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)


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.


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.*


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.


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.


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:

Next week: Designing The Future Workplace

Moving #innovation from “permitted” to “possible”

As the dust settles on the Federal election results, the Turnbull government has already been taken to task for failing to get one of its key messages across to the public: how to take advantage of the economic, technological, scientific, social and cultural opportunities inherent in the “Innovation Agenda”.  It seems that the so-called “Ideas Boom” failed to resonate with much of the electorate because, apparently, no-one has explained to them how innovation actually impacts their lives.

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 8.39.24 PMUnfortunately, I think it goes deeper than that: the recent campaign debates were limited to concepts of “traditional” job-creation; reliance on conventional relationships between the State, the private sector and individual citizens; and the priorities of (pre)serving the interests of public institutions such as 3-year Parliaments and even political parties themselves. The electorate may (perhaps rightly) feel short-changed by the level of the debate, but voters also need to take some responsibility for not challenging candidates to raise their game: where were the mainstream discussions on climate change, new technology, the future of “work”, digital disruption, scientific advances, and the changing attitudes towards end of life?

There is also a core misconception, that the government is responsible for fostering  innovation, that only public policy (and public resources?) can set the innovation agenda. I don’t believe it is the role of government to “make it happen”, and certainly, such an approach is not going to occur overnight. At best, government can create a framework, highlight best practice, and encourage appropriate activity. Just as I don’t think you can “teach” creativity (only identify, support and nurture it), I don’t think innovation is something to be determined from the outside. As with creative inspiration, innovation has to come from within: from employees, from customers, from suppliers, etc.

The risk of relying solely on governments or other vested interests to shape innovation is that our thinking becomes constrained by what is “permitted”, rather than what is “possible”.

On a related theme, it was refreshing to listen to a panel of speakers at a seminar on “Innovation from the inside out” held during Melbourne Startup Week. The key messages were:

  • how to instill purpose in any organisational change, business transformation or innovation project;
  • how to empower all levels of an organisation to make ideas happen; and
  • how to incentivize intrapreneurship?

This naturally leads to a discussion of developing more adaptable and resilient career paths. If you don’t have transferable skills, or if you not prepared to update your knowledge, or if you think of your career path as a straight linear projection, it will be much harder to cope with the demands of a flexible work environment. If you think of yourself as only ever performing a specific job function, or identify only as your profession or job title, or define yourself only by your formal qualifications, you will only ever think about what roles you may be “permitted” to perform, rather than seeing what career opportunities may be possible. As a careers adviser in the Victorian Government’s Skills and Job Centre network told his audience at a recent Small Business workshop: it’s not the responsibility of the government or your employer to manage your career. Notwithstanding upskilling initiatives and structured outplacement programs, we are each responsible for shaping our own destiny – especially in the increasingly on-demand economy.

Back to the main topic, I’ve been participating in a series of workshops on the Future of Work, Money, Ageing, Death, Democracy etc. hosted by the Re-Imagineers, an on-line ideas playground that builds co-created artifacts to support people-led innovation. The model is designed to help organisations draw on insights from their in-house knowledge and skills, customer experience and feedback, and external expertise to originate new ideas and innovative solutions from within their own resources, and which align with their values and those of their stakeholders. It’s still early days, but all of the discussions have identified some amazing ideas and possibilities.

The team from Re-Imagineers will be visiting Australia during July and August, so if you or your organisation would like to hear about the key learnings from these forums, especially as they impact sectors such as finance, health care and IT, please contact me via this blog, and I will make the relevant introductions.

Next week: Update on the New #Conglomerates