Existential Questions on the Future of Work (Part 5: Values & Questions)

This sequence of articles intended to stimulate discussion around questions we already face or will likely confront within our lifetimes. The underlying framework to the discussion below can be reviewed in:
Part 1: People & Civilization
Part 2: Institutions & Economics
Part 3: Technology & Automation
Part 4: Makers & Takers

Acknowledgements include (links provided throughout):
Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson (sequence of books on topic),
Ryan Avent: The Wealth of Humans,
Heather McGowan (starting with Jobs Are Over) and
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.,
Player Piano.

Emergent Purpose as Technology Advances

Humans have created things (such as tools, machines and industry) and ideas (such as corporations, financial institutions and political organizations) to progress from individual to community to civilization. As the relationships between people and their institutions evolve, how do we set priorities? Who is empowered to do so? Do our institutions now assert their own importance above their original purpose: to better the human condition and the world in which we live? Technology has propelled these creations to a level of sophistication where we must now ask:

What is the purpose of our institutions?

The Future of Work will be the result of technology persistently advancing our individual and collective connectedness and productivity. The identity and nature of nations, corporations, careers and work itself must evolve in response to the rise in both complexity and capability propelled by the ongoing pace of breakthrough innovations in science and engineering. As Beth Comstock describes in “Welcome to The Emergent Era”:

It’s a time defined by the rapid waning of our legacy institutions, even though their replacements haven’t scaled up yet. We’re in that messy, sometimes anxious, and ambiguous space between the old and the new.

We could argue that institutions have become an apex entity, with the interests of people and the planet surrogate to the interests of the institutions. For example, dominant financial institutions had so severely concentrated their prominence in the economy that public funds were needed to support them through the 2007 financial crisis to allay systemic failure. Commercial and industrial actions are ultimately driven by financial measures such as reducing costs & risks and maximizing returns to shareholders.

Historically, we considered the interests of shareholders to span long-term (employee retirement) and short-term (hedge fund) goals and corporate leadership to strike a balance allowing for each but always toward the company’s enduring strength to compete and grow the market. But as low interest rates introduced risk to pension funds to meet obligations, these massive investors aligned with advocates for short-term returns and have diminished corporate appetites for long-term commitments. Companies acquiescing to such pressures often curtail growth investment and enact cost-cutting measures that can include workforce reduction. Capital investments in ever-advancing automation technology can then raise workforce productivity, which improves profit margin, but facilitates permanence of the reductions.

How might ‘Human Sustainability’ affect public opinion and prospective hires as workforce reductions shift from short-term to permanent through automation technology?

The brilliant and ambitious people companies yearn to employ seek workplaces to imagine and build inspiring products and services. The most talented people seek work that is stimulating, meaningful and connects with other exceptional people within a culture of alignment with the stated purpose of the firm. Establishing an identity for “reliable quarterly returns” is antithetical to attract (or retain) talent whose potential to profoundly contribute relies upon a culture of confidence, innovation and growth. Struggles of leadership creating uncertainty result in risk-averse behavior, undermining inspiration and drive toward transformation and breakthrough.

Institutions guided solely by self-interest and financial metrics need not value the well-being of people and our planet beyond compliance with regulations, actuarial risk assessment and consumer outrage. But until artificial intelligence develops adequate self-awareness and self-interest to steer such complex organizations, these institutions are ultimately controlled by people.

What should guide and enforce how obligations and rewards are assessed as we make trade-offs between the interests of institutions, people and our shared planet?

As People, we are responsible to define the role of our institutions — our academies, companies, markets, governments and nations. The present scale of technology-powered extraction of matter and energy, and consequent disposal of waste and by-products has reached a scale to become a material trade-off between the asserted needs of industrial markets and the essential needs of living ecosystems. Political factions continue to debate acceptable environmental impact of industrial activity on the land, air and water composing the planet’s environment.

To live in the modern world, the civilization resulting from millennia of political struggle, technological advances and social progress, requires also accepting the terms of the detente in the conflict between the power of wealth and the power of numbers for defining the rules. Civilization’s social contract (“submit to my authority and I will provide for you and protect your remaining rights”) relies upon providing adequate livelihood and opportunity for all contributing to public services, the social environment of communities and corporations and behavioral respect for the rule of law.

Historically, those holding wealth and power relied upon stability and consistency of their society to retain their wealth and power, which required faith in the social contracts governing such questions. To what degree does the global socio-economic system inspire and reward hard work and talent as opposed to situational fortune (being born in the right place and/or to the right people)? Can we equitably assess the range of contributors with whom to share the rewards of systemic growth and advancement of society?

What political (regulatory), economic (tax/fee) and/or social levers might better align rewards, incentives, penalties and liabilities to revised notions of who contributes to and who undermines the public good and progress of civilization?

What might a displaced workforce stimulate in organized crime or emergent non-compliant group behavior? Will public sympathy for people / apathy or antipathy to institutions undermine established rules and assumptions? What industries might become nationalized to deliver public needs such as energy, telecommunications, transportation, healthcare and education while supporting stability of employment for the populace?

While unemployment at the national level is abstract, the aftermath of a plant closure due to technological job displacement will be acutely experienced by individuals and local communities. Beyond loss of income, societal burdens include elevations in morbidity, depression, substance abuse, physical injury and deterioration of childhood health and marriages. These directly-impacted communities will have a clear interest in acting to promote and preserve the economic viability of local businesses and employability of their workforce.

Ideological politics can deadlock progress on national issues, but at the level of state, city and county there is no such luxury. Regardless of political party, solutions are required to provide and sustain:

  • Food quality, clean water, trash and sewage removal
  • Safety of people, property and conduct of commerce
  • Housing and infrastructure for transportation
  • Healthcare, wellness, education and skill development
  • Employment and economic opportunity.

Independent of the initially absent federal engagement, the Compact of Mayors represented a hundred American cities self-aware of sensitivity to climate impact at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Digital technology may increasingly enable networks of local communities to address pragmatic needs with minimal national oversight and render geographic proximity less relevant to defining the boundaries of a community.

How might communities with affinities of interest leverage technologies such as social networks to coordinate actions autonomous of national consensus?

As the concept of a career wanes and sequences of employment engagements become the norm, to what extent will certifications become a barrier to needed job agility? Licensing has been used by established interests (in particular medical and legal professionals) to maintain provider scarcity, limit competition and thus elevate their own compensation and secure affluence of their job.

Licensed professions have historically wielded significant political influence asserting such requirements are well-justified by public interests. However, their occupations may soon be fundamentally reshaped through the opportunity to have a wider array of practitioners deliver services leveraging collaborations with intelligent machines. Technology-augmentation can even surpass expert human practice as machines do not get distracted or suffer fatigue, for example in avoiding Medical Errors.

How will the application of technology to provide greater job mobility, wider access to services, better quality and lower costs to consumers alter licensing and certification?

Thought leaders like Marc Andreessen (“This is Probably a Good Time to Say That I Don’t Believe Robots Will Eat All the Jobs …”) reassure Luddite fears are unjustified because of tremendous human capacity for entrepreneurship:

“We have no idea what the […] jobs of the future will be. We just know we will create an enormous number of them. Because […] the new fields we create will be built on the huge number of people those robots and AI systems made available. To argue that huge numbers of people will be available but we will find nothing for them (us) to do is to dramatically short human creativity. And I am way long [on] human creativity.”

Two further observations from Andreessen are: (a) technologies such as robotics and automation have empowered everyone with unprecedented means of production and (b) “had robots/machines not eaten many jobs in agriculture and industry already, we would have a far lower standard of living today” — translating to dividends on improved health, time for learning and leisure and access to affordable goods and technologies.

Beyond the industry of intrepid and enterprising future individuals adept at harnessing rapidly-advancing technology, however, are the prospects of many millions of workers who struggle to embrace even today’s technologies. Parents of children who will enter the workforce in the 2030’s must take a leap of faith to accept population-scale work emerging from entrepreneurial and presently unforeseen market opportunities. Persistent uncertainty on the shape of the Future of Work will drive anxiety until we have more clarity on:

What (precisely) will drive the demand for labor and the growth of wages as automation simplifies tasks across a broad range of jobs?

It is likely automation will greatly contribute to independence and quality of life for people with disabilities and mental illness. Automation technology may introduce new challenges but also new opportunities for such individuals to find meaningful work and earn a living wage.

Do viable non-financial incentives exist to consistently and sustainably motivate global-scale institutions toward the public good and shared objectives of civilization?

As an example of such metrics and transparency, in 2011 Puma became the first company to introduce an Environmental Profit & Loss Account (EP&L) report to guide “using more sustainable raw materials, promoting resource efficiency practices in our supply chain and, last but not least, integrating sustainability considerations back into product design and development processes.” For societal interests, a “Genuine Progress Indicator” (GPI) metric has been suggested as an alternative to GDP. GPI and EP&L seek to capture costs effectively levied on future generations through resource extraction and generation of pollution and waste. GPI includes measures of social costs and benefits, as well as considers employment, infrastructure and education.

When technology reduces the sum total of needed labor by traditional sources of income, we will face an opportunity to redefine the role of work in human culture. To what tasks could we devote knowledgeable, skilled and motivated people if indeed we as a society intentionally sought to employ automation to eliminate the necessity of work as a preoccupation of humans? (For example, as Star Trek depicts future Economics.)

“Can we build [new] institutions for those who do not work [only] because their work is [no longer] necessary to generate economic growth?” Ryan Avent, The Wealth of Humans

As automation simplifies jobs and enhances worker productivity, we will confront the comparative social acceptability of job elimination vs. emergent widespread under-employment and so-called “bullshit jobs”. Cultural differences will dramatically influence perceptions and left purely to economic factors, risk regional competitive imbalances reversing labor policies despite societal benefits.

In Machine, Platform, Crowd, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson describe relative cost advantages of companies (for coordinating transactions) vs. markets (for products). As digital technologies reduce coordination costs by facilitating connections and providing a basis for trust, cost advantages shift to markets. Companies can then reduce in-house staff where comparable talent can be sourced reliably from the market (including crowd-sourcing). This is one stimulus toward the so-called “Gig Economy” of fluid income engagements. Are corporate organizations already experimenting with these structures by creating “mission-based teams”?

Will occupational instability destabilize human-evolved notions of identity and career path that typically drive Dignity, Pride and Purpose?

As employment becomes more part-time or temporary, are there viable alternatives to employer-reliant healthcare? Will our educational institutions prepare workers with the skills to thrive under such continual change? Are educational institutions and prepared for lifelong learning needed to keep pace with technology? How will perpetual learning connect with Dignity, Pride and Purpose? (Read heathermcgowan and Chris Shipley).

If less human labor is required for commercial activities, would our culture be open to paying a living wage to people working a fraction of today’s expected hours (without the stigma of being “under-employed”?)

The complexities of the modern world put a premium on our time and attention. The topic of Work-Life Balance has driven a great deal of research and commercial experimentation to address potential negative effects of work obligations on employees’ lives. Through policies introducing more flexibility, employees better able to accommodate non-work obligations and interests can reduce burnout and stress, improve physical and mental health as well as diminish the impact of distractions from outside the workplace.

In Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes contemplated the very question of reduced demand for labor enabled
through the productivity delivered by technological advances. While acknowledging that “life is tolerable for its struggle […] solving our economic problems may deprive mankind of our traditional purpose” he suggested an idea as radical now as in 1930: Labor Rationing. Notionally, he considers intentionally restricting each worker to a 15-hour work week, allowing for sufficient “task satisfaction” across the worker population.

Let’s hear it for the four-hour working day by Oliver Burkeman (The Guardian, 11 August, 2017) asks: “How much proper brainwork — not zoning out in meetings, or reorganising the stationery cupboard, but work that involves really thinking — should you aim to get done in one day?”

Automation of tasks in both our professional and private lives has the potential to relieve us of distracting and tedious activities.

What social benefits might result from having more time for
• Care for children, the elderly, sick and disabled,
• Education and Social Connectedness,
• Pursuit of Scientific Discovery and our Exploration of the Universe,
Work that is important but unprofitable (e.g., cleaning the oceans) or
• Arts & Entertainment — creative passions (like music & storytelling)?

As we conquered basic survival in humankind’s humble beginnings, the need to earn our place in society became deeply-rooted in our psyche and social order as Dignity. Over our lifetime we create an identity, often associated with our work or even a generational family occupation we carry in our name such as Baker, Ferrari, Kravitz, Singh or Wagner. The importance of this identity aligns with a sense of Purpose. The result of accomplishments in life, and in many cultures aligned with our work, reward us with a sense of Pride.

As technology shapes the Future of Work and alters the practice of traditional occupations, how will individuals and society adapt to fulfill the human spirit’s need for Dignity, Pride and Purpose?

Visit also: Andrew McAfee, Erik Brynjolfsson, Ryan Avent, heathermcgowan, Chris Shipley and Moshe Vardi on related discussions of the Future of Work. (See also: Future of Work: Essential Resources)

Additional perspectives:

This article is Part-5 of a sequence of writings that began with:
Part 1: People & Civilization
Part 2: Institutions & Economics
Part 3: Technology & Automation
Part 4: Makers & Takers

STEM+Arts Advocate. I work in applying computational methods and digital technology at an industrial R&D lab. Views are my own.