The Future of Work: An Individual Perspective

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 The Future of Work, but first a History, I briefly tour history to understand how common ideas about Work, Education & Value (Productivity) became ‘common’.

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 Future of Work: A Vision, 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.

In this piece I suggest a framework to prepare for that future at an individual level, (one I have used at every decision point of my career). I also intend this piece to serve as a final one for my series on ‘Musings on a BITSian Life’.

To recap from Future of Work: A Vision

“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 for this are not in sync with who you are and who you want to be.”

The Future of Work: A Vision

To have some clarity on that last bit, I propose that a person should have a reasonably good idea of where they stand on two graphs.

Risk Endurance Profile

In Asian households, there is a misguided refrain oft repeated motivating children to put in grueling efforts for grades/entrance exams to have a shot at an elite education. It goes something to the effect of “Study for 10th grade /national board exams, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Study for 12th grade/SAT exams, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Study engineering/medicine, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Do an MBA, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Get into investment banking or consulting, you can enjoy life later.” Then after a few years: “Get promoted, you can enjoy life later”. This is a version of the work treadmill I have described, for young people. This sentiment and its psychological impact on young people has been captured beautifully in the international hit movie: 3 Idiots.

As I have argued here that this advice has several problems with it but the most important one is that it is outdated and irrelevant. With the highly visible success of technology companies today via stock market, valuations, IPOs, and the buzzwords related to AI being hyped everywhere, newer parents might advise their children to study computer science because that seems to be the future. That would indeed update the advice, however it would still remain mistaken.

Just as an example, the competitive advantages of knowing generic computer science are also thinning away rapidly. It is already advisable to develop expertise in particular branches of computer science or machine learning or combination fields such as robotics, NLP. And that trend is only going to continue.

The real point is that if you are on a path or a trajectory, moving forward on it will only require you to become more and more of what got you there. Not only will you have to do more of it but you will most likely have to get very good at it. If you have to change yourself too much to get somewhere, its a great indication that the whole destination should be re-evaluated. Because the dissonance between the journey and the self, if it exists, usually only gets worse. As career trajectories become more exponential, winner-takes-most in nature, this question of re-evaluation will become more important for more people.

Therefore when standing at a decision point i.e. choosing a journey and a destination, one must have some understanding of where one stands on this graph. What are the risks of that path and does one have a reserve of endurance to face their downsides? A lot of people know this somewhat intuitively and frame the question in different ways but those questions are essentially finding one’s place in this graph:

Risk Endurance Profile

There are two very important notes to keep in mind during this thought exercise: 1) This assessment can change over time. For example, you may find yourself in possession of more financial resources increasing your appetite for risk or endurance. Similarly your life’s circumstances may change due to external factors making it impossible to take high risks. So very crucially, 2) this assessment is not a judgement. Some egoistic “self-unaware” people would like to think that placing oneself in a low-risk-low-endurance category would be undesirable. However this assessment is not necessarily intrinsic to your character. For example most societies suffer from a systemic lack of imagination about women’s roles in the future of work, education and productivity. There are societies where nobody wants to invest in them (ensuring 0 endurance) and nobody wants to take a bet on them (ensuring 0 risk taking ability). This leads to social systems forcing a certain quadrant on a certain demographic of society. Therefore placing yourself on this quadrant is not so much a judgement but an honest look at where you stand and what may lie ahead.

Aggressive-Passive-Independent-Conventional

The first graph was mostly about placing oneself on it. I also argue that it is not intrinsic to who you may be as a person. But the next graph may be more so.

No (wo)man is an island. I struggled for a very long time to crystallize the many ways in which you also need to understand and place the people who surround you, a mental model of sorts for people. But then I came across this exceptional essay by Paul Graham on ‘The Four Quadrants of Conformism’ and there was an aha moment. Here is my attempt at a pictorial representation of the quadrants he has laid out. Of course every word of that essay explaining the quadrant is worth a read.

Axes of Conformism

Why is this useful? Sometimes when you are too embedded inside a group of people like high-school friends, college friends or family, it is hard to see the bigger or the real picture. The usual tendency is to consider anyone with a different orientation inferior. Thinking for a few minutes about people surrounding you on these axes might bring reality closer home.

For example in a previous essay, I have described how groups which don’t have a clear purpose tend to be exceptionally subjective. Groups that don’t have much clarity on why they are together look for artificial reasons to stick together, often fermenting and rotting in each other’s company. Instantaneously becoming more rigid, closer and suspicious of newer arrivals and further entrenching that process. If your bond with someone/something derives strength from stepping on someone else, ironically that entity you collectively despise becomes the most important defining aspect of the relationship. Only groups that have strong clarity on why they are together can also at the same time be agile enough to discover new people.

Which kind of group are you in? Which group of people do you have a problem with? Placing both on a graph can lead to better understanding and better preparation for the future.

I’ll end with two things (relevant mostly for young people). It is remarkable how much our institutions encourage pattern-following and rarely ever provide the tools for pattern discovery (let alone pattern-questioning, maybe the reason we are set up in a race with ourselves for self destruction, hello climate change!).

As I elaborate on this point in the context for college students in this essay, developing a good question and finding the right people to ask it are both incredibly important, yet very hard. But an inexperienced person is in the unique position to seek out many people, study many journeys and observe the outcomes. To separate the traveler from the journey and the destination. To carry out good great pattern discovery.

The worst* kind of young people are people who think an earlier time in history was a better time, who look back at history, convention and tradition and believe that some prior combination of these was better. It means that they have bought into the power systems which have caused the world as it stands today. (You could be a completely ignorantly blissful person and say “so what’s the problem with the world as it stands today”, but I highly doubt such a person would even be reading this right now).

The best kind of old people are people who are excited for the future and wish they could live a little longer because it demonstrates a vision for an improved possibility, likely one that their life’s work has contributed to. You must decide pretty early on which kind of young person and which kind of old person you want to be.

Epilogue

I must acknowledge Sahil Shah, my husband, who brought Paul Graham's essay on conformism to my attention.

If you ever wonder, why I wrote all of this, I answer that here.


*P.S. Thanks to a new trend of hyped up lists of 30-under-30, 40-under-40 entities (people, startups, wannabe twitter celebrities etc.), there is a new contender for the worst category. I do not want to waste too many words on this professional version of attention seeking. Also, I am totally in the market for any comprehensive analysis which could answer questions like: How many startups which showed up in the 30-under-30 category were able to survive 5 years after that. Or if any managed to transition to the 40-under-40 category. Analogous questions for people. Or if the number of twitter followers or facebook fans is actually correlated to any meaningful real life metric such as funding, valuation, revenue etc. Enough words wasted already. Moving on.