Don’t be afraid of changing the status quo of what work is

It’s become a ridiculous trend of our times for high-level employees, CEO’s and entrepreneurs to post articles of their inhuman schedules, in a preposterous reenactment of the business card scene from American Psycho.

Allegedly, typical traits of the successful are waking up at around 04:00 am and meditating for 30 minutes before hitting the gym and doing their first overseas business calls of the day while on the treadmill, finishing a protein-and-seaweed smoothie for breakfast and reaching the office at around 7 am, where they stay until about 7 pm, when they have 1,5 hours of scheduled spouse-or-partner time followed by 2 hours of book reading (most CEO’s apparently became successful because they read about 500 books a year. Personally I struggle to get through 15).

You don’t need to look deep into these self-described work schedules to see that they are ludicrous. No one can keep a life like that up, and why on earth would anyone want to? For a society worried about robots stealing our jobs, we sure like to celebrate people who already act like one.

The trend is of course a reflection of the current zeitgeist. Success is measured by your career, your net worth and now apparently also your degree of robotic willpower and willingness to ignore polite bodily signals of stress such as insomnia, high blood pressure and the occasional heart attack.

Status symbols and success have always been trademarks of how we rank human hierarchies, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. This article isn’t an attack on capitalism, a system that despite its flaws has raised the standard of living to levels impossible to imagine for kings of just a few generations ago. What is worth discussing is how ingrained we humans are with the current cultural norms, and how fiercely we defend it when it’s challenged. Think about it — how natural is work, really?

We wake ourselves earlier than we want to, to meet strangers in a building and stay there for eight hours producing goods and services. For that effort, we are rewarded with an increased score in a fictional system called a bank account, which allows us to pay others to produce goods and services for us, in an endless cycle. All the while, life is passing us by, our kids are growing up with nannies that our hours at work pay for, and the canvas in the hobby room remains blank, books remain unwritten and when we draw our last breath in a retirement home, we wish we hadn’t spent so much time at the office.

It seems obvious to me that the coming decades will change the nature of work whether we like it or not. Work and money are both systems we’ve invented that were right for their time, but there’s no reason to see them as universally unavoidable parts of society. They helped us build a strong global economy, but why would we battle to keep it that way, if societal and technological progress could help us change it?

We have a built-in defense mechanism when the status quo is challenged by ideas such as Universal Basic Income, shorter work weeks and even just basic flexibility at the workplace, often without considering why we have an urge to defend it. As a leader, I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself. Millennials dare ask for freedoms that their parents never did, and there’s an instinctive urge to deny them whatever they are asking just because it’s supposed to be that way. You’re supposed to be here at eight, even if your most productive hours always come later in the day. You’re supposed to sit here in an open landscape, even if the isolation of a home office can help you concentrate on challenging tasks. You have exactly X number of weeks to recharge your batteries every year, because that’s how it’s always been done. While many organizations have made significant policy adjustments in the last two decades, we’re still clinging to the idea that we should form companies, they should have employees that are paid a monthly sum to be there at the same time every morning five days a week, even if this system is not making us very happy or even stimulating productivity.

I don’t know how Universal Basic Income would affect our society. I have no idea how A.I. and robots taking more and more jobs will change our lives. I’m not advocating any policies in this article. But I do know that work is not something I necessarily want to hold on to, if I could sustain my standard of living without it, which may just be the case if robots of the future could supply us with all the productivity we could ever need. If every job we can conceive could be done better by a machine than a human, and the machines demand no pay, vacation or motivation to produce goods and services for mankind for all eternity, is it such a ridiculous thought to ask in such a society why we would need money?

Work and financial systems will be cornerstones of our economy for decades to come. I don’t doubt that for a second. But that word alone should make us think. Decades. What is a decade? Nothing, historically. Yet that’s the timeline we’re discussing for these vast, societal changes. Decades. Your lifetime.

We should be exploring eagerly how to meet these challenges and how they can improve the human existence, rather than fighting tooth and nail to sustain it without knowing why we want it that way.

The change is coming. Why not see it in a positive light, and work towards a future where waking up at 4 am to go to an office is not considered the peak of human achievement?