This week I’ve re-worked a post from last August in the first of a two-part consideration on the future of work. Today, it’s envisioning a workforce where more of us will be working for ourselves, selling increments of our time and talent in what amounts to a series of paying jobs. While it’s a response to the loss of “traditional jobs” to automation, it also holds the promise of greater autonomy, abundance and prosperity if we choose to value the right things by standing up for and safeguarding our human priorities along the way.
The future of work is being designed today. Perhaps the most exciting part is that each one of us has a role to play–is part of a broader negotiation–about how that future should unfold.
1 An Optimistic Vision
The future of work has never looked more abundant, although many don’t see it that way.
Some are busy projecting job losses from automation and brain-replacing artificial intelligence, telling us we’ll all be idled and that much poorer for it. Or they’re identifying the brainpower careers that will remain so we can point ourselves or our tuition payments in their direction. For these forecasters, the future of work is at best the pursuit of diminishing returns.
Some of the most pessimistic (or politically ambitious) among them have been formulating universal income plans to replace today’s more limited safety nets. They tell us that a stipend like this will liberate us to pursue our passions since new government checks will cover our basic necessities. This seems misguided to me. As George Orwell noted, some utopians simply cannot “imagine happiness except in the form of relief, either from effort or pain.”
An alternate vision focuses on innovations that could enable us to do more and better work while unlocking greater prosperity.
One of the enabling technologies that is already ushering in this future is blockchain. Like the protocols for transmitting data across digital networks led to the Internet, blockchain-based software applications could fundamentally change the ways that we work.
A blockchain is a web-based chain of connections, most commonly with no central monitor or regulator. The technology enables every block in the chain to record data that can be seen and reviewed by every other block, maintaining its accuracy through its security protections and transparency. Everyone with access can see what every other connection has recorded in a digital ledger or transaction log. The need for and costs of a “middleman” (like a bank) and other impediments (like legal and financial gatekeepers) are avoided. Unlike traditional recordkeeping, there is no central database for meddlers to corrupt.
Blockchain technology supports the sale and use of digital currencies (like bitcoin) and just as importantly, “smart contracts” that enforce the rules about how value is exchanged by parties when they reach agreement. Ethereum utilizes its blockchain platform to host most of the projects that attract, manage and pay for time and talent in decentralized ways today. Tantalizing glimpses into this future are also available at the social network Steemit and on the payment platform Bitwage.
Steemit’s uses a digital currency called Steem that you can redeem for cash for your contributions to the social network’s “hivemind.” For example, users are paid for posts, for the number of people liking their posts, for how quickly you spot another post that becomes popular, that is, for the value of your contributions to the network. Users are funding jobs like travel blogging while they crisscross the world and, reportedly, one early adopter has already earned more than a million dollars worth of Steem. In more traditional buying-and-selling transactions, Bitwage’s payment application allows employees or freelancers to receive their wages in bitcoin without requiring either their employers or clients to use a digital currency exchange.
For work-based ecosystems built on blockchains to evolve further, they will need to become faster and more scalable without sacrificing the security and decentralization that are their hallmarks. In this pursuit, Ethereum and a raft of competitors are experimenting with a protocol called Lightening that can settle millions of digital currency transactions more quickly and cheaply but that needs “to go off the blockchain” in order to do so. These companies are also exploring structural changes to basic blockchain technology. The prize that drives them is an online platform that is durable enough to support a global marketplace where every kind of work can be bought and sold.
Let’s call it a work2benefit exchange.
Because your time and talent has value and is in limited supply, you could sell it in a market that’s vibrant enough to buy it. A blockchain-based exchange might easily handle transactions that involve very small as well as larger, project-oriented jobs. Because you have capabilities that you’ve sold before and others that you’ve given away because there was no way to be compensated, an exchange like this could help secure prior income streams while providing you with new ones. Such a marketplace would easily dwarf Walmart’s in size without the downsides of a company middleman taking his profits, making you keep his work schedule, commute to his place of business or contribute to his overhead.
Previously unrealized income streams—even small ones—will be particularly welcome.
Suppose you’re asked to provide 5 minutes of feedback on your recent doctor’s visit. Your scarce resources are the time and judgment that you might not provide if you weren’t being paid for them. Their one-time value might be modest, but as the demands for your input keep coming, payments for it will add up. A blockchain exchange could pay you for editing a resume in 20 minutes or designing a company’s logo in 2 hours; providing traffic-cam information on heavily traveled routes you are already taking; matchmaking acquaintances with service providers that have something they need; selling your personal data to marketers who want you to buy their products; maybe even a government incentive for completing your tax returns or voting in the next election. Similarly, when I need the benefit of someone else’s work, this marketplace could connect me to it, even if the time and talent is half a world away.
Work2benefit exchanges that can handle incremental transactions like these haven’t been built yet, let alone populated by enough buyers and sellers to make them viable—but they’re coming. You’ll still need your judgment, vision and hustle, but before long it will be possible to make a living in a marketplace where you (and maybe billions of others) will each be blocks in a global blockchain. Many people will continue to work in groups. Offices and factories won’t vanish. But traditional jobs that once came with pensions, health benefits and provable credit will become increasingly scarce. The stripped-down, “independent contractor” work that’s left will almost certainly be supplemented by new ways of getting paid for your human resources.
Blockchain and related technologies will unlock new categories of personal wealth and autonomy. They could fill the future of work with greater abundance for us to share with one another. Tomorrow’s challenge won’t be finding enough work to make a living but reimagining and re-bundling job securities like health care and creditworthiness around all the new jobs we’ll be doing. Next week, I’ll introduce you to some of the people and companies that are helping to build these protections around our increasingly autonomous workforce.
2. The Future Begins With a Vision
A vision should linger and inspire for long enough that it fixes in the minds eye where it becomes part of the imagination, a cause for hope, and fuel that’s needed to overcome the obstacles that will always stand in its way. Here, in brief, are some of the challenges that a bold-enough vision will need to see us through, starting with the inevitable turf wars and technology challenges:
-There is resistance from the mainstream banking community to digital currencies and the exchanges that convert them into cash for gig economy paychecks. For example, a story in today’s Wall Street Journal chronicles the banking controversy that has already embroiled one digital currency exchange. Some of the current banking industry will need to be disrupted so that new “fin-tech” mechanisms can take their place.
-There are technology challenges to making digital platforms large enough to handle the smart contracts that will bring all these new buyers and sellers of work together. The ecosystem of applications will need to be robust enough to attract, manage and compensate the sale of goods and talent in a global marketplace. To meet these challenges, new applications are being developed outside of blockchain’s architecture (with its attendant security risks and middleman costs) while some of the fundamentals behind blockchain technology itself are being reconsidered. If you’re interested in a deeper dive, more about blockchain’s “scalability” hurdles can be found here.
-Managing yourself to a stable, reliable income from many jobs in a way that meets your needs and your family’s needs requires its own expertise. The freedom to decide when to work and how often to work is liberating, but as the recent strikes by Uber drivers illustrate, it isn’t easy to cobble a patchwork of compensated time “into a living” while also selling your services at “a market price.” We’ll all have to learn more about how to put our livelihoods together while finding new ways to bargain effectively for what we need from each one of our work-based exchanges.
-Not everyone is naturally suited to be an entrepreneur, so we’ll have to learn how to embrace additional parts of our entrepreneurial spirit too. Working for yourself involves not only doing your paying jobs but also functioning as your back and front offices by doing your own marketing, accounting, taxes, establishing and monitoring your co-working relationships, maintaining your skill levels, and determining the prices for your goods and services. Most 9-5 jobs didn’t require you to do all these things, but as jobs like this disappear, you’ll be doing more of them yourself—with both the upsides and downsides that new opportunities for growth and mastery can bring.
Thinking through the hurdles hopefully reminds us of the promises. We’ll thrive with greater freedom, convenience and efficiency by working where, when and how we want to. We’ll be paid for increments of our time that we used to give away for free. We’ll increasingly stand both behind our work and out in front of it in ways that will make “what we do” an even more powerful demonstration of who we are and what is important to us.
This future of work is being written today.
We’re building it with our ideas and conversations as new ecosystems gradually evolve around it.
What comes next will be exciting and daunting, both creative and destructive, as the familiar is replaced by something that few of us have experienced before.
This future can have a human face, an opportunity for workers, families and communities to flourish, as long as we don’t leave the ideas and conversations about how that can happen to someone else.
This post was adapted from my May 19, 2019 newsletter. When you subscribe, a new newsletter/post will be delivered to your inbox every Sunday morning.