When we’re told about the future of work, it often feels like we are being encouraged to imagine a world without work, or at least a world without workers. The potential impact of technology on the way we work not only immediately fires the imagination, opening up any number of exhilarating thought experiments, but often results in a depiction of the future as utopia or dystopia: a post-industrial society, managed by algorithm, in which human workers are either the relics of an earlier age, or the self-actualised beneficiaries of an economic system which no longer relies on them to drive it.
Reports of the death of work are not new, and are generally found to have been greatly exaggerated, with John Maynard Keynes’ 1928 prediction that by 2028 people would be working 3 hour days only the most famous of many such predictions. The advent of artificial intelligence systems has made these predictions tangible, with as many as 50% of American jobs thought to be at risk from automation in the next 30 years. The swelling public debate around Universal Basic Income shows people from different ideological backgrounds contemplating the potential for a post-work world, albeit with different motivations and different visions for what that might mean for society.
But work as a concept, activity, ideal, and power structure has dominated human society since antiquity, and it is resilient. Representing not only the means by which an economy produces goods and people earn income, but the activity that lends meaning or purpose to many people’s lives. There is ample evidence to suggest that the death of work would not necessarily map to increased happiness. Keynes worried that his 15-hour work week would create a sort of collective “nervous breakdown” as people struggled to find meaning without work, and the negative impact of unemployment on both body and mind is well-documented.
Most sober analysis at the beginning of this year suggests that we’re not heading to a jobless future any time soon, but rather that technology is one of many trends already changing the way we work, in ways predictable and not. These changes might be positive, like reducing the burden of routine tasks or the creation of new types of job. Others might be more problematic, such as increased surveillance and manipulation of workers, or unconscious bias further baked into systems as the result of flawed data sets.
But even if we recognise that the future of work will be considerably more nuanced than many predictions, and that technology will be one of many trends to affect different industries at different times, we can still be confident that the changing nature of that work will have a profound impact on who we are and how we live.
For that reason, the future of work is something those of us seeking to have a social impact through our work will have to think about, not only in terms of our own practice and our own organisations, but also in terms of the causes and communities they care about. When applied into the ecosystem of organisations whose mission and focus is social good, in whatever sector, what matters in the future of work is less the increased efficiencies of an AI-enhanced workforce, and more how those efficiencies might impact communities where people work in a radically different way, if at all. And also, how the people and organisations will need to adapt their focus in that context.
Our work at Koreo is largely about work; we mobilise talent for social change, developing people, organisations and networks to address the defining issues of our times. As such, whether through cross-sector talent development programmes or work with individual organisations, our work also focuses on the human. On helping people develop the human resources, both individual and collective, necessary to make change in their personal context and society at large.
At the beginning of the 21st century, some types of ‘purposeful’ work are very much in vogue, with one of the most persistent generalisations about the ‘millennial’ generation relating to their preference to consume from and work for companies with a clear social purpose. Whether this is actually true or not, and the facts suggest generational differences are not as marked as is often claimed, the increasing availability of products and careers catering to purpose indicate that more and more we value work that produces, or at least prioritises, social good.
The relationship between work and social good is, of course, complicated. Much essential work commands little prestige when compared with other professions, and is paid poorly if at all. This work, which notably includes the work of caring, is sometimes described as ‘the work that makes all other work possible’. It will surprise no-one that this is work commonly undertaken by women and people from minority backgrounds, and that the people who do it are often vulnerable to the abuses of power which have been so ubiquitous at the beginning of 2018. For an example of what we value when it comes to work, try this: McKinsey’s 2015 report “The Power of Parity”, estimated the value of unpaid caring work at around $10tn, or roughly the GDP of China.
Ultimately, this is what’s at stake when we talk about the future of work, and why we want to spend some time thinking about it outside the context of machines. This is a debate about what we want as well as what will happen; what we want to value as work, how we want to value the people who do it, and how we want to shape that future as well as respond to it.
It’s in that context that we approach Koreo Futures — with an open mind and extreme caution! This work at the beginning of 2018 represents an opportunity for us to indulge our curiosity as a company, and in doing so work out what we think, and what kind of future we and the people we work with might be preparing for.
We’ll look at a range of trends and pull them together into a series of provocations about the future of work. We’ll ask whether the combination of demographic shifts and artificial intelligence will lead to a change in the status of care work, and how campaigners will have to respond to new and often faceless power structures. We’ll explore how social impact organisations might respond to more flexible workforces, and how wellbeing at work will change management in a generation with much higher awareness of mental health.
Each provocation will have an outline, more detailed research showing where it came from, the reactions of a couple of relevant people working in the area, a reading list, and a way for people reading to take the debate back into their team or organisation. We’ll be publishing over the next few months on the Koreo website and via Medium, and at the end of the project will bring everything together in one place.
We make no claim to the science of this project, nor to its completeness, and neither do we want to add to the noise. Rather, we hope that by approaching the subject with curiosity and a desire to keep foremost in our mind the ambition to make the world work better through their work, we’ll surface ideas which will prove thought-provoking and valuable now as well as into the future.
As the late Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in the 1960s, “the only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next”. Not only does it feel appropriate to quote one of the most socially progressive science fiction of the last century at the beginning of this project, but we also recognise that it is in that essential uncertainty that this project will take place.
We hope you’ll join us in that uncertainty, either by reading, reacting, sharing, taking one or more of the provocations back into your team, or coming to our Future of Meaningful Work event in March.