinsey Global Institute: between 40 million and 160 million women worldwide may need to transition between occupations by 2030.
- Oxford Economics: up to 20 million manufacturing jobs worldwide will be lost to robots by 2030.
Alternately, we can take a deep breath and understand that automation and algorithms will define the future of work. At the end of the day, machines are good at finding creative ways to perform better in human environments, and as the economy should be driven by growth. We shouldn’t fight technology – rather find a means to partner with it and together cross the Rubicon and define a new beginning.
A new beginning
“Change always comes in waves. While the wave itself carries uncertainty, the gaps in between are filled of hope.” – Unknown
I meet many entrepreneurs and often discuss the importance of curiosity in their journey, and with the same breath, I remind them that curiosity is not mastery. You can’t learn entrepreneurship: it’s an emotion more than anything. The trick is to harvest that emotion to drive your learning and experimentation. We are nothing without knowledge – it defines our ability to navigate life. And today, more than ever, knowledge determines our place alongside technology.
Our current education system was designed to take us from the school yard into factories. As such, it’s essential that we open-up the education system to the idea of knowledge through experience and experimentation.
No more gold watches
World renowned author and educationalist, Todd Rose has the right idea when it comes to the required adaptations our educational system faces: “It’s going to require that we have a focus on life-long learning because it is next to impossible to imagine that whatever we’re equipping you to do right now, that that skill set will be somewhat immune from disruption. You know, my grandfather literally worked for one company all his life and got a gold watch at the end. The odds of that happening for you are slim to none.”
There is a need to link business, academia, and policymakers, to establish a new playground; a sandbox where the next generation of teachers, engineers, businesspeople, political leaders, lawyers, artists, nurses, and doctors can find new ways to become better at what they do rather than simply being replaced by technology. A sandbox where we experiment with the idea that thus far we have used technology to upgrade ourselves – maybe it’s now time to use our humanity to upgrade technology. After all, what is the point of technology if it does not enable us to become better individuals and citizens?
The current generation of decision-makers base their values on the principles of efficiency. As such, they are locked in an endless loop of “thought fixation” regarding their views on the environment, sustainability, work-life balance, technology, and more. We live in a world that is continually being modified, yet rarely transformed. The questions we keep asking ourselves are questions that were relevant to a reality that obeyed the laws of physics. And we’re ignoring the fact that most of our economic interaction occurs in a reality that is anchored in code, where physics is obsolete.
We can easily list the skills that today’s children will need to successfully navigate the future:
- Critical thinking
- Analytical thinking
- The ability to solve complex problems
- Emotion and passion
But why is that list different from the skills we have always needed to excel in life and rise to the apex of our potential? The truth is it’s not!
Richard Gerver, another world-renowned educationalist, author, and speaker, understands this challenge more than most: “We no longer need a mass populace educated just to a certain technical level to function efficiently on factory floors. We now require a workforce that are more entrepreneurial, that are more dynamic, more creative, more innovative, more collaborative. To explore the spaces that have been created by the time-saving devices that robots and early AI have created in factory work spaces. But the challenge, the problem in a way, is that we’re still educating people en-masse to fill jobs in those factories and in those offices which are largely technical and about routine cognition. And so, we’re starting to see the early stages of a major clash between educated people and the jobs that are available for them. And we have to understand as a society, and therefore bleeding down into education, that we are no longer preparing people for a world that existed twenty, thirty, forty years ago. We’re living in a post-industrial age, and that means the number of jobs in large factories and large office floors is going to diminish.”
So, we know what the challenge is and that we cannot avert it. What should we do about it? How should our thinking differ as we search for more palatable pathways forward?
We need a set of new ideas:
- We can’t use code the same way we use bricks
- We need to move from managing for-profit, to managing for impact
- Experience should be measured by the quality of choices and not by the number of its functions
- Don’t confuse symptoms with the appearance and root cause
- Assets need to build up into properties and capital to deliver value to society
- Think of technology as a legal system. The legal system was designed to be used (and sometimes abused) by lawyers – entrepreneurs use technology – technology is never the end goal, but simply a path
- Innovation is an ecosystem, not a job title
- Engaging in iterative change ensures you follow the pack as opposed to reap the rewards of being a thought leader
- You can never look into tomorrow using yesterday’s eyes
The intricacy of behaviors between humanity and reality is about to enter an unclear space. To navigate this space, we must remember that only when we face the unknowns can we excel beyond imagination; that fear is the spawn of ignorance. If we only consider what has already happened – or worse, what is currently happening – we can’t design our collective tomorrow. We must learn from the past, be present at the moment, and let those insights allow us to think differently about the future and its endless possibilities.
7 advices to build a better tomorrow
My advice for those who are willing to embrace that challenge to build a better tomorrow:
- Your careers should be driven by an internal need and not the predefined expectations of your chosen career
- It’s okay to be unstructured. When you’re too structured and play defence by the book, you’ll lose
- It’s okay to take time off. It’s in the gaps we often notice opportunities
- The traditional education system can’t teach you everything (think how Apple, Microsoft, FB, and others were built)
- Learning doesn’t end when you finish studying. It’s a constant journey of self-discovery that will last you a lifetime
- Learning is a painful process. That is why most adults don’t do it anymore:
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” Aeschylus
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you choose to study. Let it be engineering, nursing, computer science, art, or teaching. Make sure you’re happy. Compensation for work is always an incentive – as long as you never compromise your moral values for money. The time you spend working is not as important as why you spend it working… And remember, life is short. At least until we can figure out how to transcend it.