At the very beginning of my journey, I was crowing with the flock that “disruption is here”. Your job is not safe. AI and automation will take away more than “minimum-wage jobs”. Armed increasingly with worrying labour market skills data, I pushed the same bandwagon that fundamental skill gaps required quick education, institution, and government intervention. It was a difficult cart to push as it was clear that where the current economy falters, market-ready talent is in short supply and vice versa.
In particular, in the past two years of isolation, I have had to live this dilemma on my turf, having to rebuild my team to tackle remote work across time zones while staying above foreboding hopelessness.
The process became therapy, not only for my colleagues; it wrought much introspection into whether “work” was still relevant. This question has been a fetish of many who seek to reconcile the gaps: in 1995, Jeremy Rifkin wrote The End of Work to warn people about what he foresees may be happening to the global labour force because of growing automation in the workplace.
I see this inquiry increasingly an existential one for humanity: what do we want to work for?
After all, the Great Resignation of 2021 shows that people no longer view “work” as the same, and are taking risks to explore alternatives. The exodus reveals many of the prime productive working ages are choosing to opt-out for a multitude of reasons. Policy planners had been anticipating these sorts of problems, and yet for too long, the social contract had been business as usual.
While looking for signposts to the future, I take heart that institutions are also bracing for inevitable change. In the old paradigm, work is an exchange many of us require for survival. Engaged in this social contract, we spend time, energy, ideas, and effort towards work in return for, not least, food on the table, shelter over our heads, and pay for the internet. But we are articulating now what a “basic living” is with regard to work.
One example is the rallying call by the World Economic Forum in 2020 for world leaders to use the pandemic as an opportunity.
“This initiative will offer insights to help inform all those determining the future state of global relations, the direction of national economies, the priorities of societies, the nature of business models and the management of a global commons. Drawing from the vision and vast expertise of the leaders engaged across the Forum’s communities, the Great Reset initiative has a set of dimensions to build a new social contract that honours the dignity of every human being.”
Did the pandemic offer a sudden solitude for people to find their own epiphany? Or has work ceased to provide a “living”? Other narratives and factors are also quickening these changes in our collective social contract.
1. Universal income/ minimum wage/ 4-day work week. (We can’t and don’t want to work longer for less.)
a. Even China is deemed the “996” overtime policy illegal. We are fatigued. Productivity goals need to be examined against a backdrop of automation and other social, psychological, and physiological factors. People seek a baseline for a reasonable living.
2. Remote work/ Work-from-Home. (We want the flexibility to where and how we work.)
a. The way people work is unbound from space and time(zones). Digital nomads have been proof of concept that remote work can be a model for productivity and connectivity. The Covid-era has forced remaining organisations to adapt and explore new BCPs. Appropriateness depends on the industry, but it is clear that managing a dynamic work environment is the key to any business.
3. Gig, Outsourcing, Crowdsourcing. (We do not want to be limited in our opportunities.)
a. While flexible work is not new, what is interesting is that it is becoming a dominant employer and training resource, buoyed by connectivity and technology from project management platforms to video conference solutions, HR automation solutions, etc. The hustle is becoming permanent. At best, it could be everyone’s opportunity to self-determine and gain entrepreneurial skills. At worst, it might mean that talent and skills become so trans-migratory that employers will no longer hold all the cards. A rethink of employment is in order.
4. Crypto, NFT, and E-banking. (We work in a decentralised money flow.)
a. With the wider acceptance of cryptocurrency, easier remittance, and e-payment options, it is now much easier and cheaper for me to pay for a service rendered beyond my national boundaries. The emerging markets are showing the way here; the popular cryptocurrency payment platform, Dash, identified Africa as a ripe market, rolling out digital payment services across several nations.
5. Creating your own worth. (We want to create.)
a. The top career choice for teens now is to be a YouTuber. Tiktok is a craze and OnlyFans is helping people buy their first homes! Some call this the attention economy. I see it as a trend where industries are being disrupted because the traditional division of work, processes or hierarchies may no longer be relevant. A tuition teacher can now scale to teach thousands online and make much more than a formal school teacher. Do we still need to play by the adage that we need to climb the corporate ladder? Steeped for too long in the myth of the heroic entrepreneurs, do we carry across the assumption that a minority of people are ready to create their own worth? For if so, we risk downplaying the human capital we have at hand.
b. Growth of platforms such as Patreon, Indiegogo, Kickstarter, and Upwork offer people many ways to monetise their passion and skills -while making it really complex for the taxman.
The cusp of exponential living (Sheri Riley popularised the term in her book on the success that is whole-life over “business”) has been predicted for a long time now. Where we have limitless options to consume information, a multitude of ways to connect with people and even machines, and creative ways to make a living, we will surely break the confines of what work ought to do or be. We will live larger. (Just check out Mukbang–you literally make money and get bigger by streaming yourself eat.)
No doubt economies are evolving.
In its place can we imagine a new social contract that prioritises the freedom to collaborate, creation of value and intellectual property, and growing opportunity for people to reimagine how they would like to participate in economic activities. After all, how many have minted their own careers on their own passions online, home-based and cottage retailers have mushroomed amidst lockdowns, live auctions are a thing, and you can be an overnight NFT millionaire with a crappy digital scrawl. Those that are across this digital divide, without access to the internet and getting acquainted with the multitude of services will need governmental intervention.
The challenge will be for governments to experiment beyond conventional frameworks to set a new benchmark over viewing labour in nationalistic/GDP; archaic labour laws and/or means of personal taxation; to not let slip this opportunity to align with workers–not only to facilitate better living standards for their people but also for people development. Access to affordable broadband internet, digital banking facilities, and online learning content would be a start.
Will we be captains at this new horizon? My hope is that we seize the opportunity to define our own terms of a future of work is more a future of living.
Damien Yee, is the co-founder of Epitome Global. Based out of Singapore, they provide and implement talent tech solutions for national platforms covering career support, employability, and upskilling.