The future of work reflections from a working life

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Professor Peter Shergold AC

Peter Shergold is the Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney. Brought up in the UK, his first job was washing bottles at the Guinness brewery in Haverfordwest. As a penurious student he went on to work as a barperson at The Swordfish in Lee-on-Solent, a storeman in Milford Haven and a community teacher in Brixton. In 1967 he gained certification as a Public Service Vehicle conductor (registration KK52995) on the Provincial buses that ran between Gosport and Fareham.

In 1972 he migrated to Australia as a lecturer at the University of New South Wales and, by 1987, was Head of the Department of Economic History. In that year he moved to the Australian Public Service to set up the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Over two decades he progressively became CEO of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission; CEO of Comcare; Public Service Commissioner; Secretary of the Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business; Secretary of the Department of Education, Science and Training; and, finally Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

He left the APS in 2008 to establish the Centre of Social Impact as a university-based think tank. He retired from that position in July. He now has a portfolio career on a dozen private, public, government and not-for-profit boards. He is a non-executive director of AMP and Corrs Chambers Westgarth; chair of the capital start-up QuintessenceLabs; chair of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, the NSW Public Service Commission Advisory Board and the Aged Care Reform Implementation Council; and Deputy Chair of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Peter received his first pay just over 50 years ago (pounds, shillings and pence in cash). This is the first time he has thought seriously about the future of work.

Childhood: When the Future was Fabulous

This essay is not an academic treatise. Rather it uses my working life as a framework. It’s told from the perspective of someone who was trained and employed as a professional historian (and who, in that capacity, wrote extensively on work in past times) but who later became a public administrator (and had managerial responsibility for the delivery of labour market programs in the present). Trying to predict the nature of work in the future, I have discovered, is far more challenging.

This much I have come to believe. The future is a different country. They will do things differently there. The past can, with the wisdom of hindsight, be understood: it can be discovered, interpreted and constructed in ways which give a sense of historical continuity and purpose. The future, no matter how carefully one analyses trends, can only be imagined and anticipated. History, as narrative, can too often seem predictable, with its outcomes preordained. In contrast, no matter how sophisticated the scenario planning or how well-informed the foresight techniques brought to bear, the future will generally turn out to be unexpected in unanticipated ways.

Futurism is neither a liberal art nor a science. Its scope can be either positive or normative, anticipating a ‘default’ future or seeking to create one that is preferred. It is, in the words of Sohail Inayatullah, “the systematic study of possible, probable and preferable futures including the world views and myths that underlie each future.” That’s a big ask. My nagging concern is that, in spite of best efforts, the ‘unknown unknowns’ will always trump the ‘known unknowns’.

That inherent scepticism of futurism undoubtedly reflects the fact that I made my living in Australia for two decades as an academic historian. In a real sense, I lived in the past. I was happy there. I understood the bases on which it was interpreted.

As a child growing up in England, however, the future had seemed an infinitely more exciting place to be. Each week the Eagle would be delivered to my home. The front page comic strip would always be devoted to the latest contest between space ‘pilot of the future’, Dan Dare, and his enduring enemy, the Mekon, ruler of the Treens of northern Venus. The alien had shiny green skin, a hugely swollen brainy head and atrophied limbs, but floated around effortlessly upon what appeared to be a levitating chamber pot. At Saturday morning children’s’ matinees at the Gosport Criterion, I thrilled to the serialised adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. On rainy days when I found myself confined to the ‘front room’, I would painstakingly construct spaceships out of my Meccano set in the vain hope that a set of ‘penny banger’ fireworks could achieve their lift-off. With my Mum and Dad I huddled around the radio each week to listen to the BBC’s Journey into Space. My goodness, Charles Chilton could write. He, rather than H G Wells or Jules Verne, was my guide to the future.

As I grew older, preening my hair with layers of Brylcreem, I moved on from comics to Popular Mechanics. The world of technological futures often seemed a good place to retreat from the daily despair of pimples and unrequited teenage romance. Science as fiction was far more engaging than ‘O’ level ‘Physics with Chemistry.’

I found the magazine’s predictions of what lay ahead were just as exciting as those illustrated in the Eagle but in a more grown-up way. The future was defined by new machines that did things faster and made life easier but could also destroy humanity more ruthlessly. As I remember, it was a world characterised by new modes of transport and communication, intelligent buildings, soaring megacities and frighteningly powerful weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps surprisingly there was more attention devoted to unpaid domestic work (new labour-saving devices for the home) than to the paid workforce. I do remember the occasional article on robots replacing humans on the mass production assembly line. In truth they interested me far less than their rogue variants who were able to take on a variety of human dimensions in the sci-fi novels that had, along with the collected works of Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane, become my low-brow literary fare.

History, to my adolescent mind, was rather dull. The future, by contrast, was fabulous. I understood that it was not without danger. I was willing to risk that. As far as I could see it was a world full of exciting activity but not much of it looked like work. That suited me just fine.

Working Life: Past, Present and Future

In 1972 I came to Australia. The University of New South Wales offered me a return economy-class airfare from London and paid me $6280 a year to teach economic history. I suppose that job really was work but it never quite seemed like it, at least compared to the life of my relatives who got paid wages (usually in cash) to drive buses; take down shorthand; put out aircraft fires; cut, perm and rinse hair; or assemble Reliant Robins (small three-wheeled cars that, as my Uncle Ted discovered to his chagrin, could be blown over on windy corners). Without any conscious planning, I had become what would later become categorised as a ‘knowledge worker’. It was a privileged existence compared to the shops, offices and assembly lines in which my relatives laboured.

I quickly realised that I enjoyed far more autonomy and control over my working life than was available to any of my extended family - and, as it transpired, far more than I was to experience in my later life as a senior public servant. Freedom to work one’s own hours is something a person doesn’t sufficiently value until it is lost. That’s why, if the optimistic pundits turn out to be right, personal control over one’s hours and place of employment could prove to be the single greatest benefit of work in the future.

That’s getting ahead of myself. Throughout the 1970s I was focussed firmly on researching workplace conditions in the past. My doctorate on the life of manual workers in the UK and USA at the turn of the twentieth-century meant that I had developed an academic expertise in labour history. Even forty years ago many of the occupations which I was studying seemed remote – hodcarriers and stonemasons, compositors and bookbinders, furnace heaters and cinder pitmen, train brakemen and machine woodworkers, seamstresses and stogie rollers. Forty years on and today their designations, and the work performed, have almost entirely disappeared.

In 1982 my research was published as Working Class Life. Well reviewed, it sold dismally. In the same month that my book appeared a far more popular volume hit the bookshelves, written by the Labor politician Barry Jones. He was soon to become Minister for Science in the Hawke government. Sleepers, Wake! Technology and the Future of Work caught my attention, not only because of its arresting title but on account of its subject matter. I had spent my academic career seeking to understand the history of work. Indeed I was about to delve back even further in time, and research the life of convict workers transported to colonial New South Wales. The idea of heading in the opposite direction and briefly contemplating the future of work was interesting. I understood, from media reports, that Jones would present a ‘compelling case’ that technological innovation would create a fundamental break with previous economic history. I doubted that but, like many other Australians, I bought the book.

I remember both its erudition and the thrust of its arguments. In preparing this essay, however, I have taken the opportunity to refresh my unreliable memory. I think the book has stood the test of time. It delineates well the manner in which the automation and information revolution (robotics, computers and smart machines) was moving work from a ‘post-industrial’ to a ‘post-service’ society. Jones’ emphasis on technological innovation as a major driver of economic growth and social change continues to frame most contemporary writing on the future of work. Nevertheless he eschewed technological determinism. Indeed Jones’ declaration that “every technological change has an equal capacity for the enhancement or degradation of the quality of life, depending on how it is used” is one that should inform anyone who seeks to predict the future. It’s central to this essay.

Yet in one fundamental regard Jones may have misread the tea leaves of evidence. Technology, in his assessment, would bring about “a golden age of leisure based on the cooperative use of resources”. Because labour-displacing technology would allow work to be performed so much more efficiently, with computer operators and robotic machinery replacing a large number of workers, people would need to undertake compulsory leisure. Many jobs would have to be created as a ‘welfare industry’, with people ‘employed’ to do gardening, research, sport, hobbies or do-it-yourself activities as a means of mopping up excess workers.

Jones’ central thesis that people “would be working a good deal less” in the future was widely accepted. As I remember, it was a commonplace of B-B-Q discussions at the time that technological innovation would in the near future allow people to work fewer hours, take more holidays and retire earlier. Better still, humanity would be liberated from boring and life denying labour. “Too late for us,” we would moan resignedly over our beers.

I suspect that it was this false dawn of expectation which, little more than a decade later, served to intensify scepticism of the avowedly beneficial impact of even more radical technological advances on the future of work. As we shall shortly see, by the mid-1990s the mood of many Australians had changed: they anticipated not a future of leisure for all but of unemployment for many.

The Future as Utopia: Reflections from 2012

Each Christmas of my early childhood was a time of eager anticipation. Hidden within the pillowcase of new toys would always sit, carefully wrapped but easily identifiable, a Bumper edition of Boys Annual. Apart from containing the exploits of my favourite heroes and villains there would also be short stories of adventure, bravery and skulduggery. Nearly always, too, the book would contain feature articles, usually illustrated, on the world of the future. That’s how I came to know that by 2012 I would go to work on electric roller skates, communicate by a voice-recognition wristwatch, receive my mail by parachute or high-speed pneumatic tube and have at my disposal a robot-chauffeured, nuclear-propelled vehicle that could be transformed at the flick of a switch from a car to a plane to a boat.

That comic strip future, driven by technological wizardry, exists still. It has re-emerged in a new form on YouTube - not least in the on-line videos produced by companies at the cutting edge of the information and communication revolution. It’s worth viewing some of them. The production standards tend to be high, the storyline simple, the characters uniformly attractive and the soundtrack space-age electronic (i.e. intensely boring if you watch a few, one after the other).

One of the best of the genre is a recent posting by Microsoft. It’s not just me that thinks so. These short twenty-first century sci-fi films posing as documentaries are popular. When I last checked more than 3.7 million visitors had watched Future Vision. Clearly I am not the only one who can be turned on by the multi-surface inputs, cloud-based data services, 3D holographic output,
context-aware intelligence and gesture-based document navigation that will be available to me in the workplace of tomorrow (if I can only remember the passwords).

Such videos present an appealing picture of how many ICT companies imagine the future of work. In the tag-line of Podio (an on-line social work platform) they persuade viewers how we will “change the way we work, one app at a time”. Their messages are illuminated by the white heat of technological change. Even the language used to describe their manifestation has the high-tech ring of a brave new world. Welcome to ‘computopia.’

I’m drawn to the vision not as a techno geek or nerd. I am neither mechanically gifted nor scientifically trained. Today, as in the past, I’m far more interested in the power of technological innovation rather than the detail of how things work – which is why I feel able to chair a capital start-up in the area of quantum cryptography. What most intrigues me about YouTube’s guides to the future are their implicit but unmistakeable message that the workplace of tomorrow will be everywhere. Bound by ubiquitous connectivity on a global scale, work in the future will merge seamlessly from the office to the hotel and on to the family home. It’s not clear where working life will be separated from leisure. This, far more than the sophisticated design of the technological gadgetry, is the real story. It’s not simply the optimistic fiction of corporate spin. It’s a narrative told by a persuasive group of authors – academics, journalists, bloggers and management gurus - who look forward to the future of work with eager anticipation.

Tomorrow, they enthuse, will be a world of hyperconnectedness. The workplace will be universal, bound by electronic groupware. The boundaries of organisational structure represented by the multinational corporation will become ever more porous. The world of the ‘heroic institution’ will disappear. Knowledge workers will come together not because of their employment relationship with the firm but because of their shared interest in addressing a particular problem: they will be part of an informal collective, a ‘swarming’ of ad hoc groups, who join forces, swap ideas, engage informally in ‘sketch-ups’, and harness their manifold skills as ‘co-workers’.

Traditional authority, wielded through administrative control of routinised work processes, will disappear. Max Weber’s bureaucratic structures will be gone. At the workplace, hierarchies will give way to flatter organisation structures in which self-managed teams will be afforded greater ability to organise their cooperative work effort. Beyond the workplace, structures of project coordination will be more fluid. In a global environment it will be easy to time shift the production and delivery of goods, services and ‘symbolic significations’. Transaction costs will plummet. Workers will be able to work in places and at times that are convenient to them.

According to many contemporary accounts of the future, the factories and offices which have traditionally anchored labour performance will become less and less a feature of working life. The workforce will be location-independent. The physical manifestation of work will become virtual. As information and data are moved around the world electronically in real time, work will be distributed to people in many locations, undertaken across networks of collaborative activity, without regard to time or space. There will be few office buildings, no employee headcount and – the wildest of claims – no organisational politics. The spatial territory of traditional organisations will become purposeless: rather the right skills from around the world will be harnessed to common purpose. Corporate resources will be expanded or shrunk at will.

The ‘third wave’, anticipated by Alvin Toffler as early as 1980, is now being made manifest. The future of work, we are told, is not hard to prophesy: we can see it taking shape around us. We just have to find the right words to articulate the revolution. Will we feel comfortable working for a ‘non-tactile company’? Will we take pride in describing ourselves as an ‘extended employee’ in a ‘career-resilient workforce’? Will we welcome ‘the consumerisation of work’? Will we enjoy working with a ‘silicon secretary’ in ‘hyperconnected reality’? How will we fulfil our roles as citizens in a ‘free-agent nation’?

The future, proclaim enthusiasts, is already with us. The old world by which work has been organised is unravelling and a new order is emerging. The ‘IT revolution’, driven by the miniaturisation of integrated circuits and the development of supporting technologies, allows us to capture, store, transmit and share information in digital form. The ultimate manifestation of capacious bandwidth and memory storage is not yet fully apparent but the indications of its impact are already evident in the appearance of hot-desking ‘road warriors’ and teleworkers operating from virtual offices or telecottages.

The ‘web organisation’, epitomised by internet exchange, text messaging and voice mail, will take shape not as an information assembly line but as a creative network. It is already evident that the tasks required for production are being disaggregated into their constituent parts. Research and development, design work, data processing, accounting, personnel management, human resource training, quality control, marketing, advertising, distribution, legal services, information security and (of course) computing are being unbundled from the production process and delivered by providers external to the firm. Outsourcing is on the increase. Nearshoring and offshoring now seem equally close. Services are routinely delivered on-line. Retailing, banking, entertainment, military reconnaissance and even surgery can be conducted in a virtual world.

In this future, we are assured, job security will no longer be a driver of commitment. Company loyalty will disappear. Satisfaction will come from accomplishment rather than job tenure. Workers will be bound together by the social capital of work. Mutual commitment will be defined not by the organisation they work for but the people they work with. Power will shift in the virtual workplace, empowering individuals and encouraging them to manage themselves. They will cope with, even thrive on, uncertainty and ambiguity.

It is suggested that the workplace of the future will take its organisational inspiration from Hollywood. Work will be flexible and fluid. Few functions will need to occur in-house. Physical assets, needed only periodically, will be rented rather than owned. Factories and offices will be replaced by collaborative work spaces. Costs and risks will be distributed over the entire network of design and production.

In this world the future will belong less to employees of firms than to participants of an open, networked platform. Specialists will come together on a temporary basis as freelancers to work on a project (just as they do to make a movie). ‘Productive inquisitors’ will pool their knowledge in creative ways and then disband. Collectively owning results, they will be more able to negotiate the demands of their working life and operate in a more autonomous fashion. Crowdsourcing brokers will take on the role of connecting assistance ‘seekers’ and problem ‘solvers’.

Whilst not all employees will have their work transformed in this way, the digital revolution will change the working life of most people to varying degrees. Even many traditional skilled jobs – such as mechanics, electrical fitters, metal fabricators, patternmakers and telecommunication technicians – will find their productive capacity enhanced by the computer. Similarly, service sector workers will have their delivery task mediated (and made more efficient) by application of the computer. Technological complexity will increase the knowledge component of many jobs, making the manner in which they are performed quite different from earlier generations. Even in ‘the trades’ workers will be required to interpret, analyse and synthesize information in order to make decisions. Obsolescence will accelerate. Whole categories of dull, boring, routine and repetitive work will be eliminated.

In this virtual world, work will be defined as an activity rather than a place. The notion of a job will return to its etymological origins as a description of a specific task rather than of a form of permanent employment. Location and work will be decoupled. Work will be able to be undertaken, individually or collectively, almost anywhere at any time. People will be ‘always connected’ .Indeed John Seely Brown, co-chair of the Deloitte Centre for the Edge, now claims with pride that he is able to do much of his non-cognitive imaginative work in his sleep.

Work processes will no longer simply be automated: they will be de-routinized. The artisanal traditions will be reinvented in digital form. People will make a living through the contribution they can make to discovery and innovation. Their skills will be spontaneous rather than reactive. Their income will derive from the ownership of ideas and skills rather than salaries. Many will run their own niche businesses, ‘buying’ leisure or family time in flexible ways. If they have the time they will attend high-technology ‘boot camps’ and ‘unconferences’: if not they will jam their ideas in on-line webinars.

The changing nature of work will call not only for new skills but a new workforce culture. Organisational capacity and individual capability will have to set greater store on the value of experimentation and risk-taking. The work organisation of the future will be humanized, placing greater emphasis on inclusiveness, collaboration, teamwork and diversity. Work will become not a necessity but a possibility; not a means of survival but a means of fulfilment and creative expression. Traditional labour divisions and organisational structures will give way to a web of enterprise as work moves from the machine age to the information age. Work, a source of joy rather than drudgery, will be a driver of personal growth and self-actualisation. Career management will be devolved to the individual. More importantly it will become part of the development of a broader ‘life role portfolio’. Performance will be monitored by ‘720° evaluation’, including feedback from people outside the organisation.

Workers themselves will evolve a new social character (a kind of macro personality) as the context both of work and family life changes. The increasing proportion of children now raised in non-traditional families will be less likely to idealize leaders as father substitutes, feeling stronger ties to sibling figures. Consequently, they will be better adapted to non-traditional work environments. According to Michael Maccoby, leaders will no longer be able to depend on the autocratic and paternalistic methods of traditional bureaucracies. The world of competitive knowledge workers will depend upon interactive social character, in which bonds of affiliation are stronger with colleagues (siblings) than bosses (fathers).

This is the future of work as discussed and debated at the World Economic Forum. Its influence, however, extends far beyond the rarefied air of Davos. It’s becoming part of our lives. I now find myself invited to management seminars on “the way the increased velocity, complexity, transparency and interdependence of today’s society is creating workplace transformation on an unprecedented scale”. “The Shift” writes Lynda Gratton, is on: “the future of work is already here.” “The Mobile Wave,” proclaims Michael Saylor, is sweeping over us: “mobile intelligence will change everything.” “The metabolism of change has accelerated, “conclude discussants at the Aspen Institute roundtable,” sending shockwaves across society.” I sometimes feel exhausted just imagining the future that awaits.

Global IT management consultancy companies are there to help me adapt if only I could understand what they are telling me. I serve as a non-executive director of AMP, the large wealth management company. Recently I received this sage advice on preparing for the future. “By leveraging multiple access business strategies,” I was encouraged, “ insurers can configure and decouple products from channels. Fuelled by advanced analytics technology, which enables the mining of customer data for predictive modelling, integrated forecasting and sophisticated statistical analysis, you can improve the customer experience.” In the workplace of the future, I fear, the English language will be transformed into highfalutin gobbledygook.

This is ironic given that at the heart of the avowed transformation lies the revolution in digital communications. That, however, represents only one aspect of technological innovation. The work of the future, from this optimistic perspective, will be based on interconnected platforms of enabling technologies – genomic and robotic, biotech and nanotech. On the near horizon awaits the emergence of computational power for artificial intelligence.

Welcome, then, to the ‘weightless economy’ of the future, coming soon to a workplace near you. It is a relentlessly exciting world of infinite possibilities. According to Robert Morris, Vice-President of Services Research at IBM, the hyperconnected work environment will be “a beautiful, gigantic system .... that produces goods, services, fun and happiness.” It sounds, in its messianic vision, an exciting if relentlessly challenging place to work. It’s awesome. But perhaps it’s all happy ending and no story. What if it doesn’t come true? What, if, as so often in the past, “yesterday’s tomorrow is today’s colossal disappointment”? Or, worse still, what if the sheen of gleaming modernity masks a darker, more sombre reality? What if all that seems new is old again?
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