The Future of Work: A Vision
Originally published at https://aaksham.com/2020/09/18/the-future-of-work-a-vision/
COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink many aspects of our lives. Job losses, stimulus checks, 0% interest rates and stock market turbulence dominate conversations when avoiding the more morbid topics of death and disease. Most large scale systems are struggling to deal with this pandemic in a coherent way and these struggles offer a rare lens into what we value as a society. As I work longer and longer hours, and fight with a variety of electronic screens to protect my cognitive real estate, I’ve been compelled to analyze the relationship between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).
“Never let a good crisis go waste.” Sometimes the music is not in the notes but in the spaces between them. Taking this pandemic as that silence between the notes, in a series of blog posts I examine deeply the relationship between the 3 pillars of the knowledge economy: Work, Education and Value.
In Future of Work, but first Now and the Near Future I talk about why those ‘common’ ideas are not a reflection of reality any more (pandemic notwithstanding). I try to understand reality and where we are headed in the near future if nothing is done about fixing the gap between that reality and the common ideas/assumptions.
In this post, I first propose a hypothesis of the crux of the gap problem. And then, based on all of this, I present a vision for the future of work. Most importantly for the reader, in Future of Work: An Individual Perspective I describe a decision framework at the individual level about how to prepare for that future of work and the changing dynamic between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).
The Real Implications of 'Winner-Takes-Most'
I’ll draw upon the shift that is happening in the world of Computer Vision to demonstrate my point. Deep learning, the latest buzzword in the field today really established its place at the forefront of machine learning in 2010. Deep learning approaches were being developed by a group of researchers since the 1990s. A culmination of advances in processing power like GPUs and large labeled datasets like ImageNet created the perfect arena. One in which the deep learning approach finally demonstrated that it could significantly out do traditional computer vision approaches. Quite rapidly, almost overnight, the expertise of traditional computer vision researchers & practitioners became outdated. While the original scientists and researchers worked in relative obscurity to develop these ideas, it was their students and 2nd generation PhD students who find themselves in the most advantageous position today. External viewers of this phenomenon (such as journalists, new students etc.) are processing this disruption in 3 ways:
This attitude supposes that all or (at the very least) the 2nd wave of early students in the field were in the right place at the right time to capture the deep learning wave.
This attitude places the original researchers, the 2nd and 3rd wave of researchers all in the same category. That category being one of iconoclastic geniuses more or less.
This attitude looks at history and normalizes the deep learning wave as yet another example of the long history of technological disruptions.
Each of these perspectives captures and yet misses some important part of the whole picture.
right-time-right-place attitude acknowledges that several veins of technological/science research require similar kinds of ingenuity, creativity, and technical brilliance. It tries to reduce the perceived gap in the merit of less successful but similar efforts carried out with the same intention and integrity.
this-is-the-usual tries to bring some perspective to the scale of upheaval a technological disruption brings about by normalizing it with history. However, it trivializes the fact that there is hardly ever anything “usual” about birthing something new.
Both right-time-right-place and this-is-the-usual (technological disruption) attitudes do not give adequate recognition to the amount of risk, courage of conviction and effort it takes to believe/test new ideas. Especially in the face of powerful convention.
The rapture, hero-worship attitude in contrast to the other two gives ample recognition to the risk and courage of conviction it takes to birth new ideas in the face of excruciating uncertainty and occasional hardline naysayers. Yet it is probably off the mark the most in terms of creating a gap between the many similarly courageous people and their efforts.
These prevalent attitudes are not merely my observation. They are pretty much directly reflected in the common wage structure today. In 2014, two researchers from University of Bangkok and HBS conducted a survey about “How Much (More) Should CEOs Make?”. I encourage the reader to stare for a little while at the 2 graphs on a blog post about this study.
Briefly, in the United States, people estimated that CEOs make about 30 times more than an “unskilled” worker. Again most people think that should number should be 7.
30 and 7. Thats one chasm.
Now here’s the real deal, that number in reality is 350.
7 (ideal) --> 30 (estimated) --> 350 (actual)
That is an even bigger chasm.
A common framework that everyone tries to fit the changing equation of Work, Value/Productivity into is one of capitalism and socialism. But these frameworks are no longer sufficient and out of touch with reality. The crux of the problem is this:
All attempts to solve society’s problems/create value can be categorized into 3 buckets.
Successful attempt - the one that actually worked.
Unsuccessful attempts - the ones that lacked one or more factors preventing them from becoming Successful attempts.
Pure socialism is the right-time-right-place/this-is-all-luck attitude taken to its extreme. It assumes that the gap between (1), (2) and (3) is near zero. Crucially it almost makes no distinction between unsuccessful attempts and those who make “No attempt”. Any person who has tried to create something of value (whether successful or not) cannot be true to themselves and accept this value system at the same time (especially those who have suffered the downsides of being in category (2)).
Pure capitalism is the rapture attitude taken to its extreme. It assumes that there is a huge gap between (1) and (2) and that it is justified. Specifically, it assumes that the reward gap between a successful approach and other similar approaches should exist (in the name of incentive/competition etc). Because of this crucially, it also places (2) and (3) at the same level (of near zero utility).
So here is my hypothesis for the crux of the problem:
Current Value systems underestimate how much a Successful attempt (1) is actually a function of Unsuccessful attempts(2). We need several different perspectives, attempts and approaches for the many unsolved problems facing the world today. This underestimation is another reason why current Education, Work, Value systems are so comfortable ignoring the human potential of women and large swathes of other under-represented demographics. Moreover and equally importantly, any value distribution framework will have to find a way to first differentiate between (1) and (2) and (3) and subsequently maintain those differences at “reasonable” levels.
True, real innovators mostly appreciate how deeply and extensively (1) is a function of (2). Geoffrey Hinton, a pioneer of deep learning, the field and example I have chosen to anchor this discussion, recently said, “The future depends on some graduate student who is deeply suspicious of everything I have said.” (*There is greatness and then there is transcendence).
Grounded in this hypothesis of value creation, I lay out a vision of the Future of Work.
A Vision (for Work & Value)
The lifecycle of change and disruption is going to become shorter and the rate of change faster in all walks of life. Thanks to automation, technological disruption and shifting labor markets, the gains from specialization are going to be exponentially high, massive. Leading to increasing winner-takes-most scenarios. But only until that specialization is relevant and only until that winner-takes-most advantage is not commoditized or regulated away. To become a winner in this winner-takes-most scenario and to reestablish a specialization in a new area, one has to take bets and spend time in areas that may generate value in the future. Areas for which it would not at all be clear or certain that spending time in it is going to lead to those substantial exponential gains that will make that time bet worth it. This is a vision for ‘Work’ part of the equation.
Now about 'Value'.
In this changing scenario, Maslow’s Hierarchy, a concept devised in 1943, holds the key for how the perception of ‘Value’ is going to change.
Lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are classified as ‘Deficiency’ needs. Two very important characteristics of those needs are that the longer they are denied, the more a person becomes motivated to fulfill them. However, once they are fulfilled to reasonable levels, people are more motivated to transition to higher levels of the pyramid instead of fulfilling those needs in greater amounts or to a higher quantity.
The picture changes completely when an individual transitions to fulfilling a ‘Growth’ need such as creativity, self-expression etc. These needs may become stronger as they are engaged. They do not exist because of the lack of something but from the desire of an individual to reach higher levels of self actualization.
Herein lies the key to that future of work. As the rate of change of relevant skills becomes higher, one will have to take bigger and more frequent bets with their time to develop new skills and specializations. This cannot happen if one is not passionate, disciplined, talented etc. but most importantly this cannot happen if one’s work is not a good representation of one’s self, one’s aspired identity. The resilience and endurance required to keep meeting waves of change cannot be developed if the actions required to do them are not in sync with who you are and who you want to be.
As a corollary, traditional rat races (manifested in entrance exams, school grades bell curves, promotion bell curves, traditional careers and their ladders) are not only dehumanizing etc. but that they are already and will rapidly become irrelevant. Talk to most super achievers in their fields, whether politics, technology, art, law etc. and you will find that their hours only increase as they transition up the pyramid, not decrease. External observers (like journalists, retired past generation) focus only at the value society provides top performers in exchange for these hours in terms of money and labels it a success. However, this situation can only realistically be called a success if those hours contribute to that person’s idea of who they want to be. For example, I do believe this is one of the reasons top actresses have such a hard time making peace with who they are when they are at the top, irrespective of the pay. Because they realize that suddenly the sex symbol image that was helpful on the way to the top is no longer in sync with their needs for respect, prestige and control over pay in a highly sexually misogynistic society.(*1)
A thumb rule to discern these kinds of ‘top performers’ which has anecdotally worked for me is: People who’s success is out of sync with who they want to be, go to great lengths looking for external validation. They regularly engage in ego-matches and show-off contests to bridge the gap. Anecdotally, the thumb rule also seems to have a good prediction rate for sustained future success of that entity (person, group, company, community etc.).
This was the vision for future of work as it would look like to an individual. At the system level, institutional level I do think that the survival of a society will depend on how much we can enable people to do (2) so that as a group we have a real shot at (1). The key may really be in enabling a lot of people to take risks and experiment. It is to provide more people both the incentive and the safety net to experiment with new approaches, take risks and improve existing or outdated systems. And reward them if through their risks, they develop something of true value to society that solves a real problem. (Universal Basic Income is one financial vehicle that is being touted as a possible way to achieve this).
As political systems have demonstrated again and again, they rarely wake up in time to deliver opportune solutions to people’s problems. They usually have to be jolted into such a state with ugly processes like war, revolutions, violent protests and painful sacrifices of their victims. Since governmental politics is inter-connected with education, the wheels of motion are slow there too. As COVID-19 is already demonstrating, most universities in the developed world are having a hard time coming up with any logical, coherent approach for their modus operandi for the crisis. Not having invested in modernizing education, most are struggling with upgrading to online methods and are quite unabashedly passing on the buck to students. Therefore it is unlikely that large scale systems will change in any meaningful way to handle the already changed or changing nature of work and productivity.
There are some people who have the “good fortune” even today of living in that future of work. The upsides seem to be
“offices in the rich world’s capitals are filled with clever people working collaboratively.…The pleasure lies partly in flow, in the process of losing oneself in a puzzle with a solution on which other people depend…shaping high-quality, bespoke products from beginning to end…design, fashion, smooth and improve, filing the rough edges and polishing the words, the numbers, the code or whatever is our chosen material. At the end of the day we can sit back and admire our work – the completed article, the sealed deal, the functioning app – in the way that artisans once did, and those earning a middling wage in the sprawling service-sector no longer do….Work is a wonderful refuge (from emotional troubles).”
It looks great so far but in the face of lacking systemic support to step out of it, the same things that provide these advantages are also the reasons that over time will become points of weaknesses.
“…it does not allow us much time with newborn children or family members who are ill;…Or to develop hobbies, side-interests…it makes failure or error a more difficult, humiliating experience. Social life ceases to be a refuge from the indignities of work. The sincerity of relationships becomes questionable…they befriend their clients because they spend too much time with them…Stepping off the treadmill does not just mean accepting a different vision of one’s prospects with a different salary trajectory. It means upending one’s life entirely: changing locations, tumbling out of the community, losing one’s identity. Spending our leisure time with other professional strivers buttresses the notion that hard work is part of the good life and that the sacrifices it entails are those that a decent person makes. This is what a class with a strong sense of identity does: it effortlessly recasts the group’s distinguishing vices as virtues.”
As this vision of work becomes a reality for more and more people, the revolution needed to prepare for it will have to be borne by the individual in their own personal lives. In the face of lacking leadership, support from the system, how do you prepare for this eventuality? This is what I talk about in my next article: The Future of Work: An Individual's Perspective.
I must acknowledge Mahaveer Meghawat, my father, as many of the ideas in this post were sharpened over many many discussions with him.
I must also talk a little about 'Education'. Of the 3 pillars from Work, Education & Value, Education is the least ‘valued’ today but probably the most fundamental to how individuals will choose Work in the future and perceive its Value. One school of thought posits that education reform is ‘THE’ key to looking at a brighter future. My favorite author on education reform in the Indian context, Prof. Arvind Kudchadker outlines a bold yet practical vision in his book ‘Creating a New Technological Institute’. This position is obviously true and relatable for almost every knowledge worker.
This 2014 essay on “Productivity And The Education Delusion” by Techcrunch editor Danny Crichton captures beautifully the many dilemmas this school of thought faces. (Totally worth reading).
What does an extreme form of this vision for the Future of Work look like? I encourage you to watch Chef's Table episodes on Grant Achatz and Jeong Kwan in their entirety for a glimpse of this. (The episodes are an absolute treat to watch as an added benefit).
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