The future of work is on the table

The way we work is due for a change and this time, writes Anna Connell, everyone should be part of the conversation

“So, what do you do?” was aways the first or second question I was asked when I was dating. It’s a solid icebreaker. It reveals something about you while leaving room in the conversation to fill in a lot of blanks. Talking about work is a kind of anti-taboo. It’s a perfectly acceptable opener and most of us have a relatable and comfortable language to describe it. We love our jobs or we hate them, we work long hours, we have a pretty sweet boss, we go somewhere to do it, we own our own business, we do other things with our free time, we wish we had more time.

Unlike discussions about money, race, gender, fertility, sexuality, politics or religion, the topic of work seems free of conversational landmines where prejudice, personal information or vulnerability could be revealed. Talking about work gives us enough room to denote something while levelling the conversational playing field. Work is work. Universally understood and at most levels, recognisable in its form.

Yet the idea of work and what that looks like is as laden with as many tensions, prejudices and assumptions as other topics. And it will only become weightier as the “future of work” becomes something we all confront.

The inescapable reality is that technology is impacting all of us in our working lives in some way or another. In the past, technology has been used to make work easier and more efficient. Now, it’s in the process of redefining work altogether.

Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, is the author of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a revolution we are in the midst of. The last three industrial revolutions have “liberated humankind from animal power, made mass production possible and brought digital capabilities to billions of people,” says Schwab

The fourth industrial revolution is different. It is all-encompassing in the impact it is having. Technology, Schwab argues, will ultimately redefine industries, economies and what it means to be human.

In most western contemporary film and television, work still looks like it did when television arrived in the 1950s. There have been some obvious adjustments as we’ve advanced better ideals, where challenges to representations of race, gender, sexuality and class in the real world have been reflected on screen, but work is still somewhere we go every weekday, where we usually have clearly defined jobs, some of which have been around for hundreds of years. We wear work clothes, we have lunch breaks, we do it for a set period of time, we change jobs at will if we’re lucky or “successful” and we embark on something that looks like a trajectory. Sometimes we do this for an employer, and sometimes we run our own business.

Alternatives have been offered but they are often dystopian science fiction, or, if you’re a pessimist billed as such. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series presents a world where types of work are assigned based on a personality test and factions. Charlie Brooker paints a particularly bleak view in the Fifteen Million Merits episode of his Black Mirror series where people earn merits (points) by cycling on machines to generate power. Their everyday activities are interrupted by advertisements they can’t ignore or they’ll lose merits, and obese people are considered to be second-class citizens working as cleaners around the machines, or otherwise humiliated on game shows.

A lot of dystopian fiction is a reflection of concerns the author has about what is happening around them at the time. They usually point to the erosion of values we hold dear now and many offer an exaggerated view on inequality and injustice that already exists. Brooker’s series particularly focuses on the perils of unchecked and corrupted technological advancements.

Schwab also expresses similar concerns: organisations mightn’t adapt; governments could fail to regulate new technologies in the nest interest of people; inequality may grow; and societies fragment. Overall however, his view is less pessimistic. Although he argues we’re at a point in history where we face both “great promise and great peril”, his conclusion is hopeful, suggesting we’re in control of this revolution as long as we work together to “shape a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people.”

Theoretically and academically, the examination of the future of work is robust. The Harvard Business Review offers a new point of view on it almost daily. However the people reading the HBR, myself included, are a privileged elite. That I even have the luxury of time in my day to contemplate the idea of work and offer high-minded thoughts speaks volumes.

My concern is that so far, most of the discussion about the future of work has been too academic. 

Unlike topics of race or gender where grass roots movements have been key to challenging assumptions, bias and language and ultimately redressing inequalities, the current conversations about the future of work are happening at lofty and great heights while accepted cultural norms and everyday language surrounding work are left alone, unchecked, and definitely not happening at a level where empowerment will be most required. The way we talk about work needs to change in order for people to be empowered but changes in norms and language are seldom changes that happen from the top down.

Like Schwab I am also optimistic about what’s coming, in part, because the right people to start a conversation in New Zealand have done so. Announced in December 2014, Labour’s Future of Work Commission has begun the job of examining and challenging all that we know and assume about work. The ensuing report was released in November 2016 and while it’s a fascinating read, the value of is not as a piece of academic work, or even as policy. It’s real value simply lies in that fact that it's come from Labour. For all that has changed about the political landscape and where Labour have positioned themselves on it, they’re still the party most broadly and closely aligned to the idea of worker’s rights. They still have proximity to the people who need to be given a chance to participate in a conversation about those rights, and the impact technology will have on some of the foundations that protect them.

The language required to talk about what will happen to work needs to be developed, shared and challenged by those most likely to be negatively affected by the enormous change the fourth industrial revolution represents. The conversation about work is important to everyone but this is Labour’s conversation to have, alongside the Greens, and I hope they’ll be bold enough to bring it to the table this election year.

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