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.


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.

Another question: What data would you track in order to prove or disprove any of the hypotheses present in your post?

Andrew says:

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.

DJ Strouse says:

“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?

Andrew says:

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.

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