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Utopia, Dystopia, and the Future of Work

I think a lot about the future.  And although I’m not that old, I’ve already learned that the future, when one gets there, differs from the idea of the future in ways that are unexpected and impossible to predict. I think it’s this ‘certain uncertainty’ that drives us to continually envision possible futures. But these visions, fed by our past experiences and current outlook, often tell us more about our present selves than they do about where we’ll actually end up.

I’ve been reading a lot of superb, thought-provoking visions of the future of work and Human Resources from others recently, and grappling with what they might mean for us as employees, managers and HR professionals. The difference between many of these possible realities is vast, but this shouldn’t surprise us- humanity’s visions of the future are often shaped by the contrasting themes of utopia and dystopia.

So, instead of trying to predict the future, I’d like to share some of the ideas about the future of work that I find most interesting, and the utopian or dystopian futures they foreshadow.

Note: This post was inspired by a terrific article from Michael Carty over at Xpert HR’s Employment Intelligence blog, which you should definitely check out.

The Future is Coming, and it is Dystopia

“Hook-up culture” will continue to infect our organizations, which will become ever more interested in satisfying their needs through short-term transactional arrangements devoid of emotional attachment than committing to an employee long-term. Welcome to the jungle that is freelance nation, where you eat what you kill.

Research from the Neuroleadership Institute research shows that the ‘intelligence of teams’ exists- and that an individual member of a high-performing team who is considered to be ‘top talent’ may take 3-5 years to return to peak performance upon moving to a new organization, unless they move with their whole team. A highly contingent, and thus transient, workforce will mean corporations are in for a lot more blonde moments…

The notion of ‘Peak Jobs’ (basically that technology is now destroying jobs faster than it’s creating them), foretells of a future in which ‘haves’ become ‘have-nots’ at an alarming, irreversible rate. It rejects the ‘Luddite Fallacy’, an economic postulate that asserts that technology will never lead to long-term, structural unemployment, because innovation changes the rules and often opens avenues for commerce and employment that previously could not have existed or been imagined. In contrast, “Peak Jobs” proclaims that a global war for jobs looms on the horizon, and countries who are not victors in this war may find they have become post-developed wastelands. We should all learn how to grow our own turnips and get used to eating insects and dandelion soup…

The Future is Coming, and it Brings Utopia

 One interesting way that we might circumvent the risk of eroding the collective intelligence of teams is through the employment of Talent Clusters. This concept, advanced by Dave Aron from the Gartner CIO Research group, describes a cluster as similar to an elite military team, which “…typically consists of five to eight people, is hired by a business with a clear scope of work, and remunerated based on outcomes. Clusters have already established shared values, work practices, tools, and roles, such as who is good at what.”

Average job tenure has dropped to 4.4 years. Organizations that do want to retain talent will need to get serious, and do more than offer the few folks that manage to crawl across the 5 year anniversary finish line a gold pen and pat on the back. This should mean that organizations will be forced to become more sophisticated and committed to engaging and retaining valued employees.

Will reaching Peak Jobs mean that we have a painful, mass, forced rethinking of what a job really looks like? Might this result in greater freedom and agency for some workers? ‘Portfolio jobs’ are the utopian version of freelance nation – because well, some people embrace the flexibility of contract work, varied gigs, freelancing, consulting, and always having Plan B. Hell, I only gave up waitressing on weekends 4 years ago because, well, tips…

Services like Task Rabbit allows users to outsource small jobs to background-checked folks interested in picking up a little work when they feel like it. No one is going to fund their retirement this way, but it is an ultra-flexible avenue for income, and is way less creepy than posting your willingness to do odd jobs on Craigslist, next to the ad for “Recent parolee will cut your hair at home for $7″

Despite recent high profile exceptions –ahem- virtual work is actually increasing significantly in most sectors. And it seems that basically everyone agrees that this is good for workers, both as a day-to-day work set-up, and also because it reduces geographic boundaries to employment.

Door Number 1, or Door Number 2?

So, which of these possible futures is more likely? Well, each of these ideas comes from smart people who simply interpret the omens differently. Reading them may lead the pessimists among us to assume that calamity is certain, and the optimists that utopia is nigh, but the truth is likely neither. History tells us that the future is far more likely to blindside us with some fresh new horror than deliver the one we’re expecting, and we’re just as likely to adapt in ways that we are simply incapable of planning or envisioning now.

When you think about the future of work, do you see utopia, or dystopia? How will this affect our organizations, and HR?

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on kwalitisme.

    March 27, 2013
  2. ChristopherinHR #

    Now this is a well done story Jane. Good points, well-written and yet leaves enough room for the reader to make up their own mind. I like it.

    March 27, 2013
  3. I second the words of the great ChristopherinHR, Jane.

    And thank you also for the very kind mention of and link to my post – I am very proud and pleased to have played some small role in helping inspire you to write this.

    March 28, 2013
  4. Nice post, Jane. What strikes me about all of it are the words “ambiguity” and “agility” – and I’m not sure either of these are in HR’s repertoire today. I get a chuckle thinking about “talent clusters”, and how to find and deploy something like this with the current bag of tricks. But….if HR could get their heads around this now and help to define the future, wouldn’t that be an amazing opportunity?

    March 28, 2013

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