Why the future of work could be child’s play.

People divide their lives into work and play. But a clever few realise that if you pick the right work it ceases to be work and becomes play. The trick is finding something that you are passionate about and then devoting your life to it. This won’t necessarily make you a fortune but it will usually make you happy. It may also turn you into a successful innovator because playfulness is an essential prerequisite for invention.

In 1989 58% of people in the UK said they were happy. By 2003 this figure had fallen to 45% despite a 60% increase in average incomes. Also in the UK the Observer newspaper recently claimed that most Briton’s would rather have a cut in working hours than receive an increase in salary. There are various explanations for all of this but one is that people are doing the wrong kind of work. But what does the ‘wrong’ kind of work look like? The answer is highly personal but in my experience it means working with people you dislike, doing something that’s too easy or doing something that’s repetitive. It can also mean having a job that lacks meaning or doesn’t make a difference.

According to Charles Handy there are three forces driving change at work. The first is globalization. As Thomas Friedman argues in his book The World is Flat, there is a single global market emerging for everything from products to people. In theory this means that you’ll soon be competing against everyone else on the planet for your job although in practice there will be a limit to what gets outsourced. Nevertheless, if your job can be done cheaper somewhere else it might be worth looking at other employment opportunities. The flip side of this global village is that if you’re really good at what you do companies will compete globally for your skills, as jobs become more mobile.

The second driver of change is demographics. Most countries face a demographic double-whammy with an ageing workforce colliding with a declining birth rate.According to the Herman Group this means there will be a shortage of 10 million workers in the US by 2010. Employers will therefore have to get smarter about how they attract and retain good people so we can expect to see more flexible working practices and the development of initiatives to attract older workers. For example, B&Q – a Home Depot style retailer in the UK — offers jobs to retired tradesmen. The results are improved customer service and lower employee turnover. Similarly BMW in Germany has designed a factory to attract older workers while Procter & Gamble has developed YourEncore – a network of retirees that it dips into when it needs to crack a problem. Incidentally, one further idea implemented by P&G is ‘reverse mentoring’ to help older workers (especially men) understand the problems faced by newly recruited staff (especially women).

The third driver of change is technology. Thanks to cell-phones, laptops and the Internet work is becoming less tied to a physical location. Instead we are becoming a tribe of digital nomads working whenever and wherever we choose. This means that in the future employment contacts will have to change. Companies will realise that they are buying people for their ideas not their time or physical presence, so annual contracts will be related to objectives met, not hours worked. This will see an increase in sabbaticals and a further blurring between what’s done at home and what happens ‘at work’.

But this is just the beginning. In another twenty or thirty years artificial intelligence and robotics will have displaced another layer of workers. So if your job can be reduced to a set of formal rules that can be learnt by an intelligent and emotionally aware machine it may be worth looking for another career because your current profession could disappear.

In other words we are facing a third industrial revolution. The first swapped fields for factories while the second – the information revolution – replaced brawn with brains. The third revolution will be the shift from left to right-brain economic production. During the last century people were paid to accumulate and apply information. The acquisition and analysis of data is logical left-brain activity but, as Daniel Pink points out, it’s an activity that is disappearing thanks to developments in areas like computing. For instance, speech recognition and GPS systems are replacing people for taxi bookings while sites like completemycase.com are giving mediocre lawyers a run for their money.

One fascinating statistic that I came across recently is that twelve years ago, 61% of McKinsey’s new US recruits had MBAs. Now it’s around 40%. This is partly because of an oversupply of MBAs in the domestic market and the fact that data analysis can be outsouced to cheaper countries. But it’s also because arts graduates are demand. In a globalized world products and services become homogenized and then commoditized. One of the best ways to create differentiation is through innovation but what some people mean when they say innovation is actually design and design involves the application of lateral thinking and physical beauty both of which bring us back to right-brain thinkers.

Of course there are some jobs that cannot be done by a machine or outsourced to India. These include what I’d call ‘high-touch’ jobs like nursing and teaching that involve a high level of emotional intelligence. As I’ve said, it also includes jobs that involve the application of creativity and imagination but as Richard Florida points out these types of jobs don’t work just anywhere. Cities that are attractive to right-brained entrepreneurs and innovators score highly on the Three Ts – Technology, Talent and Tolerance. Technology refers to the proximity of world class research facilities. Talent is the clustering of bright, like-minded people from varied backgrounds and Tolerance is an open progressive culture that embraces ‘outsiders’ and difference.

Finally I’d like to mention something called Psychological Neotency. This is a fascinating new theory that says that the increased level of immaturity among adults is an evolutionary response to increasing levels of change and uncertainty. This initially sounds ridiculous but it does make a certain amount of sense if you stop and think about it. Historically maturity was useful because in a ‘fixed’ environment it indicated wisdom and experience. However, in a rapidly changing environment experience can actually be disabling. What is required in the new economy is child-like receptivity and cognitative flexibility. In other words youthfulness and playfulness may be adaptive responses to change where jobs, skills and technology are all in a state of flux. This could certainly explain the apparently adolescent behaviour of innovators like Richard Branson and Steve Wozniak and, if true, has profound implications for everything from HR policy to office design.

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One Response to Why the future of work could be child’s play.

  1. Isn’t it “psychological neoteny”? In any case it’s an interesting theory.

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