Our Futures, Professional and Personal

Tim O’Reilly, in his recent piece “The WTF Economy,” does a nice job framing several trends that are converging in uncertain, but not entirely unforeseeable, ways. There is little doubt that automation and algorithms are poised to allow companies to be more productive and profitable with fewer people; a point Carl Bass did an outstanding job of making in his 2014 SXSW talk, “The Robot Revolution.” As a result, Mr. O’Reilly is absolutely correct in that

We need a focused, high-level conversation about the deep ways in which computers and their ilk are transforming how we do business, how we work, and how we live.

Where I stumble is the priorities implied in the order: work, regardless of how it is performed, is a human endeavor. It is certainly true that in developed countries technology permeates our professional and personal lives, often blurring the lines between the two. Work, however, is frequently the means by which we address Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. With this in mind and as a (recovering) political analyst, I end up being far more concerned by and interested in Mr. O’Reilly’s second and third issues: how we work and how we live.

The answer to “how we work,” if we were to do a linear extrapolation from where we are today, is likely lie somewhere between “thanklessly” or “begrudgingly.”

“Big work” seems to be (d)evolving to a freelance economy; Sarah Horowitz does a nice job of characterizing the trend in “America, say goodbye to the Era of Big Work.” I tend to be a little more cautious / less optimistic about this trend as that we — as a society — have yet to have a meaningful discussion about what new social contracts between citizens, their governments, and the companies they own and work for might (or should) be.

Until that conversation is resolved, I feel as though many Americans are now in a position akin to that in which Charlton Heston found himself in the role of Ben-Hur: “…you are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well and live.” As a result, it’ll be interesting to hear Esther Kaplan’s perspective in light of Leah Busque’s and Logan Green’s.

Pop cultural geekiness to the side, the answer to Mr. O’Reilly’s third question — how we live—lies somewhere in that demoralizing (if not depressing) morass data about wages, income equality, the cost of living, and employee engagement. Many people are asking whether the American Dream is dead or simply out of reach.

Given that a key pillar of the American economy has been the purchasing power and proclivities of American consumers, wage stagnation, an ever-increasing cost of living, and an apparent shift in consumer spending habits seem to represent significant uncertainties in how we might live in a highly-automated, services-heavy future.

That said, there are bright spots, some of which are reflected in the lineup of speakers at the Next: Economy summit. Limor Fried and Yancey Strickler definitely represent some interesting perspectives on budding entrepreneurs, though TechShop’s Jonathan Knowles and Etsy’s Robert Kalin could further flesh out that story.

Ryan Carson’s redefinition of a full-time job at Treehouse is very interesting and germane to the conversation that Mr. O’Reilly is aiming to facilitate. The same could be said of Dan Price’s much-covered decision to significantly raise the salaries of his employees.

Separately, I imagine that Jay Coen Gilbert, Bart Houlahan, and Andrew Kassoy have interesting insights about the future of work by virtue of their experiences interacting with B Corps.

At the extreme end is Chris Gillebeau, whose World Domination Summit provides glimpses into how one might go about living “a remarkable life in a conventional world” [full disclosure: I am a either a two- or three-time attendee of the WDS and consistently recommend it to family and friends].

There is no shortage of reasons to cry WTF over the emerging economy. The louder cries, however, should be reserved for those who somehow think that a status quo rooted in cultural memories of “Leave it to Beaver” is somehow going to remain viable over the next 5–10 years. Mr. O’Reilly is spot on in terms of the conversation that we need to have; the challenge — and opportunity — is that this larger conversation extends well beyond a single event.

Dennis J. Gleeson, Jr., is formerly a Director of Strategy in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Analysis. He started his career with the government as an analyst in the now-disbanded Strategic Assessments Group, which was charged with working with outside experts to think about and frame narratives around possible futures. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own and should not be construed as being those of either the Central Intelligence Agency or of the US Government.