Heading into the Future – at Work and at Home

Heading into the Future – at Work and at Home

What

The Second Curve” by Charles Handy, 2015, 240 pages


Thoughts

The notion that we are currently on the brink of a new era is widespread with people who devote their time to contemplation of society, organizations and trends. Some people talk about this new era as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution. The first three industrial revolutions dealt with the mechanization of production, mass production and automation via information technology respectively.

Each of these three revolutions created profound changes in the way we work, in which skills and behaviours are valuable and will get us employment and in the way we live our lives when not working. The fourth industrial revolution is slated to bring us the integration between the physical, the digital and the biological. Some of this integration can already be seen in our societies today, and new inventions and technological breakthroughs are happening at breathtaking pace. We are talking about developments such as autonomous vehicles, robotics, smart-devises, algorithms, and AI.

It is to be expected that the fourth industrial revolution will be no different from its predecessors in the amount of change we will see at work and at home. Indeed it is argued that the changes will be more profound and happen at a much faster pace than during the preceding industrial revolution. What does that mean for you and me? Forecasts are many and varied. One contributor who has for some time dealt with major changes in society and technologies is Charles Handy. He sees the potential in the new age but also points to some potential pitfall we may want to avoid if possible.


Work and the Fourth Revolution

The workplace and the nature of work is changing, part due to the mindset and expectations of the new generations entering work-life and part due to the increasing technological possibilities for organizing work. We have probably all heard forecasts of massive job losses due to AI and digitalization. It is indeed a daunting thought that much of what constitutes work tasks carried out by humans will in the future be done solely by robots and algorithms. What will be the jobs and tasks still in the domain of human beings? What kind of education is the safest bet for employability in the future? The jury is still out, and whether it will be able to come to an agreement before the questions asked have already been answered by real life is another matter.

There seems to be some agreement on a continual trend of people going into business for themselves, working as contractors and free agents. These free agents take on assignments either for other, larger companies or band together with other free agents to form ad hoc / network companies aimed at specific projects. The upside to this trend is that free agents gain better rewards and more control over their work life. Companies can choose to slim down to the core functions and have free agents do assignments if and when needed. The price to pay for this kind of work arrangement will likely be an increase in insecurity and volatility in the lives of the free agents and a lack of company spirit and loyalty for the companies going the free agent route.

What we may also see is a move away from mass production and employees as compliant cogs in 9 to 5 workday wheels needing management and control. Instead we may see a greater focus on ideation and customizing of products and services to appeal to different customer groups or even at the level of the individual customer. This may come about in co-creation scenarios between company and its customers or as customer groups getting together to create the products and services they need and believe others need too. The key skills are likely to be creativity, cooperation, communication and the ability to take strategic advantage of the technological break-throughs as they happen.


Adapting Personal Life to the Fourth Revolution

The Fourth Revolution is a paradox in that it gives us more freedom yet can also be viewed as a trend towards more control of what we do. Many of the chores of everyday life have become easier and will be become easier still. In fact we may no longer have much reason to leave our homes or interact with people in person. Want to listen your favourite band or view the latest movie? The Internet. Don’t know what to have for dinner? Order ingredients or a prepared meal on the internet and have it delivered by drone. Don’t feel like cleaning, get a household robot. Find pets too needy and messy, get a robot dog or cat. Need friends, get an AI buddy. Want a certification – take an online course and test run by AI. Work? Do it from home. While the new technology certainly lightens life’s chores for us and give us more choice and freedom, there is definitely potential for creating isolated human beings.

What is more, the AI and algorithms that are set to run more and more of the interactions we have can also be viewed as a mixed blessing. The blessing comes in the shape of AI an Algorithms taking over the more mundane tasks in our lives. It helps us locate the information we are searching for, it runs complicated but routine transactions for us.

However, AI and Algorithms can also end up boxing us in, by only suggesting to us information, goods and services that closely resemble what we have already displayed interest for. That could mean that our reliance on AI and algorithms cuts us off from discovering contradictory information, and unrelated but potentially still interesting and relevant goods and services. In other words, if we are not careful we may find ourselves in an echo-chamber, only being fed more of the same. Hardly a recipe for expanding our minds and creativity.

Of course, the information that algorithms and AI register about us is also an issue to be aware of. There is definite potential for (mis)use of this information e.g. by organizations for individualized advertising and pricing strategies, and by government for tracking citizens of "interest".


Takeaways

There can be little doubt that we are in the midst of a period of many significant transitions and heading into what some commentators call the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is impossible to say exactly what the future will hold for us in terms of work and personal life. However, we may safely assume that many things will change noticeably and change faster than perhaps we expect or are quite comfortable with.

Will we find ourselves a society of free agents, working assignments and not belonging to anything bigger than our own skills and brand. Will we become recluses in our homes surrounded by robots, AI and algorithms. Will we be freer or more controlled by organizations and governments. Such are the questions that we may well ask ourselves before rushing headlong into enjoying all the new possibilities being offered to us.

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