I am at the airport mulling over a consultancy proposal for a company that plans to hold an exhibition on the history of the office. It wants me to curate the project, a sobering proposition since most of the 60-year time span allocated for the event corresponds with the story of my working life.
The typewriter I used to thump out stories in the early days of my career has become a museum piece, an artifact in the history of work. As much an artifact, perhaps, as the nearly 3-million-year-old stone tools found at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. The hand ax is the first tangible evidence of work, and also of technology, the first reminder that much of the technology we produce is designed to make work and life easier.
Did those ancestors think of work as we think of it today? Did they know they were living, in every sense of the phrase, at the cutting edge of their society? Were they recognized among their group? Did they take pride in their achievement?
I’m sure they did, and in doing so they would have experienced the best defining traits of work: the sense of purpose in the execution and the glow that accompanies a job done well. But if work arose through the Darwinian progression of fitting a species for survival, it would be many millennia before our ancestors encountered a more troublesome definition of work, one that emerged to dominate working lives throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Work for many of us has come to be something we’d rather not be doing.
ALL TRUE WORK IS SACRED
So how did attitudes to work change, and how are they changing today? By the 19th century work had come to be synonymous with religious duty. The Victorian pamphleteer Thomas Carlyle described all true work as sacred, arguing that there was something divine in hard labor. John Mill, his philosopher friend, disagreed where the product of work was uncertain. “Work, I imagine, is not a good in itself. There is nothing laudable in work for work’s sake. To work voluntarily for a worthy object is laudable; but what is a worthy object?”
Mill’s question brings us tumbling into the present as people tussle with this issue in their own lives, defraying the argument where they can with wages and salaries that sometimes constitute the only meaning in a drudge or ‘dead-end’ job. But even drudge work is subjective in its meaning.
Martin Luther King once reminded an audience that ambition transcended job content. “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry,” he said. “He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” Do people buy that argument today? Did they ever buy it?
In the mid-2000s, the United Kingdom’s Work Foundation tussled over the concept of ‘good work.’ What is it? How can you define it? The idea is that when we define good work, we can embed it in society and do what we can to rid ourselves of poor work. I doubt we’ll find the answer. Work is what it is and today the workplace is anyplace, including airport terminals. My flight took me to Amsterdam and the Royal de Vries shipyard that builds super yachts. Its customers are billionaires who happily spend upwards of $100 million on a yacht. “They often like to come in to the yard as we’re finishing a build,” says Henk de Vries, CEO. “One of them took a brush and began sweeping the deck. I told him he didn’t need to do that.” The man couldn’t help himself. Caught in the moment of realizing a dream, he could see something clean and neat. While we can understand the impulse of the billionaire with a sweeping brush, it is less easy to understand the way work is evolving within the digital revolution.
Work for many of us has come to be something we’d rather not be doing THE AGE OF THE SEARCH ENGINE
Be in no doubt, work is changing today as fundamentally as it did in the industrial revolution and with the introduction of the factory system. If we think of the 19th century as the steam age and the 20th century as the age of the combustion engine, should we think of the beginning of the 21st century as the age of the search engine? After all, we live in a world where answers to questions are only a mouse click away. Facts have become retrievable, processes explainable, knowledge learnable, all online and much of it freely accessible and supplied. The onset of this digital age is challenging long-standing working practices and customs, confusing managers schooled for a workplace behind walls.
And this is only the technological change. More important is the social change that follows, often kicking and screaming, on the coattails of innovation. In the rich West, new drugs and better health services are extending life spans to the extent that people are living long beyond designated retirement ages. This age wave is shaping government policies on pensions and retirement. What is retirement, anyway, other than a social construct as malleable as that of the career and the concept of work itself?
Pieces of work
The definition of work changed in the 19th and 20th centuries so that for many of us it has come to be something we’d rather not be doing. Work is again undergoing fundamental changes in the ‘age of the search engine,’ just as it did in the age of the steam engine and the age of the combustion engine. The ‘virtual’ economy has proved to be every bit as real as that feeding our needs. Work in time may seem less like work and more like living, requiring new models for earning, taxation and welfare, and possibly new models of government.
JOBS, BUT NOT AS WE KNEW THEM
We live in confusing times. Contract labor has become consolidated across industries where full-time work dominated in the past. Fluctuating supply and demand has undermined collective agreements, the mainstay of unionized employment. When work can be delivered from a call center in Bangalore to a household in Texas, the fabric of the job as we once knew it has been breached. What Adam Smith once observed as division of labor in a pin factory has been blurred by the just-in-time workplace where utility is the mother of production and where even professions have been commoditized.
This digital age knows no boundaries. The computer that replaced the comptometer and the typing pool and took humans to the moon, has created a multi-trillion dollar industry, drowning working time in a deluge of communications and distractions. The office, that compartmentalized system of work, has been so pierced that you can almost hear the hiss of concentration leaking through video screens.
The spread sheet today competes with the most addictive of games or the latest app demanding and getting countless hours of attention that do not discriminate between workplace and living space. This modern contagion can be quarantined from the production line and the factory floor, but not from the managerial classes.
Enterprise finds itself caught between the desire to produce and profit in a marketplace formalized by confidentiality agreements, copyright and regulated supply chains, and the anything-goes atmosphere of the World Wide Web, where possibilities for trade and innovation seem endless. Layered onto all of this is the uncomfortable truth of a world constrained by its environment.
Fossil fuel is not limitless, and the atmosphere, the oceans and the brown earth can no longer be regarded as self-sustaining reservoirs and sponges for human consumption and waste. How long can our economies persist with policies based on material consumption and grandiose projects? Materialism must be tapered towards need rather than excess, and growth focused on sustainability and recyclables.
Some of this may seem counter to Smith’s concept of the invisible hand. But the Internet has shown that the ‘virtual’ economy, based on the consumption of information and entertainment, is every bit as real as that feeding our needs. Is that the direction of the future of work? It is one direction, supplying an ever broadening highway of ideas.
So work, like society, is layered. Much of the world still lives off the land and will continue to do so, with subsistence farming existing alongside industrialized agriculture. Companies will still need to make things, and people will remain in production. Physicians will continue to heal the sick, and the faces of monarchs or national totems will remain on coinage for all its symbolic and limited worth.
But the new layer, the virtual layer, the digital layer – call it what you will – this layer will thicken, sucking up enterprise and creativity. The work that feeds this layer in time may seem less like work and more like living, requiring new models for earning, taxation and welfare and possibly new models of government. What price the instant plebiscite? Do we have the trust? Certainly, we have tools and technology in hands today that are stretching the limits of our imagination as much as the Olduvai hand axes did to their creators so many millennia ago.