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October 18, 2013

The Future of Work, Part 2

October 18, 2013

This post is Part Two in a series. See the first post here.

Here's how I see it. Every business is a technology business. Every new business is a tech start up. If that isn't 100% true now, it will be soon. So as businesses look to the future they will need to consider how changes in technology can impact them. We have already seen numerous industries disrupted by changes in technology. Borders, Blockbuster, Circuit City, Kodak, just to name a few former stars that fell almost over night. All of these businesses were disrupted by new technologies and the behaviors they enabled. Keep in mind that the web and its legion of connected devices are just getting going. Both are only in their infancies. Web enabled devices will become more and more prevalent and powerful. Connection speeds will increase and connectivity become universal.

As our computing power increases in the coming years it will allow us to build even better tools which will create greater and greater efficiencies. The primary place we will find these efficiencies will be in labor.

If we think we have a mismatch between business needs and human talent now it will only grow, possibly along that same exponential curve, as technology changes really start to kick in.

There will be fewer and fewer unskilled jobs. Humans are just too expensive.

Robotics – from full scale (ones that build cars or roam Mars) to nano (atomic and molecular) will increasingly eliminate the need for human beings to do manual labor. Picking fruit, driving trucks, delivering packages, even making food. It's not hard to look 5 years into the future and see a McDonald's with almost no employees, much like we have seen humans slowly replaced by robots on assembly lines. The kitchen of a fast food restaurant could be automated much like a fancy espresso machine.

Or imagine swallowing a pill that is filled with little nano-bots that kill cancer and push it out as waste. Our health care costs may suddenly drop like a thud when a broken bone is healed with a pill. These huge hospitals being built everywhere may start to feel empty 20-30 years from now as fewer people need that kind of care.

Those of us doing "knowledge work" will have reason to fear as well. As computing power increases we may soon be looking into the eyes of a new species. Artificial Intelligence (AI) seems closer than ever. You may not believe that computers can ever achieve this state of existence but I would be very surprised if that debate doesn't heat up in the coming years. We may have to ask ourselves questions like "what is the most humane way to 'put down' my computer?" Regardless, increased computing power means that computers will be able to solve more and more of our problems including work problems. Analysis and reporting are two areas where we are already seeing automation occur. This is will spread and spread.

In the US, we are living through the transition from a manufacturing based economy, where most of the workers make stuff, to a services based economy, where most of the workers serve other people.

This transition has been lead by two key factors, increased automation and reduced labor costs – outsourcing to China, Mexico, India. But as these countries see their standards of living increase along with even greater automation they will swim upstream as well to a service based economy. After this does a full global tour we may be looking at a world where all the "stuff" is made by highly automated machines and what is left for human beings to do is to serve each other. Even then much of the low level service, as with the McDonald's example, could be automated as well.

Perhaps we are headed to a jobless future. A future where we work only when we want to. All our physical needs are taken care of as advanced technology becomes like water and air, cheap and available for all. In this scenario, only a few will need to work, the ones that create and manage the technology which everyone else uses. The rest are essentially subscribers. But what happens when 99% of the population is subscribing to a service that the 1% created?

There are many problems with a jobless state. What will people do with their time? As we slip from 10 to 20 to 30 percent unemployed we will begin to question our systems. Having the poor and uneducated serve the rich isn't sustainable but that's the outcome if we automate everything else. There could be generations lost in this transfer. Many could feel, understandably, that the world has passed them by. If this is our future then I don't see any way forward that won't be traumatic. It will be a revolution unlike we have ever seen before. In many ways we are at the beginning of this revolution. It is my belief that we must start preparing for it now even if it doesn't completely manifest. To some degree it will be part of our future. A radical reworking of work.

We must acknowledge that the core purpose of work is to create meaning, not stuff.

Human beings, once their physical needs are met, desire, above all else, meaning in their lives. Since I believe that our purpose is to create, I also believe that humans are most fulfilled when they are creating meaning for others. This is where service comes in. We must continue to find ways to serve each other even if we automate some aspects of service like mowing lawns or repairing cars. The other half of creation is service, if we create only for ourselves it does not generate enough meaning to fulfill us, we must share that creation with others to be truly fulfilled.

I believe that this is where we find the future of work, when we shift our focus to creating meaning for others. Products and many services will become more and more automated and commoditized and will no longer require human hands for their creation or delivery. Perhaps we will decide to create them manually since that activity also creates more meaning which then increases their value. In fact, this is an emerging trend – a movement towards smaller batch, handcrafted work. I feel that is perhaps an overly optimistic outlook but I could see a future where we selectively reject technological advances in order to create work for people to do and thereby create meaning as well.

So if the future of work is creating meaning for each other, how do we do this? There are many ways but in the context of work I believe that meaning is created when existing objects and ideas are combined in an artistic way to reveal something that wasn't seen before, a revelation. We must all become artists. Taking our natural talents and applying them in creative, artistic ways to what exists, blending ideas and objects in ways that create meaning for others. To do this we must all nurture our artistic and creative sides. This is the one aspect of our humanity that cannot be automated our outsourced to computers, at least for the foreseeable future.

If the future of work is to create meaning for each other through creativity and art what kind of jobs will there be? What kind of businesses? How can we prepare for this coming change?

I believe to prepare for these changes we will need writers, musicians, designers, attorneys, dancers, teachers, story tellers, artists, chefs, creative problem solvers (also known as engineers). All manual labor jobs will face extinction. In 20-30 years it may be hard to imagine having trash men, landscapers or auto repair technicians. Powerful new technologies will make it far more efficient to have machines executing this type of work. The work that remains will be in designing the way these machines work and providing the human interaction, around these machines, that we all crave. Design and serve should be our motto heading into the future.

To prepare for these coming changes we must move our educational system away from teaching knowledge and towards creativity.

Anything that encourages right brain thinking must be taught above all else – art, music, dance, theater, writing. Computers will soon handle most left brain activities with more precision and less cost than human workers. Knowledge will be outsourced to the cloud, it is already heading that way and the pace will only quicken. The ability to synthesis objects and information will be where our work creates value.

So here’s what I believe: The future of work is to create meaning for others through creative expression. The future of work is artistic service.

What say you?


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