We’ve just entered a new year and it’s likely that many of us are thinking about the opportunities and challenges we’ll be facing in the work weeks ahead. Accordingly, it seems a good time to consider what lies ahead with some forward-thinkers who’ve also been busy looking into the future of our work.
In an end-of-the-year article in Forbes called “Re-Humanizing Work: You, AI and the Wisdom of Elders,” Adi Gaskell links us up with three provocative speeches about where our work is headed and what we might do to prepare for it. As he’s eager to tell us, his perspective on the people we need to be listening to is exactly where it needs to be:
“I am a free range human who believes that the future already exists, if we know where to look. From the bustling Knowledge Quarter in London, it is my mission in life to hunt down those things and bring them to a wider audience. I am an innovation consultant and writer, and…my posts will hopefully bring you complex topics in an easy to understand form that will allow you to bring fresh insights to your work, and maybe even your life.”
I’ve involuntarily enlisted this “free-range human” as my guest curator for this week’s post.
In his December article, Gaskell profiles speeches that were given fairly recently by John Hagel, co-chair of Deloitte’s innovation center speaking at a Singularity University summit in Germany; Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz speaking at the Royal Society in London; and Chip Conley an entrepreneur and self-proclaimed “disrupter” speaking to employees at Google’s headquarters last October. In the discussion that follows, I’ll provide video links to their speeches so you can consider what they have to say for yourselves along with “my take-aways” from some of their advice.
We are all running into the future of our work. As the picture above suggests, some are confidently in the lead while others of us (like that poor kid in the red shirt) may simply be struggling to keep up. It will be a time of tremendous change, risk and opportunity and it won’t be an easy run for any of us.
My conviction is that forward movement at work is always steadier when you are clear about your values, ground your priorities in your actions, and remain aware of the choices (including the mistakes) that you’re making along the way. Hagel, Stiglitz and Conley are all talking about what they feel are the next necessary steps along this value-driven path.
1. The Future of Work– August 2017
When John Hagel spoke about the future of work at a German technology summit, he was right to say that most people are gripped by fear. We’re “in the bulls-eye of technology” and paralyzed by the likelihood that our jobs will either be eliminated or change so quickly that we will be unable to hold onto them. However, Hagel goes on to argue (persuasively I think) that the same machines that could replace or reduce our work roles could just as likely become “the catalysts to help us restore our humanity.”
For Hagel, our fears about job elimination and the inability of most workers to avoid this looming joblessness are entirely justified. That’s because today’s economy—and most of our work—is aimed at producing what he calls “scalable efficiency.” This economic model relentlessly drives the consolidation of companies while replacing custom tasks with standardized ones wherever possible for the sake of the bottom line.
Because machines can do nearly everything more efficiently than humans can, our concerns about being replaced by robots and the algorithms that guide them are entirely warranted. And it is not just lower skilled jobs like truckers that will be eliminated en masse. Take a profession like radiology. Machines can already assess the data on x-rays more reliably than radiologists. More tasks that are performed by professionals today will also be performed by machines tomorrow.
Hagel notes that uniquely human aptitudes like curiosity, creativity, imagination, and emotional intelligence are discouraged in a world of scalable efficiency but (of course) it is in this direction that humans will be most indispensible in the future of work. How do we build the jobs of the future around these aptitudes, and do we even want to?
There is a long-standing presumption that most workers don’t want to be curious, creative or imaginative problem-solvers on the job. We’ve presumed that most workers want nothing more than a highly predictable workday with a reliable paycheck at the end of it. But Hagel asks, is this really all we want, or have our educations conditioned us to fit (like replaceable cogs) into an economy that’s based on the scalable efficiency of its workforce? He argues that if you go to any playground and look at how pre-schoolers play, you will see the native curiosity, imagination and inventiveness before it has been bred out of them by their secondary, college and graduate school educations.
So how do companies reconnect us to these deeply human aptitudes that will be most valued in the future of work? Hagel correctly notes that business will never make the massive investment in workforce retraining that will be necessary to recover and re-ignite these problem-solving skills in every worker. Moreover, the drive for scalable efficiency and cost-cutting in most companies will overwhelm whatever initiatives do manage to make it into the re-training room.
Hagel’s alternative roadmap is for companies that are committed to their human workforce to invest in what he calls “the scalable edges” of their business models. These are the discrete parts of any business that have “the potential to become the new core of the institution”—that area where a company is most likely to evolve successfully in the future. Targeted investments in a problem-solving human workforce at these “scalable edges” today will produce a problem-solving workforce that can grow to encompass the entire company tomorrow.
By focusing on worker retraining at a company’s most promising “edges,” Hagel strategically identifies a way to counter the “scalable efficiency” models that will continue to eliminate jobs but refuse to make the investment that’s required to retrain everyone. While traditional jobs will continue to be lost during this transition, and millions of employees will still lose their jobs, Hagel’s approach ensures an eventual future that is powered by human jobs that machines cannot do today and may never be able to do. For him, it’s the fear of machines that drives us to a new business model that re-engages the humanity that we lost in school in the workplace.
I urge you to consider the flow of Hagel’s arguments for yourself. For more of his ideas, a prior newsletter discusses a Harvard Business Review article (which he co-wrote with John Seely Brown) about the benefits of learning that can “scale up.” A closely related post that examines Brown’s commencement address about navigating “the white-water world of work today” can be found here.
*My most important take-aways from Hagel’s talk: Find the most promising, scalable edges of the jobs Im doing. Hone the creative, problem-solving skills that will help me the most in realizing the goals I have set for myself in those jobs. Maintain my continuing value in the workplace by nurturing the skills that machines can never replace.
2. AI and Us– September 2018
Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz begins his talk at London’s Royal Society with three propositions. The first is that artificial intelligence and machine learning are likely to change the labor market in an unprecedented way because of the sheer extent of their disruption. His second proposition is that economic markets do not self-correct in a way that either preserves employment or creates new jobs down the road. His third proposition—and perhaps the most important one—is that there is an inherent “dignity to work” that necessitates government policies that enable everyone who wants to work to have the opportunity to do so.
I agree with each of these propositions, particularly his last one. So if you asked me, the way that Stiglitz was asked by a member of the audience at the end of his talk, about whether he supported governments providing their citizens with “a universal basic income” to offset job elimination as many progressives are proposing, his answer (and mine) would “No.” Instead, we’d argue that governments should be fostering the economic circumstances where everyone who wants to work has the opportunity to do so. It is this opportunity to be productive—and not a new government handout—that rises to the level of basic human right.
Stiglitz argues that new artificial intelligence technologies along with 50 years of hands-off government policies about regulating business (beginning with Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK) have been creating smaller “national pies” that are shared with fewer of their citizens. In a series of charts, he documents the rise of income inequality by showing how wages and economic productivity rose together in most Western economies until the 1980s and have diverged ever since. Labor’s share in the pie has consistently decreased in this timeframe and new technologies like AI are likely to reduce it to even more worrisome levels.
Stiglitz’ proposed solutions include policy making that encourages full employment in addition to fending off inflation, reducing the monopoly power that many businesses enjoy because monopoly restricts the flow of labor, and enacting rules that strengthen workers’ collective bargaining power.
Stiglitz is not a spellbinding speaker, but he is imminently qualified to speak about how the structure of the economy and the policies that maintain it affect the labor markets. You can follow his trains of thought right into the lively Q&A that follows his remarks via the link above. For my part, I’ve been having a continuous conversation about the monopoly power of tech companies like Amazon and the impact of unrestricted power on jobs in newsletter posts like this one from last April as well as on Twitter if you are interested in diving further into the issue.
*My most important take-aways from Stiglitz’ remarks were as follows: since I care deeply about the dignity that work confers, I need (1) to be involved in the political process; (2) to identify and argue in favor of policies that support workers and, in particular, every worker’s opportunity to have a job if she wants one; and (3) to support politicians who advance these policies and oppose those who erroneously claim that when business profits, it follows that we all do.
3. The Making of a Modern Elder – October 2018
The pictures above suggest the run we’re all on towards the future of work. What these pictures don’t convey as accurately are the ages of the runners. This race includes everyone who either wants or needs to keep working into the future.
Chip Conley’s recent speech at Google headquarters is about how a rapidly aging demographic is disrupting the future workforce and how both businesses and younger workers stand to benefit from it. For the first time in American history, there are more people over age 65 than under age 15. With a markedly different perspective, Conley discusses several of the opportunities for companies when their employees work longer as well as how to improve the intergenerational dynamics when as many as five different generations are working together in the same workplace.
Many of Conley’s insights come from his mentoring of Brian Chesky, the founder of AirBnB, and how he brought what he came to call “elder wisdom” to not only Chesky but also AirBnB’s youthful workforce. Conley begins his talk by referencing our long-standing belief that work teams with gender and race diversity tend to be more successful than less diverse teams, which has led companies to support them. However, Conley notes that only 8% of these same companies actively support age diversity.
To enlist that support, he argues that age diversity adds tremendous value at a time of innovation and rapid change because older workers have both perspective and organizational abilities that younger workers lack. Moreover, these older workers comprise an increasingly numerous group, anywhere from age 35 at some Silicon Valley companies to age 75 and beyond in less entrepreneurial industries. What “value” do these older workers provide, and how do you get employers to recognize it?
Part of the answer comes from a changing career path that no longer begins with learning, peaks with earning, and concludes with retirement. For nearly all workers, your ability to evolve, learn, collaborate and counsel others play roles that are continuously being renegotiated throughout your career. For example, as workers age, they may bring new kinds of value by sharing their institutional knowledge with the group, by understanding less of the technical information but more about how to help the group become more productive, and by asking “why” or “what if” questions instead of “how” or simply “what do we do now” in group discussions. Among other things, that is because older workers spend the first half of their careers accumulating knowledge, skills and experience and the second half editing what they have accumulated (namely what is more and less important) given the perspective they have gained.
When you listen to Conley’s talk, make sure that you stay tuned until the Q&A, which includes some of his strongest insights.
*My most important take-aways from his remarks all involve how older workers can continuously establish their value in the workplace. To do so, older workers must (1) right-size their egos about what they don’t know while maintaining confidence in the wisdom they have to offer; (2) commit to continuous learning instead of being content with what they already know; (3) become more interested and curious instead of assuming that either their age or experience alone will make them interesting; and (4) demonstrate their curiosity publically, listen carefully to where those around them are coming from, and become generous at sharing their wisdom with co-workers privately. When we do, companies along with their younger workers will come to value their trusted elders.
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This has been a wide-ranging discussion. I hope it has given you some framing devices to think about your jobs as an increasingly disruptive future rushes in your direction. We are all running with the wind in our faces while trying to get the lay of the land below our feet in this brave new world of work.
Note: this post is adapted from my January 13, 2019 newsletter.