Sunday, November 08, 2015

Why you won't have a job in the 22nd Century

That, over time, societies evolve is a truism. 

Yet those that survive and prosper over the longer term seem to evolve in a specific way: towards greater social complexity. The point is that more innovative societies tend to amass greater wealth and thus the ability to deploy greater resources in their own defence. As a general rule then the ability to innovate is a critical feature in social progress and international power. Over the centuries we have seen an evolution from a hierarchical social order, to a more egalitarian order, which permits the freer exchange of information and thus greater innovation. Yet the exchange of this information was for long limited by geography. Until only five hundred years ago there was no knowledge of the European civilizations in America and vice versa. Even where contact existed- between the Chinese, Arab and European civilizations, for example- there was only limited technological transfer and thus it was by innovation, rather than by exchange, that most technological advances were made.

Yet despite this isolation and seeming diversity, the civilizations of the pre-Columbian world were surprisingly similar- the Inca Empire and the Chinese Empire, for example, were both generally centralised on a single Imperial figure, albeit one surrounded by a bureaucracy and army that had their own will. Even Europe nominally owed allegiance to a common church and an Emperor who derived much of his legitimacy from that church. Yet in the social chaos that followed the Black Death of 1346-8, Europe was convulsed by religious and social revolution. The shortage of human labour to work the land required the end of the hierarchy of feudalism. The subsequent creation of an more urban society was the focus of much study by Karl Marx. he observed that as the agrarian revolution of the late middle ages promoted the emergence of a "bourgeois" class, so in his own day the industrial revolution had created a new class- he used the Latin term "proletariat"- that despite its lack of wealth would nonetheless come to dominate the social order. Based on the revolutionary activity of the early nineteenth century, Marx and his collaborators believed that the end of "bourgeois" society would be violent, but the rise of the proletariat was inevitable.

However Marx, for all the interesting insights and ideas in his work, had not made the leap of imagination that he might have done. His ideas are essentially those of a sociologist. Yet the evidence is increasingly clear that the battle of social and economic groups- he called it "Class War"- is not the only mover in social progress. Indeed the creation of the industrial proletariat itself was the result of the innovations of the earlier industrial revolution and their consolidation into ever larger units of production- a process that Marx believed would continue long into the future. He did not foresee that in the longer term innovation had the power to maintain the levels of production with ever less use of labour, and that as a result labour itself would be deployed into an ever expanding innovation frontier. The necessary consequence was that far from the inchoate masses of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the former proletariat would evolve into a highly educated and ever wealthier group. Instead of growing to an unstoppable revolutionary mass, the constituency to overthrow this ever more comfortable society grew ever weaker.

More to the point the massed proletariat, despite the agitation of Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries, began to fracture. Society was no longer a battle of "Capitalist Exploiter" versus the revolutionary "Exploited", but an ever more complex mosaic of social groups. As property ownership and share ownership became commonplace, so it has grown ever more difficult to identify which side of the the nominal class divide any given group or individual might be.

Yet there remain profound social hierarchies. These exist not only within the authority of the nation state- that cultural and political fly in the ointment of Marxist beliefs- but also in the world of work. As we have seen, large scale production initially required the deployment of huge numbers of workers, and although the role (and the power) of the state declined, large scale corporations rose, and in many cases were able to deploy similar, or even greater financial resources than most of the states themselves. The second half of the twentieth century saw the zenith of huge organisations- some, like the Manhattan Project and the Apollo space programme, were organised by governments (but in the case of Apollo enacted by large corporations). The hierarchies involved hundreds of thousands of individuals. 

Then something remarkable began to happen. The State, financially enfeebled by the repeated crises which began in the 1970s, stood back from many of these projects: whereas once the provision of power supply was a state responsibility, for example, increasingly it became the domain of private corporations. Yet these corporations themselves were far less powerful than they had hitherto been. Financial discipline tamed corporate egos and shareholder pressure began to limit corporate ambitions. As post war boom gave way to financial stringency, corporate bloat was challenged. 

The consequences were that the number of people working for the very largest corporations began to fall. Steel production, for example, which had required massive labour forces was now transformed to a more automated (and much safer) process. Machines -at home and in the office- eliminated the drudgery, whether that drudgery was washing clothes, typing letters, adding bills, or cooking food. For many that transfer has proven traumatic. The loss of long term and guaranteed jobs in mines, mills or manufacturing has created social upheaval. Yet the economic upheaval overall has proven to be surprisingly small. The level of unemployment, although fluctuating, has not led to a cadre of the workless, it is just that the culture of work has changed- just as it changed from the world of agrarian cottage industry to industrial production at the time of the Luddites two hundred years ago. The emergence of 3-D printing, for example, as a production method drastically reduces the required resources for manufacturing, making it not just more sustainable, but also no longer tied to any given geography. 

19th and 20th century work patterns over a single career often tended to be long term with large, single employers. That employer would often provide compensation above that of the salary- a pension, for example. Increasingly the burden of pensions or social insurance has become an individual responsibility, since neither the state nor the corporation can afford the burden. Over the past two decades work has become far more project based, and the result is that each individual has had to become more mobile and flexible in terms of how they work. Furthermore they have been able to use technology to work independently of any given location. At the technological frontier, from the geographic determinism of nationality and workplace has emerged the chance to work remotely with teams across the planet.

As we have researched the psychology of human beings, it becomes clear that large scale organisations are extremely inefficient- humans prefer to work in groups of a few tens- which may be the size of the average human band as we emerged as a species and therefore an innate preference. These teams of people, as with an army platoon, may combine with larger units, but the cohesion of such larger units is always weaker than the smaller units. It is extremely interesting to note that innovation businesses always seem to degrade more rapidly after they pass a hundred or so employees. Thus even large firms now seem to work in small groups. As understanding of the different human psychological and social needs improves we are seeing collaboration between teams, rather than large scale hierarchy. Innovation seems to require collaboration, rather than organisation.

So we can think about the trends in global employment. 

The key variable we note, is that geography is become ever less important for communication and even for production. The idea of a set work place is increasingly less important, and although small face-to-face social networks add to personal well-being, it maybe the case that fellow members of a work station may be working on different things with different remote teams. Although face-to-face contact remains important- and is the driver of such critical locations as Silicon Valley, the fact is that even the Valley is a centre for much that is nowhere near California. Indeed places like London, New York, San Jose, Berlin or Tallinn have increasingly strong networks with each other than they do with their own geographical hinterland. To be a node in such a network is far more important than where that node is actually located.

The second is the social evolution. A more complex society requires greater education. This is not simply a function of academic or school qualifications, it is a question of insight and the ability to process. I do not happen to believe that poor school qualifications should lead to social under-performance- otherwise Einstein would have been a fool, not a genius. We understand that the plasticity of the brain is reduced once one has become an adult, but as Edward de Bono has suggested, thinking is still a skill than can be learnt, rather than necessarily the result of innate intelligence and social habituation. In more complex systems, It is critical that the gigantic resource of human imagination and creativity is not wasted, and therefore the process of thinking will assume a more central part of the creative process.

The third is economic and technical evolution. The demands of the technical frontier require a sense of ownership and buy-in from the team members. In a sense organisations already speak the the language of the auto-capitalist when they talk about ownership in the sense of responsibility. However over time it is likely that power will shift from those who deploy physical capital- in the shape of factories or finance- to those who deploy intellectual capital. Already we are seeing the unpicking of the hierarchical financial system as peer-to-peer and other disruptive finance technologies and networks evolve, meanwhile the barriers to entry in manufacturing are dissolving as the resources required diminish further.         

Global networks; smaller, none geographically specific teams; more open access to capital and production; greater levels of education and insight are all notable current trends. All of this is set to combine with the same kind of demographics that sparked the political and social revolutions after the Black Death: by the 22nd century global human population is projected to be falling quite sharply. The result may be a revolution even more profound than the Renaissance. Already in Estonia each individual often owns a company to handle their own social welfare and the result is that the employment contract has given way to a contract for service provision. The hire-or-fire hierarchical corporate world is going the same way as the life-or-death control of the hierarchical state.   This trend is the first step to the point where individual auto-capitalists will provide services, be responsible for their own social welfare but also capture more of the rewards for their contribution.

So complex social evolution is in prospect. More egalitarian economic organisations, although not necessarily great social equality. More open access to financial and production resources. Smaller organisations, linked more by contract than by control. The world of employment in the next hundred years may be the greatest source of personal liberation since the emergence of representative democracy in the 19th and early 20th century. 

As to how the political world might change in response, well that must be the subject for another day.

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