The future of a technological workforce

Posted by on Apr 7, 2014 in Innovation, News | One Comment

Imagine reversing your workweek with your weekend: Monday blues would skip straight through the week to the Friday highs and the weekend.

CT blog imageEconomist John Keynes envisioned this world in 1930, when he predicted that increases in technology would outpace any new uses we could find for labour [1]. Increased efficiency and automated technology would drive economic growth, allowing us to spend more time and money down at the nearest small bar. What he didn’t predict though, was how much more we’d drink as a result.

Unfortunately for Keynes (and for us), instead of using technology to slack off, we’ve been purposed toward being increasingly efficient because we all want more stuff [1].  As productivity increases, so do incomes; and with our wallets getting heavier, we were able to spend more. In turn, this expenditure put upward pressure on production, which has kept us from fulfilling our fantasy two-day week. The demand for productivity has resulted in the increasing reliance on technology to aid with or take over tasks, often resulting in unskilled workers being made redundant [1]. Not all sectors have been affected equally though – with repetitive task jobs like manufacturing leading the charge with productivity and automation overhauls, while more creative or emotive jobs like recreational therapy or art look to remain techno-free and safely in human hands [2].

Despite the increasing levels of automation, employment as a whole has remained relatively constant [3]. David Graeber explores this phenomenon, suggesting that the advent of technology has created a new class of jobs that he regards as “bullshit jobs” [4]. Graeber describes the “bullshit” jobs as ones that don’t really have to exist, yet are being created to support the convenience of the elite. As a result, even the unskilled workers driven out by automation are able to find new jobs stemming from post-technology social demands, and thus maintaining the appearance of a busy workforce.

While we’re not working less, we are working differently [3]. By finding innovative ways of using new technologies, we can be more flexible with how and when we choose to work: and it’s what we want. According to Shipman and Kay [5], when people are given freedom, not only does employee satisfaction increase, so does productivity. Companies like Best Buy that have implemented flexible, results-only work environments have seen productivity increases by up to 40%. It’s no mistake that flexibility aids in employees’ outlook, which in turn motivates them to perform; but until recently firms weren’t well equipped for such a work environment. This is an illustration of the lag that often accompanies new advances – there’s a bottleneck of innovation as people take time to figure out how to implement them [1]. It’s becoming apparent that in aggregate, society is slow to react to technological changes, as developments occur sporadically and their impacts often lag behind [3]. This has huge implications for policy makers, as the challenge becomes encouraging a workforce that is flexible and adaptive, rather than trying to regulate what already exists.

Indeed, many suggest the most successful companies in the future will be the aggressively innovative [1,2,3], and technology is being helpfully unhelpful. While technologies like mobile phones, Skype, and tablets let us work from anywhere, increasing individual satisfaction, the increasing variability of people’s working hours is offsetting gains by reducing firm-wide coherence: people aren’t always available when you need them. However, these weaknesses can be mitigated by inventive work policies like Best Buy’s. Individuals want choice, and companies want productivity. On the back of pioneering firms enjoying benefits that can be afforded by flexible technology, we’re getting to the stage where having varied work arrangements is something employers expect and offer, rather than being taboo [6].

Who knows what other benefits the future will bring? Technological change is unpredictable, as are its applications. There are definitely challenges for policy makers and the workforce with respect to best practice, but remaining proactive and open to technological change appears to be a core element of future strategy. Maybe one day we’ll fulfil Keynes’s predictions of a 15-hour week, maybe we won’t. But here’s to wishful thinking.

[1] – The onrushing wave. 18 January, 2014. The Economist, 23-26

[2] – Frey, C. B., & Osbourne, M. A. 17 September 2013. The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? Retrieved from http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf

[3] – Shinal, J. 21 March 2014. Future Economy: Many will lose jobs to computers. USA TODAY. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/columnist/2014/03/21/software-tech-economy-work/6707457/

[4] – Graber, D. 17 August 2013. On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. Strike Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/

[5] – Shipman, C., & Kay, K. 14 May 2009. Women Will Rule Business. Time. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1898024_1898023_1898078,00.html.

[6] – Fizpatrick, L. 14 May, 2009. We’re Getting Off the Ladder. Time. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1898024_1898023_1898076,00.html

1 Comment

  1. Avatar for DanielB
    DanielB
    April 14, 2014

    Interesting post. This article here is also interesting:

    http://www.roughtype.com/?p=4267