Meaningful work or a workless future; a post “The future of work” panel discussion analysis

This is my humble write up of the ideas expressed by the discussion panel of “The Future of Work” consisting of Nick Byrne (Founder/CEO TypeHuman), David Swan (Tech Reporter, The Australian), Bronwyn Lee (FYA) and Anna McCracken (Balancing Act3), hosted by Rahul Soans (Disruptive Business Networks) at “The Future of Work” Melbourne Knowledge Week 2018.

I take no credit for these ideas, I’m merely a conduit which they passed through from ear to ink to screen, alongside some idea re-coding, that hopefully makes sense. Bad jokes at no extra cost.

Synopsis of a discussion

“Ultimate automation… will make our modern industry as primitive and outdated as the stone aged man looks to us today” — Albert Einstein

If I had a dollar for everytime someone recently asked me “So what are you doing for work now?”, I would have enough to buy a lifetime worth of skinny-soy-strong-extra-hot half-takeaway-half-have here latte’s from a hipster-barista in Fitzroy named Django with neck tattoos and a pornstar moustache. If you’re into that (alternatively, avocados).

The reality is I am currently underemployed, and have been so for the last 2 years post university. But this was mostly by choice. I chose to travel for a year, paying the price through death by hospitality. I then chose to juggle pursuing an interest in wine making with an entrepreneurial pursuit.

For me, this reality was a direct byproduct of my desire to self-adjugate from the traditional career paths available. However, a recent mindshift inspired by a book got me thinking about the work force and the future of my working life in the wake of automation. About those who are in my situation by necessity not choice.

So I went to a talk, a discussion really, with an open mind. One where intelligent people said interesting stuff, and interested people absorbed intelligent things. The discourse was part of Melbourne Knowledge Week, a panel discussion deconstructing the possibilities of the future of work.

The discussion focused on the oncoming wave of automation as we bow down to AI deities that make the human-based processes of the past redundant and inefficient. As machine learning algorithms replace neuro-circuitry, and robots replace sinew and dexterity, the questions posed were centralised around themes of; what will work look like, how do we mitigate automation job loss fallout and how do we prepare our youth and ourselves for what is to come?

Now and then

In looking at this future of work, the first consideration was the current situation. The workforce reality for many tertiary graduates is one of an expected average of 4.7 years from graduation to breaking into the workforce, according to research presented by Bronwyn from the Foundation of Young Australians.

This isn’t even the full picture. A portion of those are holding casual jobs yet working full time hours, thereby meeting the research requirements of full time employment without any of the benefits; paid leave, superannuation, consistent hours. You know, the stability stuff at the core of full-time work outcomes, financially and psychologically. Basically, hidden underemployment through the increased casualisation of the workforce.

Prospective workforce entrants face an expected 17 jobs spanning across 5 careers in their working lifetime. To contrast, my parents each had around 4 jobs, mostly across two separate industries. My father’s last job lasted 17 years. For me, 17 years may constitute 3 careers, 6 jobs and 1,306 lattes. That’s a lot of beans.

In this regard, the job market isn’t just changing; the entire system could be flipping upside down. Nick Byrne, founder/CEO of TypeHuman, noted hypermobility in work positions could end up being the function of reduced barriers to organisation. Interconnectivity provided by Web 3.0 technologies (think blockchain/cloud tech) is removing traditional barriers to project organisation that traditionally relied on formally constructed corporations. We may be moving into a project based economy.

Replacing stable positions within an established company could be a lifetime of projects independently organised through collaboration facilitating organisations. This is already visible in the tech startup industry; just by visiting a coworking space one can already see the shift in mindset of project delivery from singular organisation-based to collaborative endeavour.

In preparing for this future, workers must now view what they contribute in the form of skills that directly transfer to project outcomes. What this means for the future workforce is a new set of questions to be answered. A new mindset to be engaged, one where we self-evaluate what we bring to the table by asking;

What skills do I have?

How do I build these skills through my work?

How do I demonstrate these skills?

What am I getting on uber eats tonight?

…Pause.

In answering these questions we must consider the different nature of skills required in this future of work, as noted by Bronwyn from FYA. As everything that can will be automated, we may see a rise in demand for the human skills that robots and tech can’t replicate, although Brownyn was reluctant to label these as ‘soft skills’. Instead, think of traits such as teamwork, collaboration, lateral thinking, problem solving, creativity, understanding and empathy; intrinsically human attributes.

To answer this call, the Foundation for Young Australians has implemented various programs aimed at building these skills. Targeting the increasing value of entrepreneurship qualities in the future of work, they are running projects for 15 year olds to develop these traits. Simple things, like giving them $20 and asking them to make a return on it, however that may be, to empower them into making real world decisions and build problem solving capabilities. As we move into the future, we should see more of these skill building-based initiatives that embellish our youth with the tools needed to succeed.

Skills to pay the bills; let’s get deeper

The flipside of these skill development initiatives is the darker reality of the skill-based job market forces; big bad automation. As automation begins devouring professions and job roles, from the low-skilled to high-skilled, we will see displacement of large segments of the labour force who become increasingly redundant to a tireless machine counterpart. Wall-E is here, and unlike the movie he is entirely indifferent to our plight.

The challenges we face will be in handling the reskilling of these workers, providing them with the tools to enable them to continue providing to the economy. Nick Byrne was quick to warn about the lump labour fallacy here; the assumption that jobs within the economy are finite versus the notion that the limitations to industry only extends to our creativity in imagining the future.

Answering that question; how do we reskill those displaced?

To answer this question, much like our future selves, the panel discussed creative solutions. An interesting approach explored the possibility of educational investment via the personal equity of individuals, leveraging blockchain to create new types of investment vehicles to support education and training. This would harness economic staking as a method of distributed decision making… what?

Let’s break it down. An individual wants to pursue education, but without the means to pay for it. Under this model, an investor (or fund) enters the equation and covers the upfront cost. This is the investment. The proviso is a contract where the individual agrees to return part of their future salary back to the investor upon completion of training, with contribution proportional to salary rather than cost of education. This is guaranteed by a third party sponsor, who in the case of failure post-education, acts as guarantor to return some of the investor funds. The education provider is also privy to this contract.

Some of the individuals will then succeed, providing returns over their contract term via salary contributions, possibly exceeding market returns on investment. Some will fall in the middle, paying back the investment, others will fail and not be obligated to pay out of their own pocket the expense.

In this sense, this represents selling personal equity, as individuals offer up a share of their future in order to raise the money to get there. The idea is to create a market approach to obtain educational outcomes, funding through investment rather than debt. This could all be facilitated through blockchain enabled investment vehicles (tokens for training, anyone?).

This could see our future workers turned into investment vehicles, generating return for investors whilst simultaneously upskilling the workforce in an applicable and value-adding way. Diversification could come through holding skill investments across different professions; actors risk balanced by psychologists, arbitraging a programmer’s training across Chinese and US markets, long term investing in a young worker fresh out of high school. What might investment stability look like when embedded into the training of the workforce?

Blockchain could also provide a solution for the recording and storage of these employability signals. Using this tech we can begin to form the resumes of the future, digital records of skill training certifications and project outcomes stored in a permanent, unalterable and accessible way. In fact, we are already doing some of this; look at the work of Everproof, digitising workplace certification storage one WWCC (Working With Children’s Check) at a time.

Or maybe this could devolve into a scheme of loss, funding hopelessness and futility, forcing buy in for skills that don’t pay dividends; a new managed investment or even Multi-Level-Marketing scheme repacked with fancy new empowerment branding. I’m looking at you, Herbalife.

Ultimately, the question comes down to who is responsible for instigating this change in the workforce. Whose hands should we be entrusting the future of our workforce. We face a future where there may be a need for employers to build from within, focus on skills development and upskilling programs to empower their existing workforce or face efficiency redundancy; to grow or go.

These same organisations face a dichotomy paradigm, of wanting to attract and retain talent, but wary that retooling workers may give them the ability to leave altogether in search of greener pastures. To paraphrase, “If you skill them they will leave, however if you don’t, they will stay.”

We will see a fine balancing act of juggling corporate versus worker interests playing out in the retraining initiatives of big corp, as they ask themselves how to keep their workers relevant and retained.

In an age where incentivization is the word dribbling from the lips of economists worldwide, we must look at the other underpinning motivations for corporations to reskill, and maybe recognise that the onus may never be on them. Especially not in a capitalist economic system, where bottom line drives corporate change.

It may be that we need to start looking at government intervention to enact a safety net protocol for the current workforce, protecting workers from automation and bringing them into the future of work. This may be through rollouts of government-backed training schemes, mandatory or not. Or bigger, juicier tax breaks for corporations to see a return on their reinvestment in the workforce.

It’s not too far fetched to imagine a world where democracy has to once again work for the people. Perhaps this is where societal pressure will play a role, although just imagining the plebiscites is enough to give me a hernia.

In this sense maybe we need to seek involvement from government bodies, or to think bigger; to see the reskilling of our workforce as the responsibility of communities world wide. In the not too distant future, it may be that in order to remain relevant we will need to converge as a workplace ecosystem.

Responsibility for workforce relevancy could be passed onto the collective. Education programs could expand beyond the four walls of schools and tertiary establishments into a network of education. Taking from industry, community hubs and formal education systems, we may need to create an adaptive education network that constantly evolves to meet market and human demands.

A more integrated education system could be our answer for not only our youth, but a means to pull up those downtrodden in the mud before they are trampled by robotic hooves.

On creating workplaces for the future worker: to millenial and beyond!

When we talk of the future of work, aside from the oncoming automation job annihilation, one common issue for our youth is deriving purpose and meaning from their jobs. As we see our work as more than the sale of our time for expendable units, the barriers between work and personal life will become increasingly obfuscated.

This is already playing out in the industries driving tech growth, where culture is king. Companies like Google, Tesla, Space X, providing their workers with cool workspaces, canteens, gyms, psychologists, yoga and other de-stressing activities to leverage culture as a drawing point for attracting and retaining top level talent. People working in these spaces have a sense of purpose, a mission.

Through the provision of facilities, team bonding activities, eateries, cafes, bars, tantric massage parlours (ok maybe not quite), they are entrenching deep psychological tendrils instilling feverish loyalty, blurring those work-homelife boundaries in the name of “productivity”.

From the outside these add an aura of prestige, respectability and wonder that lures in top level talent only to go on and work them to the bone (allegedly). Much like a Venus fly trap, they attract these individuals only then to feed on their life force.

Internally, these are cult like establishments where workers are trading their rights for meaning and purpose, their liberties for belonging and community.

Without collectivisation (there is no Union presence in these companies) these individuals are deprived of bargaining rights. The religious fever embedded into their employees may just be a away of pulling the wool over their eyes in what is an erosion of their personal liberties. This cultural dogmatisation of workers is rooted in a potentially more insidious aspect of a tech industry dominated future.

Dangers of tech growth

As tech industries loom over the future job marketplace, society must be weary of the downfalls associated with unethical tech development. David Swan aptly pointed out that often the ethics associated with tech developments are delayed, causing waves of unforeseeable impact as these once harmless institutions evolve outside of their original scope. Like alien organisms from literally every sci-fi movie ever, our curiosity blinds us to the their risks until they are 70 ft. tall and devouring people. Ok, maybe not that intense.

But there still needs to be discourse around the ethical growth of technology based businesses. The name of the game is rapid expansion, but at what cost? Are we sacrificing security in the name of curiosity?

Facebook’s recent tabloid exploits would say yes. Perhaps they should be seen as forewarning, illustrating the need for start up safeguards to protect the people from the ethical dilemmas that rise from the ashes of uninhibited growth.

Maybe these incentives need to come in the form of accountability, or incentivization. Our current start up model is one of aggressive growth cycles to pursue outside investment, driving value to the founders for their work. However, this represents a growth-based obsessiveness rather than an impact-based focus.

In the face of rapidly evolving tech, maybe we need to look at slowing things down and broaching the subject of ethical development.

Nowhere is this more evident than in terms of AI development, which has the potential to facilitate further wealth inequality. As capital becomes king in an economy where work may become increasingly unnecessary, the rich who own the robots and AI will become richer, the middle will become poor, and the poor become poorer.

The fact is that wealth is currently a function of capital, and will be even more so in future markets. Those who already own this capital will be in position to leverage it against those who don’t, retaining power in an economy of potentially increasing workforce redundancy.

UBI: a solution?

Futurologists often talk about the need to implement a Universal Basic Income system in order to proactively prevent this deterioration of equality from creating a rise in world poverty. Unsurprisingly for such a polarising issue, this split our panelists in two.

A potential issue with the movement to a UBI based system is the notion of the sovereign individual, which already exists on a corporate level through tax havens, offshore accounting methods and banks with names no one could possibly pronounce. The move to this on an individual level (think digital nomad movement) could see those who generate the majority of the tax base, which feeds the populace, move to avoid contributing to the tax base.

As the workforce mobilises through digital platforms, creating higher competition through increased skilled workforce accessibility (see: Upwork), sovereign individuals with in demand skills will be coveted by countries. These same workers will have the pick of litter in choosing regions, being unbound by previous geographical constraints due to the remote nature of work. If an UBI system hypothetically imposes a substantially higher tax on these individuals, the end result may see them fleeing for greener pastures.

This could create tax base erosion and wealth transferal, as smaller nations embrace these new “whales” with lower tax rates in order to capitalise on this issue. This would completely undermine the government implementation of a UBI system; you can’t give away money you don’t have.

In a more utopian outlook, capital creation could fall back into the hands of government institutions or community based organisations, allowing the benefits to be redistributed via a UBI. This view however is based on the decimation of the rationalist economic system; a feasible reality for a possible post-scarcity society.

Recent pilot testing in Canada, Kenya and Finland, promising outcomes from UBI programs have shown potential. They also put forth the question; do we need to work or are we programmed to work? Could we end up as the monkey in the cage for the AI’s reshaping our world?

This debate ultimately comes down to purpose and meaning, and how we derive these to retain our humanity and thrive in future societies.

Moving to a higher ground: becoming better humans

Perhaps what we must focus on most is how we go about cultivating our future by focusing on our uniquely human traits which don’t face the axe of automation. Emphasizing our collaboration, teamwork and problem solving abilities will prove to be the cornerstone for retaining an efficient workforce.

Increasingly, we need to focus on unlocking human potential in all of us, and incorporating this in a collaborative effort with emerging tech to forge a better future for our species.

Of all the metaphors throughout this panel discussion, it was Anna’s which had the most profound impact on how I left the discussion;

“One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”

God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.

The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering.

God said, “You have seen Hell.”

Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same.

There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.

The man said, “I don’t understand.”

God smiled. It is simple, he said, Love only requires one skill. These people learned early on to share and feed one another. While the greedy only think of themselves…”

The metaphor dictates that even now we have the responsibility to bring others up, to invest in them in order to create stability in our societies. To tap into true human potential regardless of differences.

In this future of work, those sitting around the pot of stew represent all of us, from large corps to students, and in order for us to thrive as a species we will have to learn to feed each other.

TLDR: The (short) goods — key points addressed in this post

Mentally stimulating, the panel discussed issues surrounding the future dynamism of work in an increasingly automated reality, part of MNKW18 which explored the questions and solutions around the most pertinent drivers of progress in Melbourne and the world. Here is the one page summary of my much longer thinking piece articulating these ideas.

  • Automation is driving changing job market conditions, which is leading to an increasingly dynamic nature of work
  • There may still be future jobs; lump labour fallacy
  • The future workforce faces increasing job instability, career changes and a different nature of work
  • Automating forces will create increasing demand for intrinsically human attributes; problem solving, collaboration, teamwork etc
  • We can foster these through entrepreneurial/project based learning outcomes for youth
  • Future of work increasingly project based as Web 3.0 and other tech facilitates efficient collaboration without need of formal prior organisation structures (corporations)
  • Casualisation of the workforce through digital platforms, from low skilled to in demand skills, with labour rights repercussions for those on the low-skilled end
  • The adjustment of retooling low-skilled workers from current industries to new digital industries a question of responsibility, corporate vs. government vs. individual
  • Workforce needs to increasingly reinvent itself, question is who supports this; Government, Private Sector or a society where individuals are responsible for these initiatives?
  • Due to incentives (see: Nudge), reskilling onus may fall on government and communities
  • Need for more industry and community integrated education networks/systems
  • Could we use blockchain to create new vehicles of funding for education and training?
  • Dangers of a tech utopia; tech creating toxic cultures
  • In tech/future industries there is the possibility of trading liberties and rights for purpose and meaning (Google), lack of collectivisation allowing for misuse of psychological power
  • There are ethical concerns of exponential tech growth, as ethics enter framework at a stage too late to deal with growth consequences from mutating tech enterprises
  • Danger of capital wealth creation retention of power, who controls the AI controls the income
  • UBI solutions; at risk of tax base erosion from wealth departure (sovereign wealth)
  • Positive pilot outcomes, unproven scalability, possibility to widen wealth inequality as class separation enters a new phase; AI controllers (currently super wealthy) and poor.
  • At what point do we becomes monkeys in an AI constructed cage?
  • Taking community values from developing nations could provide stepping stones to increased meaning in the future; understanding importance of relationships and shared experiences. 2 hours/day mandatory family lunch in Cambodia
  • Moving humans to a higher ground; a community where focus will be on unlocking human potential, bringing each other up into the future rather than increasing separation through tech control measures

Brain-friendly writing about how your brain works. https://www.samuelholston.co/