The future of work

In what retrospectively I feel was a fit of foolishness, a few weeks ago I agreed to do an 18 minute TEDX talk, in October, on the future of work. Since that agreement every time I have been for a run or a bike ride – i.e. those times that creativity and innovation people say spark the great idea – I've been wondering what I am going to talk about. The ingredients of all good TED talks seem to be vision, aspiration, touching personal story, comedy, memorable take away call to action, clever blend of fact, opinion, moments people can identify with, and sticking to the topic – all delivered with a gutsy charisma. It's a tall order.

The great idea has not struck as yet. Now I'm beginning to wonder if I can get by on the fact that the organizers wanted a woman to speak as they have a surfeit of male speakers. (I'm hoping that the future of work means more senior women in the workforce and that they are getting equal pay with the men).

And on Friday I got an email reminding me that I had to upload my photo and outline for my talk and thus the moment came for thought and planning. So rather than a single great idea, for the moment, I've come up with three different approaches outlined below.

Approach one: types of work future
In this approach I would talk about one (or maybe more than one) of the following possible work futures. Anyone of them could take the full 18 minutes.

The cataclysmic future where there is no work as we think of it – as in Cormac McCarthy's book 'The Road' or Margaret Atwood's book The Handmaid's Tale.

The reassuring technology enabled future of work captured in statements like "automation is leading to disruptions in the labor market, [but] as jobs are being destroyed more new industries and work opportunities are emerging.' This one from MIT's report "The Future of Work" from MIT which seems to imply everyone will be ok.

The prepare yourself for the future of work with advice like 'If you expect to live, and therefore work, for a long time, it will be worthwhile investing years getting yourself educated.' (From 'The World in 2050', HSBC). But looking at that sort of statement again – it has a lot of assumptions built in. Even with education (that in many countries is not freely available) work – as in paid employment – is an almost laughable concept in many countries, leading to a possible focus on:

The inequality of future work opportunities. As the International Labor Office noted in July 2011
"There are some 81 million officially unemployed young workers worldwide – the highest level recorded. Many more are discouraged from even seeking a job. Young people are nearly three times more likely than adults to be unemployed while in some countries the situation is even worse. And more than a quarter of all young workers in the world – or 152 million – are poor workers who earn less than 1.25 dollars per day," which is not going to change quickly in even the rosiest of work futures.

The precarious nature of work even for those in the 'developed' nations. A quick glance at the mass layoff statistics for the US, June 2012's figures tell us that "Employers took 1,317 mass layoff actions in June involving 131,406 workers … each mass layoff involved at least 50 workers from a single employer." – then bear in mind that we cannot predict very easily things like tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, internet outages, recessions, and so on that have a significant interruptive effect on work flows and our thinking about work.

Approach two: The nature of work and its future
But maybe none of the above is appropriate. Maybe in a different approach, I should be asking some questions of the TEDX audience (and putting some suggestions). For example, I could discuss one or more of the following:

What is work? It means different things to different people. Kahlil Gibran thought of work as "love made visible" and wrote a piece stating that "if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy." The cynic in me (part of my British heritage) wonders what, for example, the waste pickers in India and other nations would think of this suggestion or those enslaved by human traffickers

Is 'work' always about 'pay' or income generation? Philip Larkin's poem on work called Toads implies that it is. He asks "Why should I let the toad work squat on my life? Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork and drive the brute off? Six days of the week it soils with its sickening poison – Just for paying a few bills" But can work be valued in other ways?

Can we get to what the ILO calls 'Decent Work' for all across the globe, and if so, how? They explain that
"Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men." To me this currently seems a Utopian but worth pursuing vision.

What types of work might emerge in the future? Will there be very different forms of work from those in evidence today and if so, what impact would this have on traditional employing organizations? There are some evident trends around this which imply more self-employment, piece work, co-operatives, temporary and contract work, off-shoring, and partnering/alliances, volunteering, etc.

Who needs to be interested in the future of work? I think of the stakeholders in the future of, at least paid/income generation work, as six main groups. Let me know if you see a glaring omission here.

  • Governments and policy makers
  • Educators (schools, universities, parents)
  • Organizations who employee people (for profit, non-profit)
  • Potential workforce members
  • Unions and workers' rights organizations
  • Investors of all type

All of these have an individual and collective stake in the future of work and are not that great at meshing interests for the betterment of all.

Approach three: my work, past, current, future.

A third approach is to use my own working life as a kind of backdrop story to some thoughts and opinions on the future of work and I could talk about both paid and unpaid. One amusing factor (to me anyway) is the fact that I am in that baby boomer group that is supposed to be contemplating 'retirement', whatever that is, so in some respects it is ironic that I have been asked to talk about the future of work. However, as one of my goals is to be nominated (forty years or so from now if I live to be 100) as one of America's oldest workers I can claim a vested interest in the future of work.

And people I tell my working life story to seem to find it interesting. In fact I got an email the other day from an ex-colleague who said, "Just on a call with J and we were talking about your new job and saying how amazing and inspirational you are." So maybe there's a story in My Brilliant Career to date and where I see it going in the future. NOTE that this is not me boasting – heaven forbid – but the title of a book by Miles Franklin that I read years ago and thoroughly enjoyed. The title has stuck with me through the ups and downs of my career and makes me smile in the darker moments.

So – three main approaches and a host of ideas! My next task is to transform them into something that meets the first four commandments of TED talks:

1. Dream big. Strive to create the best talk you have ever given. Reveal something never seen before. Do something the audience will remember forever. Share an idea that could change the world.
2. Show us the real you. Share your passions, your dreams … and also your fears. Be vulnerable. Speak of failure as well as success.
3. Make the complex plain. Don't try to dazzle intellectually. Don't speak in abstractions. Explain! Give examples. Tell stories. Be specific.
4. Connect with people's emotions. Make us laugh! Make us cry!

Let me know what you think the focus should be.

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