Like many others, I have recently been reading a lot about the future of work. From Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, introducing the concept of paradigm shift), to Fritjof Capra & Pier Luigi Luisi (The Systems View of Life), to Rutger Bregman (Utopia for Realists), they persuasively describe the major paradigm shift that will significantly alter our ways of perceiving work, as well as our actual doing of the work.
For more than 20 years, the basic premise of the work of ExecuVision International has been that everyone wants to contribute to an organization at his or her highest level of ability. The nature of the organization is irrelevant. It could be a family, a community of worship, a political movement, or a social club. In America, however, that contribution is most frequently related to work.
There is an anthropological explanation for the desire to contribute. In tribal societies, when a member was no longer capable of contributing to the well-being of the tribe, he or she was left behind when the tribe moved on. This was not cruelty; it was a recognition that resources were scarce and there was no place for those who did not add value.
In those societies, everyone had a vested interest in extending their contributions to the tribe for as long as possible. The tribe also had a vested interest in keeping members involved. Tribal interests are emotional, concerning sustainability, community, tribal history, etc. They are also economic. The tribe cannot afford to lose the skill and wisdom of the elders, which can be passed on to each new generation.
It appears, then, that we have a conundrum here. Since the 1980s, American corporate focus has been on maximizing short-term profit for shareholders, rather than long-term return on investment for stakeholders. It is not the purpose of this short writing to advocate for one position or the other. The point is, simply, that it has become increasingly difficult for employees to dedicate themselves to one particular organization. It has also become nearly impossible for any organization to continue to support tribe members who are not directly adding measurable value.
I wonder about how this is going to affect us as a society in the coming years. I have spent a long career dedicated to contributing to a variety of organizations. I have felt enormous gratification when that contribution was acknowledged… and equally enormous disappointment when it wasn’t. For most of the more than 400 clients with whom I have worked, this was also true. We celebrated the wins, we mourned the losses. We recognized that the losses emerged when we thought we were contributing, and it was not recognized.
My concern is that when people are not contributing at their highest level of ability, there is no fulfillment through work. The result is that people are forced to accept labor which may not even be needed to provide goods or services that could more easily and effectively be produced by machines. This is neither psychologically healthy, nor spiritually fulfilling.
This observation is supported by David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics. In an article in The Economist titled Bullshit jobs and the yoke of managerial feudalism he defines a bullshit job:
A bullshit job is one that even the person doing it secretly believes need not, or should not, exist. That if the job, or even the whole industry, were to vanish, either it would make no difference to anyone, or the world might even be a slightly better place.
Something like 37-40% of workers according to surveys say their jobs make no difference… people’s self-assessments are largely correct. Their jobs really are just as pointless as they think they are.
This, then, is my concern with the future of work. It is not that work will completely disappear. It is that the opportunity to contribute will! The tragedy is that people will, through economic necessity, engage in labor that is neither needed nor beneficial. The bills might get paid, but life will remain unfulfilled.
The most important question any leader today can ask is, are we building an organization where every member has the opportunity to contribute at his or her highest level of ability? If not, we are wasting our only competitive advantage – the active engagement of all members of our tribe. How well does your organization measure up?