Does work have a future?
As part of our series on empowerment and the future of work, Dr Peter Bloom, senior lecturer and head of the department of people and organisations at The People Space Brand Partner Open University Business School, discusses whether there is even a future for work, whether the traditional economic model itself is outdated and how, if you leave people behind, you're never going to be able to take everyone forward
"We talk quite a bit about the future of work, and there's an irony in there because maybe work doesn't have a future. Now, that might sound very provocative. I know for some employers it might sound like, what are we talking about here? We've gone through the past when people have said there's going to be no more work. We've seen for good, and bad, how that worked out. But what we are talking about is, is there a case to be made that technology is making our established ways of working, and not just ways of working, but actually the economy itself outdated?
When you have a situation in which robots and robotics and artificial intelligence can do 60% or 70% of what we now take as needing human labour to do, there's a real question about: should people be working so much? When we're going to have the ability to use particularly, I think, analytics and technology to really understand how to use our resources more efficiently and effectively and productively, who should this surplus go to? Should we just be investing it back into a small group so that they can find new ways to do that? Or should we actually be saying, well, we have a lot more capabilities.
When we're using things like distributive manufacturing so that people can actually make what they would like in their homes, so that people have factories in their homes, they have factories in the community – do we actually need these huge industrial-sized factories that employ people in oftentimes quite difficult circumstances?
I think there's a real case to be made that we are moving towards an age in which our traditional economy is exactly that: it's traditional. It's not the future. Then the question goes, when you think about something progressive, let's not just think about this in terms of our traditional meaning of the word, but actually what could a progressive economy be like?
What is an economy that actually uses future tech, not just so that it meets the social values, but actually so that it's as productive as possible, it's as efficient as possible and it's as valuable as possible.
I think we're seeing that traditional market paradigms and traditional forms of employment are actually holding that back. Because if you have a huge operating cost, for instance, and you have a huge workforce, what is that doing then – not just to your bottom line but your ability to be flexible, adaptable? When you have a situation in which you have to spend so much on copyright and you can't actually give other people's designs, what is that doing for us as a society in which we're not allowing ourselves to improve on things? What's happening when you see that the best form of problem-solving is when actually it's with open networks where people could share ideas and work on it together as opposed to competition? These are not just questions of how things ought to be. These question whether our notion of the free market, our notion of traditional capitalism is becoming again outdated and actually moving us towards something that is backward looking as opposed to forward looking.
What does that mean for us on the everyday? Well, I think you hear a lot of things about disruption, and I think that there is a notion of disruption in terms of people right now feel if I lost my job, I wouldn't be able to afford my house. If I lost my job, I wouldn't be able to afford food. If I lost my job, on an emotional and psychological level, what would I do with myself? It's interesting because in many ways we have gone backwards in terms of our thinking, perhaps than even in the 1960s and '70s, because then if you said to people in a certain sense, we're going to be going towards a more leisure economy, they would say, that sounds exciting. I'm not my job.
In fact, I don't completely understand if we have technology why I would need to work 50-60 hours a week or even have a job. If I didn't have a job, I'd have so much more time and energy to devote to other things. I have so many interests. Maybe it's because you've always wanted to read Jane Austen. Maybe you've always wanted to knit. Maybe you've always wanted to garden. Or maybe, on a broader level, you've always wanted to go back to school to study anthropology. You've always been interested in that, and you just never had the time. Clearly, you don't want to be a professor of anthropology; you're just interested in it.
There's a question then of how do we create a situation in which we have have the most forward thinking productive economy available and the most forward thinking productive society available. What we're seeing now with things like – and we can use the big popular word that not everyone understands, or even people who think they understand it may sometimes not understand it –neoliberalism. There is a sense in which we're going to find out ways to use technology to efficiently do more with less.
Now, there is that forward thinking element to this, in terms of the fact that we don't want the behemoth organisation. We want to unleash the power of competition. We want to have dynamism. But there's also ways in which we could have a situation in which we're thinking about a forward thinking economy, but it was in a socially backwards way. It's like we didn't have to think about the effects of precariousness on people. We didn't have to think about the fact that if you leave people behind, you're not really taking them forward.
Again, it's not just a matter of doing the right thing just because we have those moral questions. But you think about something here and you think, how many people on zero hours contracts if they were given the real opportunity could actually be helping real medical scientific research? How many entrepreneurs out there are not willing to take a risk because they're so worried about their next paycheck? How many companies, how many CEOs would really love to do something revolutionary and visionary but can't because of the fact that if they don't meet their next quarterly imports, they're going to lose out in short term competition? These are the things that we've lost. I think it's really important for us to say to ourselves, if we're going to move towards a different type of economy, how do we make sure that we don't lose people because we're leaving them behind?
I think the final part is what does this look like? This thing goes through a really interesting process in which people, if you ask them on an every day level, say, what do you think a society without work would look like? They may say that's sounds great. I say, okay. Well, tell me about it. No idea. I know my cousin doesn't work. Is that what it looks like? Playing video games all day and eating sugary food? It's like, no, not precisely. It's also about giving people the ability to understand what this looks like.
That could be ways in which you'd create things. I think we were trying to do it on Future Labs, which are public things that use serious gaming, for instance, to actually show people what it would be like to use technology to have public ownership of resources, also, virtualisation, so immersive experience of living a day in a life in a post-work economy.
But also understanding that it's not just about painting a picture, it's also about allowing you to become the painter. It's giving you, if we can use these examples, the paint brushes. For you to say and for communities to say, we don't just want to be told and sold a picture. We want to actually have a chance at painting it and figuring out how it looks.
That's an important element, but I do think that in many ways REEF is committed to, on a very real level, creating and helping to usher in an economy in a society that is forward looking and that is as valuable and cutting edge and dynamic as possible on all levels; and one that understands that if you leave people behind then you're never going to be able to take everyone forward."