Unbundling Work: Learning to Thrive in Disruptive Times (Lite Version)

Gary A. Bolles
May 21, 2017 · 4 min read

Gary A. Bolles, eParachute.com & Charrette LLC

#4 in the Fulcrum Series

In a hurry to understand more about the future of work? Listed below are the major insights from the full version of Unbundling Work, where more complete statistics and graphs are included.

  • Automation & globalization are unbundling work — but our greatest challenge is the pace of change.
  • As detailed in Unbundling Higher Ed and in Unbundling the Middle Class, the arc of our lives — defined in the industrial era — includes “three boxes”: A glut of learning, then a glut of work, then a glut of leisure (in what I call “the period formerly known as retirement”). Millions of Americans have followed those Old Rules of Work, which included learning a trade or getting a degree; doing that work for most of their careers; buying a house, having a family, and educating their kids so they’d have a better life. But following those rules no longer results in widespread economic benefit.
  • Even though, as of this writing, unemployment sits at an 18-year low, nearly half of all workers report they are under-employed, and about two-thirds are not engaged with their work. Unemployment increasingly is concentrated in rural areas, and is likely to increase there, as more and more young people move to urban areas.
  • Work is becoming unbundled — but what is work? Work is three things: Skills, applied to Tasks, to solve Problems. (We are paid for work because we’re problem-solvers. But we are often rated by how we perform Tasks — rather than how we solve problems.)
  • Robots and software don’t kill jobs: It performs Tasks. It’s an employer’s decision if enough Tasks are automated to justify killing a job.
  • Most studies reported in the popular press focus on what Tasks are automate-able —Tasks that could be automated by software & robots — but can’t accurately predict what employers will choose to actually automate, nor what decisions employers will make about how many jobs to retain or destroy. And they can’t predict what the net impact on compensated work is likely to be, because we can’t effectively envision what new work will be created.
  • We do know that automation has the potential to disrupt an increasing number of work categories. Automation creates a lot of jobs. Automation will change a lot of jobs. The potential for displacement is dramatic. And the pace of change isn’t likely to ever slow down.
  • We don’t know what the net impact on compensated work will be, nor exactly what the arc of impact on many job categories (such as truckers and self-driving trucks). We also don’t know what the impact of “gig economy” two-sided work market platforms will be — though we do know that many of the existing platforms have a downward impact on wages.
  • Hi-tech theorists often assume the net impact of automation will eventually be that robots and software will eat most jobs, and that we need to consider a “universal basic income” to insulate workers from disruption. That’s essentially hi-tech “dancing in the end-zone,” assuming that technology “wins” and humans lose. And it’s a failure of imagination, because those same pundits can’t envision what work will be created by automation.
  • The most important question we can ask ourselves is: In 20 years, what will we wish we had done — today? What we need is a set of processes to help us continually to adapt as exponential changes continue to occur.
  • There are numerous strategies that we need to pursue simultaneously, including converting our schools to teach 21st-century skills like collaborative problem-solving, converting our colleges to lifelong learning platforms, creating numerous short-cycle “nano-degrees” offering targeted knowledge linked to available work, expanding trusted reputation systems like badging, and training to help workers and managers to become continually adaptive and entrepreneurial as they change work situations much more rapidly.
  • Silicon Valley needs to turn its considerable innovation engine toward using technology to enhance workers’ skills, to increase their access to compensated work.
  • Employers have numerous opportunities, including adopting more inclusive hiring practices, increasing market signals so workers can know better what opportunity is available, instituting apprenticeships and mentorships, “rural-sourcing” work, and expanding their corporate stakeholders beyond shareholders to include workers, customers, partners, communities, and the planet — and therefore changing the calculus for retaining workers.
  • We need to rethink “the period formerly known as retirement,” dramatically increasing the perceived value of the experience of older workers.
  • We need to create new policies for an exponentially-changing world, including changing the way we report on employment, revising certificate requirements for many jobs, creating individual learning accounts, create portable benefits,


Gary A. Bolles, Partner, Charrette LLC; Co-founder, eParachute.com

The perspective included here comes in part from a 40+-year history with What Color Is Your Parachute?, the enduring manual for job-hunters and career changers. (I was trained as a career counselor at the age of 19 by the author of Parachute, who was one of my business partners in eParachute.com — and, as you may have guessed, my father.) For decades, Parachute has defined the most effective strategies for helping individuals to connect to meaningful work, and that bias toward the needs of the individual is admittedly present in this document, as well.

Thanks to Dick Bolles, John Hagel, Vint Cerf, Peter Sims, David Nordfors, Parag Khanna, and Heidi Kleinmaus for their contributions to the thinking here.

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