“What is the Future of Work?” — the Right Question at the Wrong Time

innovation: the letting go of something old; an old idea, method, or device, to make room for something new (Redefining Innovation)

An entire industry including books, live events, consultancies, and media like podcasts and tv shows has exploded this past year to address a burning question that we have become obsessed with as we grapple with the impact of emerging technologies that will reorder society and automate everything:

What is the future of work?

If you ask Google this question, you’ll immediately be bombarded with an entire page of search results filled with research studies and analyses by reputable institutions and media outlets like McKinsey (What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages), World Economic Forum (What Is the Future of Work?), and Quartz (What is the Future of Work?).

Click on any one of these links and you’ll get an ominous analysis, filled with endless charts and graphs, on how disruptive technologies like AI, machine learning, autonomous vehicles, and robots will eventually cause mass unemployment for millions of people and decimate entire industries. And, from one article and research report to the next, the numbers estimating how many people will be displaced by automation swing wildly in either direction.

The problem with these reports and media coverage is that none of it helps us to substantively understand what work (or our lives) will be like in the future, how we will adapt to these staggering changes, or what we should do today to help define that future (rather than feel as if we are powerlessly at the mercy of it). Quite the contrary, this deluge of foreboding forecasting about a jobless future run by AI that we assist, might be blocking us from gaining a deeper understanding of the future of work.

But the even bigger problem the hindering our ability to see and shape the future of work is that we’re asking the wrong question to begin with or, more precisely, we’re asking the right question at the wrong time — which is why we’re not any more knowledgeable about (or prepared for) the future of work today than we were a year ago. If anything, as time and innovation seem to accelerate, we feel less secure and confident today than we did this time last year.

During a recent mini-meltdown (something entrepreneurs do quite often to realign our focus), I asked a dear friend of mine a question to help me gain more insight into how my efforts were changing the bigger picture in my life. My question to her was: “I’m not so sure what I’m getting out of this anymore. What do YOU think is causing me to push forward despite the disappointments and frustrations?

Her answer was simple and resonated deeply: “You’re asking a question that you aren’t prepared to receive right now — there’s a time for asking questions and there’s a time for doing —just keep “doing”.

The Perils of Asking the Right Question at the Wrong Time

Sometimes we need to live with a problem long enough to get to a place where we can understand and receive the solution.

Asking the question “What is the future of work?” forces us to contemplate the question through restrictive narratives of the past — like the idea that there will necessarily be work or that “work” will hold as much meaning to us in the future as it does today —  and obfuscates our true potential in the future.

I can guarantee you this, the future of work is not work.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking on panel at Funny as Tech (a monthly live show and podcast taping where co-hosts David Ryan Polgar (tech ethicist) and Joe Leonardo (comedian) are joined by experts and comedians to discuss how emerging tech is impacting society — a really fun show!). I joined co-panelists, Galina Ozgur (General Manager of Grand Central Tech) and Lisa Cervenka (The Muse) for what turned out to be a fun, thought-provoking discussion on the future of work.

Funny as Tech: The Future of Work (podcast recording at end of this post)

In response to thought-provoking questions by our co-hosts, my co-panelists offered enlightening feedback to the audience on how we should be thinking about work in the future. Both Galina and Lisa felt strongly that, in the future workplace, we will embrace our creativity, empathy, and the parts of ourselves that are actually devalued in the workforce today and that these skills will be in high demand.

There are a lot of reasons to believe this will be the case. This idea is also beginning to take hold in the business world (The Future of Human Work Is Imagination, Creativity, and Strategy, HBR).

My suggestion to the audience about how to see and prepare for the future of work was to, first and foremost, stop focusing myopically on asking the question “What is the future of work?”. After all, it’s impossible for us to really know exactly how technologies will change work with so many different, earth-shattering technologies all evolving so quickly, at the same time . If we don’t begin to ask the ourselves the right questions, at this time, we may never arrive at the technological future we’re so conflicted about. Or, even worse, we might arrive at that future and be completely unprepared and ill equipped for it.

My second suggestion was to pay close attention to how our culture is changing today. What defines work more than anything else (even more than disruptive technology) is our collective culture:

culture — (a) the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time; (b) the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations (Merriam Webster)

In the research and articles that I linked to at the top of this post (published by McKinsey, Quartz and World Economic Forum), not one of them mentions the role of culture in defining the future of work. To me, this is a glaring omission.

We struggle to define the future of work not so much because we are ignorant about (or intimidated by) cognitive technologies that might replace us and decimate entire industries (though these are, to some extent, genuine concerns), but because we no longer have a collective, general consensus about our identity, morals and values. We aren’t sure who we are or what we want anymore. And this becomes harder to define the more we deteriorate into tribalism and individualism.

The problem is that, today, our fundamental ideas about who we are and what we want (compared to just ten years ago) are changing so much and so quickly that we struggle to understand these changes and to put them into a broader context. And even though we can clearly see these changes happening, we’re still frustratingly bound by old assumptions, identities and goals — we’re in a prison that we’ve built, but can’t seem to break out of it. But this is exactly what we must do if we want to see and reasonably prepare for the future. We cannot predict the future by forsaking the past and ignoring the present (albeit a very messy present).

If we look at the seismic cultural shifts happening right now that we struggle to understand the most — the things that are shocking and confounding us almost to the point where we are all scratching our heads in stunned disbelief — those cultural shifts will be what drives and defines “the future of work” and, contrary to what we’re being led to believe, it has nothing to do with technology (technology is just the tool).

How then can we look to our current culture today for enlightenment on how emerging technologies will change what we call work?

Stop Strangling the Future

When we fail, when we are unhappy, or when we struggle the most in life, it’s usually because we’re holding on to the wrong thing, too tightly, and for far too long, at the expense of something else we should be reaching for and embracing. The underlying force driving this refusal to let go is usually fear.

In a recent blog post (Redefining Innovation), I shared why it’s important that we refine the definition of the word “innovation” if we want to wisely implement new, disruptive technologies like AI and machine learning, and maximize/multiply their potential.

Whereas we currently define innovation as “the introduction of something new: a new idea, a new method, or device” (Merriam Webster), I proposed that we turn this definition on its head. Innovation is letting go. Without letting go of old ideas, fears, identities, and restrictive thinking, there can be no innovation and there can be no future.

We can use my refined definition of “innovation” (to let go of something old to make room for something new) to help guide us in our quest to understand how and why we are changing, how our metamorphosis will reinvent work and the world. By focusing on what we need to let go of now in order to understand what we will gain in the future, we begin to ask more specific and relevant questions. Ideally, we should be asking ourselves, and each other, questions that put the responsibility of defining the future of work on each and every individual to personally shape our collective future.

We are not victims of the future. We create it by general consensus.

For now, we should retire the question “What is the future of work?” until we are better prepared to receive the answer and, instead, ask questions that we can all wrap our brains around and potentially answer in our own, unique way (though it won’t be easy). Below are a couple of questions I think we should contemplate:

  1. How can every individual today help to shape what our future will be without work? [extra emphasis on “without work”]
  2. What is it that we, as a society, are holding on to (baggage) that we must let go of in order to define, embrace and create the future we want?
  3. How can we maximize the potential of emerging technologies in our personal lives in a way that will help to educate us about how to implement technologies wisely in business and government
  4. How can we transcend the emerging technologies we are developing, instead of being fearful of being conquered and replaced by it? Should we be asking students this question in schools?
  5. What are our intentions? 

And…

What can each individual person do today to help us let go of the baggage we are clinging to that is strangling our future? (the more we let go of the baggage, the clearer our future will become)

Let’s start asking the harder, more pointed and messier questions now. What questions do you think we should be asking?

 The future is not a foregone conclusion.

 

Charlie Oliver
Founder and CEO of Tech 2025 and Served Fresh Media. Unapologetic instigator of provocative discourse.

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