Western civilization has been built on our ability to evolve and solve complex problems, and whilst the challenge of the changing nature of work is new, the ingenuity required to solve it is not. Civic leaders will have to come up with new solutions. The concept of a guaranteed minimum income in a world that is heavy on machines and light on human capital is one solution that has been proposed, but distinguishing this concept from socialist welfare is the type of challenge politicians will increasingly face.
Humans need to work. I don’t mean we need to work nine-to-five in an office. That may be a human experiment that lasted a century or so, and then evolved into a new way of engaging our skills, making the “job” as redundant as slavery or hand-written ledgers in the modern world, but as Voltaire stated, “Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need”. I would add that work also bestows three great gifts: purpose, growth and dignity.
Diversity in the work place is a term that quickly conjures images of gender, race or sexual orientation. However, if there is one word that best sums up where we have come from and where we are heading, it is the word diversity. Diversity of hours, diversity of location, diversity of careers within a lifetime, diversity of skills. This diversity has been increasing at compounding rates since the 1960’s. With the rise of intelligent technology and automation, the rules of the games are changing. Maybe the fundamentals won’t change next year, but they will change. To quote Bill Gates “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction”.
An important part of the work narrative is the experience of two increasingly divergent groups. Let’s call them Jill and Jack. Jill is University educated, holds one or more qualifications, has had one or more careers, has managerial experience, and has prospered since the 1960’s. Jack, on the other hand, completed his education after graduating from high-school or before, has worked in service or low-level roles that are typically physical or repetitively administrative in nature. The divergence in quality of life between these two groups continues to increase across all ethnicities in the Western world, as detailed in the work of Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart, where Murray reports higher levels of divorce, higher levels of unemployment, lower levels of voting participation, lower levels of wage rate growth as a percentage of corporate earnings, and higher levels of criminality. Advances in technology threaten Jack’s future far more than Jill’s given the nature of Jack’s work. Jill’s work will continue to be disrupted and in many instances replaced, however her capabilities greatly increase her ability to adapt and provide skills in demand that exceed Jack’s
The consequences of divergent fates for Jill and Jack are already playing out, with Jack typifying both the defiant Brexit vote and support for Trump on the basis that things can’t get much worse, so even if they don’t improve, at least we can vote for national pride. Whilst Jill may be outraged by the shortsightedness of such decisions at the ballot box, unless leaders can come up with radical solutions beyond the impossibility of “stopping the machines”, Jill can expect more of the same.
Western civilization has been built on our ability to evolve and solve complex problems, and whilst the challenge is new, the ingenuity required to solve it is not. Civic leaders will have to come up with new solutions. The concept of a guaranteed minimum income in a world that is heavy on machines and light on human capital is one solution that has been proposed, but distinguishing this concept from socialist welfare is the type of challenge politicians will increasingly face.
In the early 90’s, the theme of the day was the end of the career marriage. Previously an employee would join a company or civil service at an entry level position and work their way up to supervisor or middle management, stay there for thirty or forty years, receive a gold watch and then retire in their 60’s on the corporate pension scheme. If they worked for a large corporate like BHP, IBM or Ford, they may even be second or third generation employees. A friend of mine who joined IBM as a graduate trainee, following in the footsteps of both her parents who met at work, referred to herself as “a blue baby”. Career marriages between employee and company came crashing down as companies downsized to match economic circumstances, or roles were off-shored to low-cost labour markets. I personally witnessed a co-worker at a large insurance firm be made redundant four weeks before his 20 year anniversary to avoid paying him a large pension scheme contribution due under his contract after 20 years of loyal service. A contract from a different era met a new workforce reality: There are no secure jobs, just secure people.
So what does the secure worker of tomorrow look like? By 2020, 50% of the workforce will be Millennials, digital natives who grew up using tablets, smartphones and PCs, and by 2025 this will increase to 75%. The role most Millennials will do has not yet been invented. Just as Baby Boomers marvel at the concept that people can earn significant sustainable income as sports scientists, running international e-bay stores from their garage or becoming independent vloggers reviewing new products, the digital natives of tomorrows’ workforce will be global, adaptive to new trends, independent and likely to receive multiple sources of income. The good news is that the most important ingredient for success, behavioral flexibility, is not age related. The central nervous system of tomorrows’ economy is technology, which doesn’t care if you are 25 or 65. I know a 70 year-old lady who nets over $100k per annum collecting old furniture at garage sales and charity stores, refurbishing it, and selling it on eBay. She has such a loyal following of customers she even receives specific requests for future listings.
Below are five key traits the worker of tomorrow needs to be a secure person in the workplace:
- Be skilled: What specific knowledge or passion do you have that others value. This may be as diverse as knowing how to best market coffee in your region, state or country, through to knowing how to be present, caring and sympathetic to someone suffering tragedy. The key is to have a skill that others will pay for, especially if it can’t be done by a computer, machine or robot.
- Play with new technology: Try different technologies out as hobbies, and see how they may make you money. My cousin, who lives in Dublin, has built a fantastic business designing individually unique kaftans that are hand-crafted on a loom in Mexico, and advertised through her Instagram account to followers who demand more than she can currently produce. I just thought Instagram was for sharing photos with friends and family.
- Diversify your income streams: Workers of the future will be more likely to have multiple income streams. A friend of mine is a counselor trained in helping people overcome phobias. For over a decade, he worked 40 to 50 hours a week earning a wage within a health clinic counseling and helping people overcome extreme phobias. When the practice fired him because they wanted to focus on traditional medicine only, he spent 20 hours a week contracting with phobia sufferers directly, which earnt him the same income he made at the clinic, but rather than grow that business, he spends the rest of his time creating e-books, digital videos, online seminars and online training. In the first few years his direct client income far exceeded his online revenue, but each online service he creates continues to generate revenue to the point that if he took a year off, his digital assets would continue to provide him with a more-than-adequate income.
- Be authentic: In a world of homogenous product and digital noise, people value authenticity. Independent books-stores are on the rise in Australia, Britain and the USA. People want to discuss a book with a real person. In Circular Quay in Sydney, the Starbucks coffee shop closed after it was shunned by locals and was unviable relying predominantly on tourist trade. On the opposite side of the street, a Cameroonian barista imports coffee from his home village, and his biggest challenge is managing the surge of customers standing on the street.
- Be flexible: Any successful entrepreneur or marketer will tell you that the ability to test different ideas in the market, receive feedback and tailor your product or service to market demand is critical to your success. As you secure your work of the future, pay close attention to what resonates. You may even turn a long-term hobby into an income stream. I once spent three years blogging about my favourite football club. Having established a significant following, the club contacted me and offered to pay me to blog for them.
Humans have long feared change, and have carried the fear of the sky falling in since the days of cavemen. Advances in technology have the potential to be incredibly liberating, and give humans freedom in their vocational life our great-grandparents could never have conceived. It will simply be our ability to adapt to a very different way of working that will determine whether this new economy will be our friend or foe.