Rethinking the Notion of Jobs

I’m always amazed when I listen to the TV news and they say things like “The weather is nice, the music is good… Which is awesome for the turnover of restaurants and hotels”. We almost don’t mention the fact that people are enjoying their time in summer festivals and so on. We mostly care about work and the economy. How cynical have we become that we find this kind of comment completely normal? That the money any experience generates has become more important than the experience itself. In my view, this is the result of decades of propaganda that have made us accept the fact that we need money to live, the only way to make money is with a job, so anything that creates or sustains those jobs is awesome, regardless of how enjoyable or useful those jobs are.

All jobs concerned

With mechanization of agriculture, we lost a lot of jobs in rural areas. And people moved massively to cities. With the advent of industrial robots, we also lost jobs in the industry. And we could have lost a whole lot more if China hadn’t emerged as a cheap human alternative. But with the increase in demands from Chinese workers combined with evolution of technology in robots, we are already seeing yet another trend of job destruction in the industry. And today the infamous Uberization of the economy is even putting some tertiary jobs into question.

Tension building up

The fact of the matter is that technology advances have always pushed towards reducing the penibility of human labour. And as we are able to delegate more and more of this work to machines, it builds up this tension between working and earning a living.

We don’t care if some of these jobs have become useless, are really painful or plain damageable for nature and the future of our planet.

In parallel to that, the very design of our currency system, and the increasing financialization of our economy require more and more growth. And we measure growth mostly in terms of human activity, or number of jobs. That’s why politicians have been chasing after this dream of full employment, putting it at the center of their agenda for years. We don’t care if some of these jobs have become useless, are really painful or plain damageable for nature and the future of our planet.

The question is the following. How long are we going to subsidize human labor and push automation aside as a marginal phenomenon? How long are we going to postpone a fundamental debate about how we should redesign our economy? When are we going to embrace technological progress and put it at the center of our plans instead of resisting it with everything we’ve got?

Things of the past

First of all it’s important to realize that a lot of concepts around the notion of work have nothing natural. Human beings designed them and as such, human beings can redesign them in a completely different way.

Employment as the primary form of work relationship

Salaried employment seems completely natural to us now, but it was generalized out of necessity. First it was an instrument of rationalization in an era of industrialization. Permanent employees were easier to control and there were so many things to build that corporations needed a stable work input. Later it became even more interesting in tertiary service jobs where training costs so much that you need people who are with you for several years before they can work at their full potential.

It’s time we start to consider the possibility that salaried employment won’t be the most widespread form of work relationship in the years to come.

But the context has completely changed nowadays. The demand for any product or service is more and more volatile. A lot of industries are using increasing amounts of interim workers to try and create that flexibility. And with the Internet as a formidable training resource, the cost of learning new skills is getting lower and lower. Because of all that, I think it’s time we start to consider the possibility that salaried employment won’t be the most widespread form of work relationship in the years to come.

The exclusivity of jobs

Another characteristic of our work environment is that most people have only one job at a time. You can only be an employee in one given company at a time. As a matter of fact, many describe getting a job as getting married to someone. And so many administrative and fiscal processes take that for granted that it’s very hard to change.

It’s becoming more and more frustrating to be only one thing, to do only one job.

But this job exclusivity is creating huge tensions when people are out of this one job. They have to suddenly learn a new one, or to find a similar one. And this adaptation is painful. Plus, we are more and more able to explore the multiple sides of our personalities, the multiple interests that we have. And because of that, it’s becoming more and more frustrating to be only one thing, to do only one job. The only way you can do that right now is by being an independent worker, a status that is clearly under-protected and stigmatized as precarious and fraud-prone.

One person, one career

And of course there is this idea of a career. You should choose your college major very carefully. Because this is going to be your job for life. And once you graduate you should maximize the number of years you work in each company to build a career.

So school prepares you for one specific job, and once you are there, your employer invests as little as possible in your training and your adaptation skills because he’s afraid you might leave. So basically the school system and corporations are working together to format us into stability when the world around us is demanding more and more flexibility and adaptability.

In the meantime, people entering the job market right now are spending a shorter and shorter average time in each job. And it is becoming more and more common to reconsider your career path several times over your work life.

The school system and corporations are working together to format us into stability when the world around us is demanding more and more flexibility and adaptability.

Innovation is not just changing how people do things. It is creating and destroying the need for certain jobs at an increasing rate. Just look at Uber, that completely transformed the job of taxi drivers. Some were salaried employees of taxi companies, other were artisans. Now Uber drivers are semi-independent workers going wherever an algorithm sends them to pick up customers. And this transformation made them very angry in some places. Last time I took an Uber in Paris, the driver told me they were still looking down, trying to play low profile with taxi drivers.

But when self-driving cars become the norm. When no one owns a car, and every one can summon their transport at any time to go anywhere. When Uber puts their carefully perfected dispatch algorithm to work on cars that only stop to swap their depleted battery for a full one. Who will taxi drivers AND Uber drivers fight then?

Taxi drivers fighting for their jobs in Paris

 

Things of the future

The fact of the matter is that we are going to start to learn faster, to be more adaptable, to get some meta-skills. Our schools and universities are hell bent on giving us some knowledge, teaching us some skills. But more and more they are going to have to teach us how to learn faster. What we know and the skills we master are going to be less and less important. What will really matter now is our ability to pick up new skills, to anticipate changes, to adapt faster to our environment. We need to start considering reorientation as a normal thing of life, not as a rare accident. And yes, we can optimize that adaptation to some extent, but ultimately we can’t acquire skills and knowledge faster than what our brains and body can take. So we are going to need more time to train.

Education

First of all, we are going to have to reinvent school, plain and simple. We designed our school system for the industrial era, not for the age of information and automation. And putting tablets into the hands of our kids, and rigging our classrooms with digital boards is not gonna do the trick. Technology has to do far more than change how we shove knowledge and practical skills into our kids heads. Parents all around the world are starting to realize that, unschooling their children at an increasing rate. Practicing flipped classroom. Even teachers are starting to reconsider the fundamentals of what they teach and how. We are going to talk about the future of education in a future post. It is a fascinating subject.

Rigging our classrooms with digital boards is not gonna do the trick.

Universal Basic Income

Second of all, as I said, we have to spend more of our time learning. Because we need to accumulate more knowledge and know-how. And because we need to get better and faster at it. And there’s no better way to improve your craft than to practice it. More time learning, means less time doing, which is ok because machines can take over doing boring things. But all this value that machines create and don’t need to spend, we need to redistribute it somehow. And that’s where we need to explore the potential of universal basic income. Not as a way to alienate us even more (a very interesting article in French about that), but as a way to free us all to experiment, to learn, to dream and imagine the future, to participate in the life of the City.

People who tell you that [Universal Basic Income is a utopia], do they work for the sole purpose of earning a living themselves?

There will always be those who discard UBI as a utopia based on the assumption that people are lazy. That if you don’t force them to work for their food and roof, they will simply stop creating value. And of course reality is way more complex than that. But people who tell you that, do they work for the sole purpose of earning a living themselves?

Reinventing organizations

Last but not least, one of the things that fascinates me the most right now is the evolution in organizations. Frederic Laloux recently threw a big stone in the lake with his book, making people aware that there was another way. That there were other WAYS to design our companies, associations and collective initiatives in general. More decentralized organizations, where innovation comes from the outset, not from the center. Where activity is organized in punctual partnership-based projects rather than long-running self-sustaining change-fighting corporations.

Innovation comes from the outset, not from the center.

New currencies

And of course, underneath all these changes in the fabric of our economy, there is the most fundamental change of all: the very design of the mechanism we use to measure and enable exchange of value, aka our currency. In that regard, crypto-currencies are just a wake up call. A reminder that banks are not an essential part of the equation. That they are actually more of a problem than a solution. That we have had to deal with them up until now. But we have a way out now. Probably even several of them.

To be continued

Of course this is a vast subject, and we’ve only scratched the surface here. But I really believe that the Internet is both an enabler (as a platform) and a model (in terms of decentralization) for a lot of changes that are going to shape the future of human activity. And as it automates more and more of our mundane tasks, it even creates some time for us to reinvent and reorganize our lives in the most audacious, profound and meaningful ways. What an exciting time we live in!

PS: An excellent post about this very topic from a fellow Belgian futurologist: The Backyard Digging Point.

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