The Future of Work

Work is broken. We work too much, we work on the wrong things, and we prioritize work over more important human needs.

The Future of Work

As the #FightFor15 rages on in Congress, I find myself wondering if we’re asking the wrong questions about wages, and more broadly, work, in this country. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated trends in the workforce like work-from-home culture and the fragility of the middle-class economy. We were slowly trying to peel the Band-Aid and the coronavirus ripped it off, taking skin and hair with it. Tons of people have lost their jobs, jobs where they were underpaid or “contractors” with no benefits, meaning the collective safety net was predictably porous. Now, we’re reckoning with our choices as a country: who we choose to prioritize in the work force, and how our work/life balance has been slowly eroding.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I don’t feel qualified to answer all the questions about the future of work. But being unemployed most of last year afforded me a lot of time to contemplate such ideas, which is a point in and of itself.

The future of work is at our doorstep, and I know you’re home so you have no excuse not to answer. How will you respond?

Meaningful Work

The days of clocking in and clocking out are over. It’s not enough anymore to just get a paycheck every 1st and 15th. People want purpose.

“It is purpose that created us. Purpose that connects us. Purpose that pulls us. That guides us. That drives us. It is purpose that defines us.”

Stagnant wages have caused workers to become increasingly disgruntled. Citizens United, the degradation of unions, and the large-scale adoption of the gig economy has given corporations significant leverage over the working public. All on top of the planet rotting away in the name of industry. Because of this, more and more workers are becoming driven by causes as much as they are by salary. Is my company taking diversity, equity, and inclusion seriously? Are we supporting Black Lives Matter? What is our sustainability plan? Does our company believe in a living wage? These are the questions that young people are asking before they ever step foot in the office. The talent war will be fought with a different set of company perks compared to previous years, putting more leverage back in the hands of the employee to affect change in the real world outside the purview of their position.

A concurrent conversation is happening around reclaiming the boundaries between work and life outside of work. On a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, Ezra explains that this shift in work culture is a feature, not a bug, in the way the system was designed to make our places of employment inescapable.

So there’s a thread here that I think is interesting. So you go back to more of the period you’re talking about. Well, let’s call it the early 2000s. So now you’re seeing the very sharp rise of your Google’s. Apple’s already pretty big, but you begin to see Facebook, et cetera. And you remember all this. There was a real vogue for, can you believe all these Silicon Valley firms have ping pong tables? Just like, it’s ping pong tables everywhere. And, right, Google had all of these features done on their workplace culture. And there were slides in a bunch of the offices and on-site laundry and these beautiful lunches with fancy chefs and cafeterias.

Initially, this was all presented as paradise for a worker. And then, slowly, this alternative narrative began to take hold, which is, no, this is actually a quite insidious kind of trap. This is a way of making workers spend all of their time at work. It’s a way of making it so people don’t go home easily at night. It’s a way of blurring the lines between what is fun and social and community, which we normally think of as not happening in your office, and what is your office. And it’s a way of getting people to put in 10, 12-hour days.

And a lot of the software that emerges out of these companies and out of this period actually seems to me to take that physical insight, that by blurring the line of fun at work, you could allow work to colonize spaces that hadn’t colonized before, and it becomes a software insight. And so then, as you say, things that look like fun at the front end, right — we can chatter with our employees all day — now begin to overwhelm things that actually would have been more fun or more restful or more fulfilling.

Like, you have Slack pings hitting your phone at night when you’re supposed to be with your family, or you’re sitting with your friends, and you’re looking at your phone because you’re just so used to being in that constant communication. That the blending of work and fun, which I do think of as a distinctive work culture thing of our era, has actually been really toxic for real fun — and maybe for work, too.

Work became our whole lives, and our lives centered around our work. Companies took advantage of our quest for purpose and warped it into toxic productivity, which gave rise to a culture that praised not sleeping and never leaving the office to serve the greater good of the business. We were shown a future utopia where technology solved all the world’s ills if we just worked hard enough, and instead, we became sick, poisoned by that very promise.

The Black Mirror and the Robot Uprising

Have you ever considered that most people work inside during the nicest, brightest hours of the day? Who decided that was a good idea?

Back in the day, when many of us tended to the land or hunted for our food, this made sense. The hours when the sun was at its peak were prime time for hunting and harvesting. Fast forward 100 years, and our data is the only thing being harvested.

If we’re lucky, we spend about 6 hours a day in front of a computer screen. Almost every job requires a substantial amount of screen time, {and it’s only getting worse} as more jobs move to digital and those jobs require more screen time. There is a whole suite of products built around solving problems created by this behavior: standing desks, ergonomic desk chairs, blue light glasses, and ergonomic keyboards. Facebook doesn’t exist without Soylent and Red Bull allowing coders to pull all-nighters without leaving their work station. Apple now has a feature called Screen Time because we’re on our screens so much that we need to be told when to stop. “Hi, my name’s Justin and I’m a technaholic.” Not to be confused with technoholic, which I unabashedly am.

The rapid improvement (maybe that’s the wrong term) of technology in the work place over the last 30 years came with bold predictions about the uselessness of humans once AI was ready to rise to the occasion. “Think of all the time we’ll save when algorithms do all the work for us?” Instead, we’re buried in ZOOM meetings, Slack channels, or lines of code for most of the day, even before the pandemic sent us all home.

The promise of technology has only made us slaves to it, not broken our shackles. The techno-optimists swear we’ll get there eventually. I still need convincing.

The first two books I read at the beginning of lockdown last year were “How To Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell and “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport. If you still need convincing, Jenny and Cal will more than change your mind.

The Commodification of… Everything

Last week, New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz published a story about an app called NewNew. Here’s a quote from the article:

Courtne Smith, the founder and chief executive of NewNew, said the company was “similar to the stock market” in that “you can buy shares, which are essentially votes, to be able to control a certain level of a person’s life.”

“We’re building an economy of attention where you purchase moments in other people’s lives, and we take it a step further by allowing and enabling people to control those moments,” she said.

What are we doing, people? I mean, really? Is nothing sacred?

Capitalism comes for everything, and it looks like it’s finally coming for our very existence in the form of this warped Big Brother crossed with Truman Show and The Circle-style reality TV app Frankenstein monster called NewNew. It’s the “gamification” of life itself. Post this thing: how many social points did I get? Do this quest, if you complete it, more social points. In some ways, it’s no different from the early American dream. “Buy this house, buy this car, marry this person, have some kids, get a dog, build a fence: achievement unlocked.”

We’ve been heading down this road for decades. Celebrity culture has always been toxic, but each new technology makes it more insidious and omnipresent. Tabloid magazines and the paparazzi, TMZ, sex tapes, OJ in the White Bronco, Monica Lewinsky in the White House, Jerry Springer, Britney Spears; the list goes on.

The advent of social media flipped the script. Instead of allowing the media to control the narrative, people have direct access to the public through their social accounts. Does Monica Lewinsky become a pariah or just the next Kim Kardashian if she has access to Instagram? The amount of control over your own destiny is a great advantage public figures have now. It can be used for good by someone like Greta Thunberg, or for evil by He Who Shall Not Be Thought About Ever Again.

Today, everyone is a brand or a “public figure” trying to go viral with dreams of becoming an Internet celebrity showered with gifts from sponsors and praise from their peers. Social capital is the only currency that matters. The common assumption is that influencers don’t work, they just post on social media all day. Who wouldn’t want a life so easy? So instead of connecting with friends online, we’re gaining “followers” like a cult leader to leverage into influence, all in pursuit of an “Instagrammable Lifestyle” worthy of 10,000 re-shares.

None of us want to “return to normal” after we sat around in isolation last summer thinking about how bonkers normal actually was. Our systems are dysfunctional, from policing, to higher education, to climate, and if I may, work.

Work is broken. We work too much, we work on the wrong things, and we prioritize work over more important human needs. Luckily for us, all these conditions are human systems that can be dismantled and rebuilt, no matter how much AI we try to jam into them. If the pandemic taught me anything, it’s that we’ve been doing work all wrong, but we were in such a trance, we couldn’t see it. We might be a capitalist country, but Capitalism should not Rule Everything Around Me.