Work. Is It Irrelevant?

I believe in the Future of Work. You know, the one where we work for a day and earn enough to pay for our leisure time over the next 6 days. For context I also believe in Santa Claus and The Easter Bunny.

Last week I opened my column with a quote from John Maynard Keynes.

JMK’s prediction was that technology would ‘free us from work’. But it didn’t, or at least hasn’t yet. (For JMK supporters, don’t worry, we still have another 14 years to run to prove out the prediction.) So far, however technology has all but divided people into two camps. In the red corner, we have the people that have been freed up of 100% of the work they were doing. Ask yourself how many people still work in a ‘typist pool’ to see what I mean. In the blue corner, the growth of the knowledge worker is well recognized while simultaneously locking us in through that very same tech. It didn’t free us, but rather changed work … and in turn us. The result is that large numbers of people are now tethered to a 24*7*365 schedule that most organizations seem to want, if not demand. Maybe this will change. (Though it won’t happen in the USA first.)

I saw one comment on last week’s article …

In the US, the reality may be that our culture has been so ‘impoverished’ by our focus on the work ethic and then consumerism that we’ve lost the rituals, customs, and interior life that traditional cultures have always employed to construct a ‘balanced’ life.

I would agree. But the problem is global, and while it might not be so obvious that we care – and thus doing something about it here in the USA, other counties are starting to think about it and in some cases acting. France for example has been toying with the idea of banning ‘out of work electronic activity’ for a couple of years and just this month, they stepped a little closer to the goal.

The measure is part of a labour law – named after Labour Minister Maryam El Khomri – many of whose other provisions have sparked weeks of protests in France. The “disconnection” clause is about the only part on which there is consensus. Consensus? Obviously that wouldn’t happen in America. (Did I say that aloud?) They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails – they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.

Strong words, but these challenges are well documented and when you read …

… who can put their hand up and say they haven’t ever suffered from that? But as I said. If you live in America – don’t hold your breath, because this level of conversation is not going to be had (even raised or considered) any time soon because it certainly seems that the ‘old power, old values’[1] of the culture is too embedded.

There is never going to be 100% agreement to anything. We live in a world of compromise. It is also true that in order to move forward in a discussion, we should always start from the points of agreement. Suffice to say, we seem to agree to that there is a single point at the heart of this issue.

Our cultural conditioning ensures that people are socially driven to contribute to society – which is generally defined as ‘paying our way’ – which we do through ‘work’. The nature of work is essentially built on ‘Command and Control’ organizations that originally modeled themselves on the military and haven’t changed since. In turn, our education system is generally set up to direct students to learn things that allow those organizations to package people up, so that we can best fit into their ‘machine’. This isn’t new. Pink Floyd wrote about this in 1979 and this version alone from the Movie has racked up close to 150 Million views.

But nothing has changed. Well, why would it you ask? Rock music doesn’t change the world. (Well I disagree, but that is a separate topic, which we might take up at another time). The fact is though, it isn’t just ‘Pink’ and the gang. Consider the lifelong teachings and work of Sir Ken Robinson, a long time and staunch advocate of the need to change our education systems. From his own website …

The videos of his famous 2006 and 2010 talks to the prestigious TED Conference have been viewed more than 25 million times and seen by an estimated 250 million people in over 150 countries. His 2006 talk is the most viewed in TED’s history. And, still it hasn’t changed. I know. We live in that world of instant gratification and 140 character strategy. We want it – and we want it now. Alas, it really isn’t that easy.

Buckminster Fuller wrote:

“You never change things by fighting existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

I think this was definitely in the mind of a young man I met just this week, who is working on a wholly new employment model. I can’t tell you who he is, or point you to his site, the concepts and thinking are totally new. But bottom line he believes that there are large numbers of people in the USA who want to work and that there are large numbers of businesses who want people to work in their organization. He is planning to ‘reduce the friction’. To break the command and control model. His thinking is revolutionary. Without even knowing who Jeremy Heimans is, he is devising a system that is very much ‘New Power’. ‘New Values’.

Say what ? Whats’s with the ‘New Power’, ‘New Values’ stuff that you keep raising ?

If you have never heard of, read or watched Jeremy Heimans. Please do. This is his Ted Talk. It’s only 15 minutes – and if you start around 5 minutes in you can still extract the essence of his thesis.[2] Who is Heimans ? Well …

The World Economic Forum at Davos named Heimans a Young Global Leader and in 2011 he was awarded the Ford Foundation’s 75th Anniversary Visionary Award. In 2012, Fast Company named him one of the Most Creative People in Business, and in 2014, CNN picked his concept of “new power” as one of 10 ideas to change the world.  Since then, with his organization ‘Purpose’ he has been trying to do just that.

If that young man I mentioned achieves his goal of ‘reducing the friction’ in employment, he will indeed be re-defining our world. It is but one facet to an extraordinarily complicated set of issues. And that’s the nub. It’s complicated and there isn’t a clear-cut answer.

In short, we have on our hands a ‘Wicked Problem’. Which doesn’t mean to say that we should pack up and go home, but it does mean that we need to understand what we are dealing with. According to a recent paper [pdf], there are three strategies available to solve wicked problems; authoritative, competitive and collaborative. In this world, authoritative no longer cuts it. It is going to be a combination of the other two. What we used to call ‘co-opetiton’.

So what are we going to do? That’s the topic of another article.

[1] Check out Jeremy Heimans to learn more.

[2] I am not advocating you to do this … it all depends on what time you have available. The full 15 minutes provides you the context.


John Philpin
John Philpin
JOHN'S career spans 30 years, 2 continents, and organizations as diverse as Oracle, Citibank and GE. A Mathematics graduate, John moved to California in 1990. He helps technology companies create, develop and deliver their story for fund raising, market development and influencer programs. He also works with businesses to ensure they understand, and are ready, for the ever accelerating changes that technology is bringing to their industry. John is a co-founder of Expert Alumni and gleXnet and long before futurists and industry watchers were writing about the impending challenges that industries were going to be facing, they predicted a perfect storm of issues like skills gap, declining work forces, the gig economy, people trained to do work no longer needed, demographic shifts, economic and social change, market upheaval and rapidly changing ways of doing work. From the beginning they have promoted the idea that massive change was coming to how organizations should think about their workforce, with a singular focus on simplifying the interface between people and their work. Understanding the challenges ahead of the curve, the solution was built to arrive at a better understanding of the greatest restraint to business operations - competence, not capital. gleXnet provides unparalleled insights into an organizations people and operations by flipping the problem from the perspective of people, not the business.

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    • Tom, very familiar with Clay Shirky and his thinking – but had not seen that video. Good one. Thanks for sharing .. based on his concluding remarks – looks like Apple is going to have a hard time :- ) It was also very interesting to see Pareto’s law used and explained in such a clear way – even as a Maths grad that was new news. #AlwaysLearning !

  1. It’s been a long time since I heard the word ‘co-opetiton’. I tend strongly toward the collaborative and team work. We need members on the team who are also competitive. and collaborative. It’s true that authoritative when used in a negative sense is not going to cut it. But don’t we need a foundation of authority to assure that our outcomes and results are what we want and are acted upon? I keep going back to what I learned as a project leader. If everyone is responsible, then nobody is responsible. I don’t think the authoritarian style of leadership works for anyone. But authority to make decisions and implement them still seems like a needed piece of the puzzle to me. I love his idea of mass participation and peer coordination – that’s the ultimate in working together.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful input Jane. I am not sure that I am advocating leaderless teams – even in collaborative environments we must have accountability to succeed.

      I used to use ( a self developed) acronym ‘S.P.A.C.E.’ to keep my teams focussed …

      Speed – get it done, don’t wait.
      Process – so what you do can be repeated and all the initiatives work together.
      Accountable – it is YOUR job – whatever it is.
      Customers – because if it doesn’t improve their lot – why are we doing it?
      Engaged – don’t just ‘turn up’.

    • SPACE – works for me. What I miss most about work is the whole spectrum of working as part of a team with all the dynamics that kept things moving.

    • Here’s the thing (and this is only my opinion) … work is one way to prevent crime. Idleness invites poor use of time and resources. I agree that someone earning $50,000 per year probably won’t give up their day job for $20,000 of freedom from work. But there’s a line of diminishing returns where the decision to work or stay home and collect a check leans heavily toward permanent vacation (an possibly odd jobs paid in cash only).

    • Jane – all of these comments are our opinions – that is what is so cool – we get a dialogue. That said, I do respectfully disagree. That is not to say that the opposite is a slam dunk – but is definitely worth looking at ..

      For example – this is a year old – but well worth a read … – 24 ways to reduce crime – and only one of them gets to ‘work’ being a solution … it is commented under ‘Remember The Details’

      Meanwhile one program that has more recently been covered by

      Time :
      NPR :
      Breitbart : – says only 1/20 of US agrees with program – so clear – not a slam dunk !

      Even so – the larger point here is that there is a problem heading our way that the jobs that most of us are trained for are bit by bit going away at an ever increasing rate – and we won’t be able to plug the skills gap fast enough … so what will we do about it?

    • Clearly the uptick in white collar crime proves that work itself doesn’t prevent crime. I still maintain that ” Idleness invites poor use of time and resources.” I’m not able to be idle long enough to read these article today but will save them to Evernote for later. There are few seconds in my life right now that are not consumed by things to do – and I’m supposed to be retired. There are many people who need help today.

    • To get things done I have all but stopped using social media except for allotted online time each day. It’s a tough discipline but the only survival mechanism I’ve found that’s effective. I miss the interactions but they are really quite far down the food chain from helping people who need encouragement in a tangible way.

    • and todays news doesn’t help either !!

      meanwhile – we have creaking infrastructure, pot holed roads, un safe bridges, lines so long at airports that people miss planes, insufficient housing in the places where people want to live (where the jobs are) … we all know the list – but nothing happens – how can it be that we have so many people wanting to work with so many jobs that need to be done ?

    • WSJ subscribers can read the full article – but my answer is there has to be a job offer before a prospective job fulfiller can fill it. I don’t have an answer to your question because your question has a million different answers. IMHO