The work revolution is coming. Are we ready for it?

The Quest for Things

Our lives are but a self-serving, addictive quest with one objective– obtaining Stuff.

We spend our waking lives producing it, processing it or distributing it in return for money so that, when we are walking the aisles of the supermarket (or click the product pages on our computers), we can consummate the ritual by spending our money on it.

Stuff is the bedrock of modern civilization and work is our endeavor to participate in an infinite race to acquire it.

The din of vehicles at rush hour, bumper to bumper traffic, and cacophony of honks, screeches and angry abuses in the air are all scenes, noises and smells that substantiate this endeavor called Work. So are the shiny hoardings that stand over us like prophets; the little pixelated inducements that pop-up in screens large and small; the glorious and hypnotizing seductions that interrupt our television programs or the full-page color-filled orgies that stare at us from the newspapers.

Stuff, and consequently Work, has its tentacles wrapped all around us.

But are we toiling away for a mirage? Is the game rigged to make a few very rich while the rest of us are given just enough of a taste to keep us mesmerized?

The Current Model of Work

Work (as in ‘I am going to work, honey’ or in ‘My boss at work is a prick’), as we know it today, is hard-aggregation of the efforts of many towards the purpose of a few. It exists in a delicate ecosystem that consists of:

1. The right environment that needs work to happen — an environment of consumption and ever-increasing need of wealth

2. The right structure where the hard-aggregation of work can happen — Corporate entities with self-regulating pyramid structures offering inducements and penalties

In a sense the pyramid structure of self-regulation is one of the most critical components to sustain work. If you think about it, it’s not too different from the much derided pyramid scheme in a multi-level marketing scam.

Set up levels for people to compete, pepper those levels with inducements and put people across these levels and you can have them competing without a pause to question why they are doing what they do and whom they are benefiting.

It’s a model that was refined essentially during the Industrial revolution (although the Egyptians were using the same pyramid structure of slaves to build actual pyramids way before that). Efficiency, mass-manufacturing and scale became the mantra and it opened up an economy that was based on production and consumption. The mills and factories needed large assembly of workers, with matching skill sets to pursue repeatable, mechanical tasks (thanks Henry Ford). This provided several new jobs. Senior workers were then needed to track worker efficiency. Managers were needed to manage the senior workers. And so on, the pyramid built itself. Standard of living grew and lot of wealth was created and teeny-tiny bits of it was distributed.

In a sense it was a great model that kick-started our rapid journey into the modern era. It extended into the information age (which continued to have a significant number of industrial-era jobs) by morphing into cubicles and desks. The t-shirt wearing, code-making fellows hacked it just a little bit, to include free-food and work-from-home. But the pyramid stayed. Many toiled away in the benefit of a few.

But in the age of information, it is a cumbersome, expensive model and it is eating away at our souls.

A Globe Full of Unhappy Workers

Most of today’s working world is unhappy. It takes a mental and physical toll on us in the form of stress and poor-health. More importantly, it owns our time, letting us borrow it occasionally (with guilt) to spend with our loved ones, see the world or do the things we may truly love.

There is a reason for this. The industrial era’s pursuit of efficiency created a structure that required assembly and focus on work for fixed periods of time (in the form of shifts). After these shifts, the workers went home and forgot all about it until they had to do it all over again. The information era of work, on the other hand, required the workers to take up result-oriented tasks that required exercising their judgement, knowledge and even their own processes. With the focus on output rather than inputs, work was suddenly limitless — unbound by space-time. When all the work was in your head, you can never check out.

By suffering the rigidity of the industrial era (come to offices and spend large hours) as well as the pervasiveness of information era (you can go home but work will follow you), work has become the sole-occupation for our generation.

And it is catching up to us. Company-men don’t exist anymore. We are cynical about the places we work in and look at it as protracted transactions. The costs of retaining employees are escalating for companies. Perks, on top of salaries, are getting more and more outrageous. Free beer, Foosball tables, on site massages and concierge services are desperate attempts by an outdated structure to remain relevant in the new era.

But the sad truth is that most of us have been snared in early. Schools, having bought into the system, churn out wretched, salary-bots, who are entrapped into this intricate mesh and feel petrified to think of alternatives. Besides, what are the alternatives? It’s a vicious circle where because there aren’t enough outside the system, enough alternative opportunities don’t exist and vice versa.

The only thing keeping us distracted from this sordid exercise is the enticement of a stimulus-filled, consumption inducing world. We spray what wealth we earn to buy Stuff. And we are in need of more and more wealth to spray.

What will Transform Work?

Technology often provides us an egress from existing economic and social structures. It has happened multiple times in the past.

The 20st century saw the rise of the information age. Through the resulting explosion of information, ideas and communication, the world shrunk and collaboration took on a whole new meaning. It has impacted workplaces by creating a host of new roles, requiring employees to be multi-dimensional, flattening out pyramids, creating smaller teams and creating a globally connected workforce. But it did not quite revolutionize the work structures completely.

This is perhaps, because, the bigger revolution is yet to come. There are multiple reasons why it may be coming soon.

For the first time, we have generations of workers who are truly and completely born in the modern information age where information arbitrage has become minimal.

This has engendered immense power and flexibility for the employee. They rightfully look at workplaces with expectation rather than servitude. They’ve discovered the endless possibilities of working as individuals or small groups rather than be part of a large, rigged game. They’ve not experienced a sparse, frugal world and do not operate with that fear. Consumption is such a part of life that it is no longer a glamorous wonder pill. Besides, the cost of consumption is dropping steadily.

We can see the shifting rules in play already. Our parents had one job through most of their lives. Generation Y, on the other hand will go through at least half-a-dozen jobs through their lives. The average Millennial is expected to change twenty jobs in her lifetime.

The second reason is that we are on the cusp of explosion of automation. As employee costs keep spiraling and technologies that support automation improve (like machine learning, robotics, etc), we will see companies adopt automation more aggressively. This will wean away large sections of employees from jobs that are even remotely repeatable and can be algorithmized. Then, employees will be forced to look at alternative avenues for the human population to provide value and this would not take the form of Work as we know it.

The third reason is that we currently have several high-impact technologies on a collision course to usher in the golden age with the merging of information and infrastructure.

Developments in AI, Virtual Reality / Augmented Reality, Internet of Things, Cloud, etc. will essentially meet to virtualize our physical world and thus uncover whole new levels of efficiency.

Work will transform exponentially in the coming decade.

What Will New Work Look Like?

In 1779, threatened by the industrial revolution, an enraged young man, called Ned Ludd, afraid that the machines would steal away jobs, destroyed ‘stocking frames’ that mechanized knitting and thus created a new movement (Luddite) that resisted technology. A similar narrative is emerging about the automation revolution that is about to hit us. Companies which automate will break-away from the pack that clings to the traditional models. The market will self-correct to make automation the norm however much the traditional, vested workforce try to demonize it.

As large, static structures get automated, the definition of jobs for people will change. At any given time, it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone working on six completely different projects in parallel. We will define work in hours, days and weeks and not in years. Freelancers will increase. Collaboration will be enabled through common creatives-like structures rather than fixed, corporation-enabled structures. Teams will be diverse and more global with more niche-skilled and passionate workers taking up the right parts of a larger transformation.

We may enter a phase where monetary value will not be the sole determinant in the pursuit of projects and tasks.

It’s a world that sounds more unstable and scary for those embedded in the current systems. Even today, the previous generations look at the Millenials as a sophomoric bunch with a sense of entitlement. In this new world, people would dip in and out of work seeking long periods of non-monetary endeavors that provide enriching experiences.

To be successful in such an environment will require a lens of constantly learning new skills, exercising creativity and an approach focused on problem solving. Education will eventually change starting with college education and percolating downwards. Digital tools and connectivity will be used to perpetuate education as an ongoing activity rather than a one-off period of a few years.

There would be no transactional, repeatable roles. Eventually, the problems that get tackled will be bigger and more impactful like solving our energy crisis, fixing Earth’s climate, curing the most debilitating diseases, alleviating poverty and perhaps even colonizing space. The world would need people who can create visions for the future, are multi-dimensional, can collaborate to achieve common goals.

Corporate drones, well-versed with 2x2 charts and seeking the nirvana of zero-inbox, will become wasteful husks from the past.

All of this would be disruptive. Like Ned Ludd, a lot of us will be scared by the prospect of this change and lash out. Our education systems, which have the perfect opportunity to prepare the new generation for this environment, have grossly dropped the ball. We may instead go through this the hard way, with heart burn, job losses and temporary blips in quality of life. But the march of the technology will ensure that eventually the world will settle into a new work order.

Will it be the Utopian 15-hour work week with abundant leisure that John Maynard Keynes predicted? We’ll have to wait and watch.