Fear of the Robot Economy….

A couple of articles I came across recently made for quite depressing reading about the future of the economy. The first was an opinion piece by Greg Jericho for The Guardian on an IMF Report about the economic impact of robots. The second was the AFR’s annual Rich List. Read together, they don’t inspire me with confidence that we are really embracing the economic opportunity that innovation brings.

In the first article, the conclusion seemed to be predicated on the idea that robots will destroy more “jobs” (that archaic unit of economic output/activity against which we continue to measure all human, social and political achievement) than they will enable us to create in terms of our advancement. Ergo robots bad, jobs good.

While the second report painted a depressing picture of where most economic wealth continues to be created. Of the 200 Wealthiest People in Australia, around 25% made/make their money in property, with another 10% coming from retail. Add in resources and “investment” (a somewhat opaque category), and these sectors probably account for about two-thirds of the total. Agriculture, manufacturing, entertainment and financial services also feature. However, only the founders of Atlassian, and a few other entrepreneurs come from the technology sector. Which should make us wonder where the innovation is coming from that will propel our economy post-mining boom.

As I have commented before, the public debate on innovation (let alone public engagement) is not happening in any meaningful way. As one senior executive at a large financial services company told a while back, “any internal discussion around technology, automation and digital solutions gets shut down for fear of provoking the spectre of job losses”. All the while, large organisations like banks are hiring hundreds of consultants and change managers to help them innovate and restructure (i.e., de-layer their staff), rather than trying to innovate from within.

With my home State of Victoria heading for the polls later this year, and the growing sense that we are already in Federal election campaign mode for 2019 (or earlier…), we will see an even greater emphasis on public funding for traditional infrastructure rather than investing in new technologies or innovation.

Finally, at the risk of stirring up the ongoing corporate tax debate even further, I took part in a discussion last week with various members of the FinTech and Venture Capital community, to discuss Treasury policy on Blockchain, cryptocurrency and ICOs. There was an acknowledgement that while Australia could be a leader in this new technology sector, a lack of regulatory certainty and non-conducive tax treatment towards this new funding model means that there will be a brain drain as talent relocates overseas to more amenable jurisdictions.

Next week: The new productivity tools

The fate of the over 50s….

In recent months, a number of my friends and former colleagues in their 40s and 50s have found themselves being retrenched. Nothing surprising in that, you might say – it’s a common fate of many middle and senior managers to be “delayered” by their organisations. And of course, redundancy is now something that everyone in the workforce must expect to face at least 3-4 times in their career.

What is surprising is that in most cases, these friends and associates have been taking deliberate steps to remain relevant, by retraining and upskilling, by keeping up to date on business trends, or by engaging with new opportunities via meetups and networking events. Nevertheless, their employers have found reason to cut their positions – and despite a bar on age discrimination, the likelihood of some of these older workers finding comparable roles is greatly reduced.

This scenario is not helped by the challenges younger workers are experiencing in finding their ideal job, at least during the first few years of their careers. I would probably dispute this assertion, for the simple fact that many younger workers do not really know what career they intend to pursue, or are not aware of what options are open to them. Plus, apart from areas like medicine, science and engineering, secondary and tertiary education should be less about getting formal qualifications and more about learning how to learn, how to engage with new ideas, how to explore different concepts, how to acquire different experiences, and above all about being prepared for life….. (In my own case, I probably didn’t find my “true” career path until about 5 years after joining the workforce – a process helped by undertaking some further training when the time and circumstances were right for me. But this “delay” did not prevent me from gaining valuable experience in a series of jobs – especially as employers did not expect younger new hires to stay more than 2 years in the same role.)

Some of the corporate job-cutting is no doubt driven by economic and financial necessity, in the face of automation – and this is a trend which probably puts older workers at a disadvantage, if they are deemed less able to learn or adapt to the new technology. But as I have argued before, being older should not mean being obsolete.

One friend noted that in transitioning to a new role, there was a higher expectation that they would adapt and learn the ropes more quickly than a younger new hire. Again, this puts older workers at a disadvantage as they will be cut less slack than a rookie in a similar role.

So it seems that older workers are seen as less able (or less willing?) to learn new technology; but at the same time, they are expected to deal with change and disruption more easily then some new entrants to the workforce. There is also a growing expectation that the older you are, or the longer you have been in your previous role, the longer and harder it will be to find a suitable new position. (Again, in my own case, after I left my last corporate gig, I spent 5 years doing a range of consulting projects and contract roles, before finding myself working in a totally new industry – one that is at the cutting edge of disruptive technology, and didn’t really exist at the time I left the corporate world.)

Finally, I was struck by the comment of a former colleague who is being tempted back into the workplace, having made a conscious decision to take earlier retirement:

“I like being retired. I also know that one day you’re the hero and the next day you’re considered part of the problem.”

Next week: Beyond Blocks, Tokyo

 

 

 

The Future of Work = Creativity + Autonomy

Some recent research from Indiana University suggests that, in the right circumstances, a stressful job is actually good for you. Assuming that you have a sufficient degree of control over your own work, and enough individual input on decision-making and problem-solving, you may actually live longer. In short, the future of work and the key to a healthy working life is both creativity and autonomy.

Time to re-think what the “dignity of labour” means? (Image sourced from Discogs)

Context

In a previous blog, I discussed the changing economic relationship we have with work, in which I re-framed what we mean by “employment”, what it means to be “employed”, and what the new era of work might look like, based on a world of “suppliers” (who offer their services as independent contractors) and “clients” (who expect access to just-in-time and on-demand resources).

The expanding “gig economy” reinforces the expectation that by 2020, average job tenure will be 3 years, and around 40% of the workforce will be employed on a casual basis (part-time, temporary, contractor, freelance, consultant etc.). The proliferation of two-sided market places such as Uber, Foodera, Freelancer, Upwork, Sidekicker, 99designs, Envato and Fiverr are evidence of this shift from employee to supplier.

We are also seeing a trend for hiring platforms that connect teams of technical and business skills with specific project requirements posted by hiring companies. Many businesses understand the value of people pursuing and managing “portfolio careers”, because companies may prefer to access this just-in-time expertise as and when they need it, not take on permanent overheads. But there are still challenges around access and “discovery”: who’s available, which projects, defining roles, agreeing a price etc.

Contribution

Meanwhile, employers and HR managers are re-assessing how to re-evaluate employee contribution. It’s not simply a matter of how “hard” you work (e.g., the hours you put in, or the sales you make). Companies want to know what else you can do for them: how you collaborate, do you know how to ask for help, and are you willing to bring all your experience, as well as who and what you know to the role? (As a case in point, when Etsy’s COO, Linda Kozlowski was recently asked about her own hiring criteria, she emphasized the importance of critical thinking, and the ability for new hires to turn analysis into actionable solutions.)

In another blog on purpose, I noted that finding meaningful work all boils down to connecting with our values and interests, and finding a balance between what motivates us, what rewards us, what we can contribute, and what people want from us. As I wrote at the time, how do we manage our career path, when our purpose and our needs will change over time? In short, the future of work will be about creating our own career opportunities, in line with our values, purpose and requirements.*

Compensation

From an economic and social policy perspective, no debate about the future of work can ignore the dual paradoxes:

  1. We will need to have longer careers (as life expectancy increases), but there will be fewer “traditional” jobs to go round;
  2. A mismatch between workforce supply and in-demand skills (plus growing automation) will erode “traditional” wage structures in the jobs that do remain

Politicians, economists and academics have to devise strategies and theories that support social stability based on aspirational employment targets, while recognising the shifting market conditions and the changing technological environment. And, of course, for trade unions, more freelance/independent workers and cheaper hourly rates undermine their own business model of an organised membership, centralised industrial awards, enterprise bargaining and the residual threat of industrial action when protective/restrictive practices may be under threat.

Which is why there needs to be a more serious debate about ideas such as the Universal Basic Income, and grants to help people to start their own business. On the Universal Basic Income (UBI), I was struck by a recent interview with everyone’s favourite polymath, Brian Eno. He supports the UBI because:

“…we’re now looking towards a future where there will be less and less employment, inevitably automation is going to make it so there simply aren’t jobs. But that’s alright as long as we accept the productivity that the automations are producing feeds back to people ….. [The] universal basic income, which is basically saying we pay people to be alive – it makes perfect sense to me.”

If you think that intellectuals like Eno are “part of the problem“, then union leaders like Tim Ayres (who advocates the “start-up grant”), actually have more in common with Margaret Thatcher than perhaps they realise. It was Thatcher’s government that came up with the original Enterprise Allowance Scheme which, despite its flaws, can be credited with launching the careers of many successful entrepreneurs in the 1980s. Such schemes can also help the workforce transition from employment in “old” heavy industries to opportunities in the growing service sectors and the emerging, technology-driven enterprises of today.

Creativity

I am increasingly of the opinion that, whatever our chosen or preferred career path, it is essential to engage with our creative outlets: in part to provide a counterbalance to work/financial/external demands and obligations; in part to explore alternative ideas, find linkages between our other interests, and to connect with new and emerging technology.

In discussing his support for the UBI, Eno points to our need for creativity:

“For instance, in prisons, if you give people the chance to actually make something …. you say to them ‘make a picture, try it out, do whatever’ – and the thrill that somebody gets to find that they can actually do something autonomously, not do something that somebody else told them to do, well, in the future we’re all going to be able to need those kind of skills. Apart from the fact that simply rehearsing yourself in creativity is a good idea, remaining creative and being able to go to a situation where you’re not told what to do and to find out how to deal with it, this should be the basic human skill that we are educating people towards and what we’re doing is constantly stopping them from learning.”

I’ve written recently about the importance of the maker culture, and previously commented on the value of the arts and the contribution that they make to society. There is a lot of data on the economic benefits of both the arts and the creative industries, and their contribution to GDP. Some commentators have even argued that art and culture contribute more to the economy than jobs and growth.

Even a robust economy such as Singapore recognises the need to teach children greater creativity through the ability to process information, not simply regurgitate facts. It’s not because we might need more artists (although that may not be a bad thing!), but because of the need for both critical AND creative thinking to complement the demand for new technical skills – to prepare students for the new world of work, to foster innovation, to engage with careers in science and technology and to be more resilient and adaptive to a changing job market.

Conclusions

As part of this ongoing topic, some of the questions that I hope to explore in coming months include:

1. In the debate on the “Future of Work”, is it still relevant to track “employment” only in statistical terms (jobs created/lost, unemployment rates, number of hours worked, etc.)?

2. Is “job” itself an antiquated economic unit of measure (based on a 9-5, 5-day working week, hierarchical and centralised organisational models, and highly directed work practices and structures)?

3. How do we re-define “work” that is not restricted to an industrial-era definition of the “employer-employee/master-servant” relationship?

4. What do we need to do to ensure that our education system is directed towards broader outcomes (rather than paper-based qualifications in pursuit of a job) that empower students to be more resilient and more adaptive, to help them make informed decisions about their career choices, to help them navigate lifelong learning pathways, and to help them find their own purpose?

5. Do we need new ways to evaluate and reward “work” contribution that reflect economic, scientific, societal, environmental, community, research, policy, cultural, technical, artistic, academic, etc. outcomes?

* Acknowledgment: Some of the ideas in this blog were canvassed during an on-line workshop I facilitated last year on behalf of Re-Imagi, titled “How do we find Purpose in Work?”. For further information on how you can access these and other ideas, please contact me at: rory@re-imagi.co

Next week: Designing The Future Workplace

The Startup of You v2.0

Through my blogs on startups, meetups and portfolio careers, I was recently interviewed by Peter Judd from News Corp., who is trying to bring the discussion on entrepreneurship, startups and innovation to a wider audience, particularly people who may be looking at a career change. (We both agree that the National Innovation and Science Agenda is not cutting through to the general public.)  Apart from being an advocate for portfolio careers, I also pointed out that entrepreneurship or working with startups is not for everyone. Instead, it may be possible to change your current role to the one you want. Alternatively, taking a new look at your current circumstances can provide some fresh perspective on finding your dream career.

Francis Kenna: The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing (2016) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Francis Kenna: The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing (2016) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

The impetus following the 2012 publication of “The Startup of You” has done much to fuel the current entrepreneurial phenomenon, combined with lean startup business models and agile product development processes. The drive for innovation in response to digital disruption and lowering technology costs also means that launching your own venture can be increasingly de-risked.

For example, I recently saw some data by Ian Gardner from Amazon Web Services, that showed the “cost of failure” has come down from $5m to $5k, in just 15 years. This is based on a comparison between what it typically cost to launch a new business at the height of the dot.com boom/bust in 2000, and what it costs today. With a mix of open source tools, cloud computing, APIs, SDKs and social media platforms, launching a new business has never been cheaper or easier.

Of course, there is a paradox here: if an increasing number of people, especially younger graduates and new entrants to the workforce, are more interested in doing their own thing and less interested in joining large or established organisations, it’s going to get harder for employers to attract and retain the best talent; on the other hand, without appropriate experience, on-the-job training and personal development, how do these aspiring entrepreneurs acquire the necessary business, technical and leadership skills to succeed in their own ventures?

For some people, it may be appropriate to take their entrepreneurial spirit of adventure into a “traditional” role to test some of their ideas, as well as build networks and get some practical experience. Equally, I can see a huge opportunity for companies to create the right opportunities to engage employees for flexible roles aligned with specific projects or objectives (rather than plugging them into org charts). Companies are also finding new ways of tapping into their existing workforce to identify hitherto hidden and unknown skills and knowledge. Many employers also recognise that leadership roles will increasingly be filled by people who are comfortable with rapid change, increasing complexity and heightened uncertainty, as well as having enhanced soft skills. (There’s even some current thinking that utilising “rebel talent” is a good thing.)

Whether you are starting out on your entrepreneurial journey, looking to reboot your career, or searching for meaningful work that aligns with your values and purpose, there are numerous opportunities (via meetups, hackathons, pitch nights and networking forums) to explore your options before you make a decision. And for companies looking to re-invigorate your workforce and unleash hidden talent, there are many ways to experiment through taking informed risks, by building in-house innovation hubs, running consultative and collaborative workshops, and inviting ideas and inspiration from your existing people, who are familiar with the challenges you face.

Next week: Banksy – an artist for our times?