The changing nature of work

Two days ago Daniel posted a ques­tion on Twit­ter asking:

How does the nature of work change when the effi­cien­cies of tech­nol­ogy rule an increas­ing num­ber of jobs obsolete?

It is not easy to answer that ques­tion in just 140 char­ac­ters so instead I wanted to pro­vide a more thought­ful response here.

For a long time now work in Amer­ica has been rooted in the tra­di­tion of mid-20th cen­tury notions of work and employ­ment. We are still given the impres­sion that it is spe­cific jobs and par­tic­u­lar indus­tries that mat­ter. That is the heart of what must change as tech­nol­ogy rules more jobs obsolete.

While the 20th cen­tury allowed for the career notion of a job the next cen­tury will be decid­edly less so. We must reframe our dis­course of work away from the notion of a job with a com­pany and toward an idea cen­tered around process and growth.

The career job that 20th cen­tury Amer­i­cans lusted after is rooted in notions of sta­tic work. A per­son could be described by the posi­tion they held and the career path they fol­lowed. At the extreme of this they went into a phys­i­cal office build­ing every Mon­day through Fri­day from 9 to 5 and at the end of the day they came home to the house that they had lived in for the last 5, 10, 20 years. When tech­nol­ogy, an inher­ently non-static force, begins to dis­rupt the work world with greater feroc­ity we will have to put down these notions.

Work in the 21st cen­tury is not attached to a spe­cific job nor a par­tic­u­lar com­pany. Instead, it must be defined by idea-based notions of inter­est. Work must become tied to a life-long process of edu­ca­tion and cog­ni­tive development.

This goes along with a thought I had after read­ing Dave Troy’s piece a cou­ple days ago about how “we con­tinue to build cogs for this machine as though noth­ing has changed.” The tech­no­log­i­cal dis­rup­tion of work, which we are just at the begin­ning of, will cre­ate a future in which adap­ta­tion is a more vital skill than cur­rent way we under­stand knowl­edge and abil­i­ties. To adapt we must con­tinue learn­ing and explor­ing new avenues of what­ever area of human endeav­ors we pursue.

Ulti­mately work in the next cen­tury needs to be defined by how it changes. As tech­nol­ogy rules more jobs obso­lete the impe­tus is on us to adapt and change. We must stop think­ing about what jobs we would like and start think­ing about what ideas drive our passions.

5 Responses to “The changing nature of work”

  1. Some thoughts. First, I came across an arti­cle ear­lier this evening that stated “automa­tion has helped man­u­fac­tur­ing cut 5.6 mil­lion jobs since 2000.” Granted, I’d be very inter­ested to hear how they cal­cu­lated this sta­tis­tic, but I think it’s vis­i­bly obvi­ous that the effi­cien­cies caused by tech­no­log­i­cal progress are obso­let­ing jobs. What I’d be really curi­ous about is how the rate of this occur­rence is chang­ing over time.

    Part two is that my friend DJ Strouse had part of this con­ver­sa­tion on Wednes­day morn­ing. My pre­vi­ous thoughts were that, if the for­mer state­ment were true, then that would even­tu­ally mean that all jobs were obso­lete (aka the borg con­trols the world). This clearly is some­what absurd, but I think it’s an inter­est­ing thought exper­i­ment that might help guide thoughts about the inter­me­di­ate stages of the nature of work. We came to a loose con­clu­sion, how­ever, that it’s not that work is nec­es­sar­ily going to be obso­lete; instead, it’s the nature of econ­omy that’s changing.

    I’ll leave it at that because I’d like to explore that thought in depth.

    • I agree with the con­clu­sion you and DJ came to about the econ­omy. It does seem to me like that is also chang­ing sig­nif­i­cantly but with any broad eco­nomic change I think there is an inher­ent change in work as well (aka, in the way indi­vid­u­als relate and posi­tion them­selves within that econ­omy). While the eco­nomic change is def­i­nitely the long term fac­tor I think that indi­vid­ual rela­tion­ships to work will change before we see the larger eco­nomic changes.

      The data ques­tion is a good one. One thing that pops into my mind is track­ing the posi­tions help by peo­ple who are laid off ver­sus those that a com­pany is hir­ing for. This could, poten­tially, show a rela­tion­ship between out­moded jobs and newly in demand ones. Another sta­tis­tic that could be tracked is the num­ber of jobs and type of posi­tions held by peo­ple over the course of their lives. Speak­ing from per­sonal expe­ri­ence I’ve already held 3 full time posi­tions in three dif­fer­ent indus­tries (and that’s not even count­ing CoPress).

      The data is an impor­tant part of the equa­tion and other than the above I have a hard time con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing other aspects to track (prob­a­bly because my mind works in hypo­thet­i­cals and isn’t as sci­en­tific as it should be).

      Ulti­mately the idea that tech­nol­ogy makes *all* jobs obso­lete is not the case. But, like you said, I think it does pro­vide an inter­est­ing model from which we can ana­lyze some of the short term shifts.

  2. Work must become tied to a life-long process of edu­ca­tion and cog­ni­tive development.”

    This is a very inter­est­ing insight. We have all dis­cussed chang­ing mod­els of both work and edu­ca­tion, but sep­a­rately. Why?

    The prob­lems in both are sim­i­lar — overly restricted cookie-cutter approaches that ignore indi­vid­ual goals and new tech­nolo­gies. The oppor­tu­ni­ties in both are the same — to pro­vide a diverse set of life­time expe­ri­ences that will appeal to dif­fer­ent peo­ple at dif­fer­ent stages in life.

    I’ve been rethink­ing the nature of work and the nature of edu­ca­tion sep­a­rately all this time, but now I won­der — as long we’re doing some rethink­ing, why not look at both of these as two sides of the same per­sonal devel­op­ment coin?

    • Thanks DJ. I think that another sim­i­lar­ity in the prob­lems fac­ing edu­ca­tion and work is the ques­tion of agility. Both sys­tems need to become more agile because the large-scale, cookie-cutter approaches clearly have a hard time adapt­ing to tech­no­log­i­cal and social change.