There is a widespread consensus that we’re on the cusp of a workplace revolution that will automate millions of jobs and replace millions of workers.
Among the many questions is whether these displaced workers will still be able to support themselves because technologies that are on the rise, like augmented and artificial intelligence, will spawn millions of new jobs and a new prosperity.
Those fearing that far more jobs will be eliminated than created have argued for fixes like a universal basic income that would place a minimum financial floor under every adult while ensuring that society doesn’t dissolve into chaos. How this safety net would be paid for and administered has always been far less clear in these proposals.
Others are arguing that the automation revolution will usher in a new era of flourishing, with some new jobs maintaining and safeguarding the new automated systems, and many others that we can’t even imagine yet. However, these new programming and maintainence jobs won’t be plentiful enough to replace the “manual” jobs that will be lost in our offices, factories and transportation systems. Other “replacement jobs” might also be scarce. In a post last January, I cited John Hagel’s argument that most new jobs will bunch towards the innovative, the most highly skilled, what he called “the scaling edge” of the job spectrum.
On the other hand, analysts who have considered the automation revolution at McKinsey Global Institute noted in a July, 2019 report that automation will also produce a burst of productivity and profitability within companies, that employees will be able to work more efficiently and reduce their time working (5-hour days or 4- day work weeks) while gaining more leisure time. With more routine tasks being automated, McKinsey estimates that the growing need to customize products and services for consumers with more time on their hands will create new companies and an avalanche of new jobs to serve them. At the same time, demands for more customization of existing products and services will create new jobs that require “people skills” in offices and on factory floors.
As we stand here today, it is difficult to know whether we should share Hagel’s concern or McKinsey’s optimism.
Predicting the likely impacts at the beginning of a workplace revolution is hardly an exact science. To the extent that history is a teacher, those with less education, fewer high-level skills and difficulties adapting to changing circumstances will be harmed the most. Far less certain are the impacts on the rest of us, whose education, skill levels and adaptability are greater but who may be less comfortable at the “scaling” edges of our industries.
Then there’s the brighter side. Will we be paid the same (or more) as we are today given the greater efficiency and productivity that automation will provide? Will we work less but still have enough disposable income to support all of the new companies and workers who eager to serve our leisure time pursuits? Maybe.
It is also possible to imagine scenarios where millions of people lose their livelihoods and government programs becomes “the last resort” to maintain living standards. Will vast new bureaucracies administer the social safety nets that will be required? Will the taxes on an increasingly productive business sector (with their slimmed down payrolls) be enough to support these programs? Will those who want to work have sufficient opportunities for re-training to fill the new jobs that are created? And even more fundamentally, will we be able to accommodate the shift from free enterprise to something that looks a lot more like a welfare state?
While most of us have been dominated by the daily tremors and upheavals in politics, there are also daily tremors and upheavals that are changing how we work and even whether we’ll be able to work for “a livable wage” if we want to.
As I argued recently in The Next Crisis Will Be a Terrible Thing to Waste, the chance to realize your priorities improve significantly during times of disruption as long as you’re clear about your objectives and have done some tactical planning in advance. As you know, I also believe in the confidence that comes with hope OR that you can change things for the better if you believe enough in the future that you’re ready to act on its behalf.
Beyond finding and continuing to do “good work” in this new economy, I listed my key priorities in that post: policies that support thriving workers, families and communities and not just successful companies; jobs that assume greater environmental stewardship as essential to their productivity; and expanding the notion of what it means for a company “to be profitable” for all of its stakeholders.
From this morning’s perspective—and assuming that the future of work holds at least as much opportunity as misfortune—I’ve been not only thinking about those priorities but also about things I miss today that seemed to exist in the past. In other words, a period of rapid change like this is also a time for what Harvard’s Svetlana Boym once called “reflective nostalgia.” The question is how this singular mindset can fuel our passion for the objectives we want—motivate us to take more risks for the sake of change—in the turbulent days ahead.
Nostalgia isn’t about specific memories. Instead, it’s about a sense of loss, an emptiness today that you feel had once been filled in your life or work.
Unlike the kind of nostalgia that attempts to recreate a lost world from the ruins of the past, reflective nostalgia acknowledges your loss but also the impossibility of your ever recovering that former time. By establishing a healthy distance from an idealized past, reflective nostalgia liberates you to find new ways to gain something that you still need in the very different circumstances of the future that you want.
Because the urge to fill unsatisfied needs is a powerful motivator, I’ve been thinking about needs of mine that once were met, aren’t being met today, but could be satisfied again “if I always keep them in mind” while pursuing my priorities in the future. As you mull over my short list of “nostalgias” and think about yours, please feel free to drop me a line about losses you’d like to recoup in a world that’s on the cusp of reinvention.
MY SHORT LIST OF LOSSES:
– I miss a time when strangers (from marketers to the government) knew less about my susceptabilities and hot buttons. Today, given the on-line breadcrumbs I leave in my wake, strangers can track me, discover dimensions of my life that once were mine alone, and use that information to influence my decisions or just look over my shoulder. Re-building and protecting my private space is at the core of my ability to thrive.
I want to own my personal data, to sell it or not as I choose, instead of having it taken from me whenever I’m on-line or face a surveillance camera in a public space. I want a right to privacy that’s created by law, shielded from technology and protected by the authorities. The rapid advance of artificial intelligence at work and outside of it gives the creation of this right particular urgency as the world shifts and the boundaries around life and work are re-drawn.
– I miss a time when I didn’t think my organized world would fall apart if my technology failed, my battery went dead, the electricity was cut off or the internet was no longer available. I miss my self-reliance and resent my dependency on machines.
If I do have “more free time” in the future of work, I’ll push for more tech that I can fix when it breaks down and more resources that can help me to do so. I’ll advocate for more “fail-safe” back-up systems to reduce my vulnerability when my tech goes down. There is also the matter of my autonomy. I need to have greater understanding and control over the limits and possibilities of the tech tools that I use everyday because, to some degree, I am already a prisoner of my incompetence as one recent article puts it.
One possibility is that turning over [more] decisions and actions to an AI assistant creates a “nanny world” that makes us less and less able to act on our own. It’s what one writer has called the ‘Jeeves effect’ after the P.G. Wodehouse butler character who is so capable that Bertie Wooster, his employer, can get by being completely incompetent.
My real-life analogy is this. Even though I’ve had access to a calculator for most of my life, it’s still valuable for me to know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide without one. As tech moves farther beyond my ability to understand it or perform its critical functions manually, I need to maintain (or recover) more of that capability. Related to my first nostalgia, I’d meet this need by actively seeking “a healthier relationship” with my technology in my future jobs.
– I remember a time when I was not afraid that my lifestyle and consumption patterns were helping to degrade the world around me faster than the world’s ability to repair itself. At the same time, I know today that my absence of concern during much of my work life had more to do with my ignorance than the maintenance of a truly healthy balance between what nature was giving and humankind (including me) was taking.
As a result, I need greater confidence that my part in restoring that balance is a core requirement of any jobs that I’ll do in the future. With my sense of loss in mind, I can encourage more sustainable ways to work (and live) to evolve.
-Finally, I miss a time when a company’s success included caring for the welfare of workers, families and communities instead of merely its shareholders’ profits, a model that was not uncommon from the end of World War II through the 1970s. I miss a time, not so long ago, when workers bargained collectively and successfully for their rights and benefits on the job. I miss a time when good jobs with adequate pay and benefits along with safe working conditions were protected by carefully crafted trade protections instead of being easily eliminated as “too expensive” or “inefficient.”
While this post-War period can never be recovered, a leading group of corporate executives (The Business Roundtable) recently committed their companies to serving not only their shareholders but also their other “stakeholders,” including their employees and the communities where they’re located. As millions of jobs are lost to automation and new jobs are created in the disruption that follows, I’ll have multiple opportunities as a part of “this new economy workforce” to challenge companies I work for (and with) to embrace the broader standard of profitability that I miss.
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Instead of being mired in the past, reflective nostalgia provides the freedom to seek opportunities to fill real needs that have never gone away. With this motivating mindset, the future of work won’t just happen to me. It becomes a set of possibilities that I can actually shape.
This post was adapted from my October 27, 2019 newsletter. When you subscribe, a new newsletter/post will be delivered to your inbox every Sunday morning.