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The Future of Work:
Doing more with less

Ein Beitrag von: Kara Xenia Tucholke

Throughout history, human beings have made use of tools to improve productivity and streamline processes (1). This can be traced back to the use of stone tools 3,3 million years ago (2), the industrial revolution in the 18th century (3) or the digital revolution with the internet and personal computing. Just like these evolutions, the distributed ledger technology Blockchain may have implications on how we will work in the future.

The Impact of Blockchain

Blockchain, smart contracts¹ and its implications on the future of work have already been well discussed on this platform (4–11) where increased trust and transparency were seen to positively influence how individuals will work and interact with each other in a business context.

Expert opinions on the subject range from “Blockchain will not have an impact on the future of work” over “it will influence what kind of jobs we will need” to “it will change the quality of our work” with positive and negative implications alike (1).

Work Performance Tracking with Algorithms & Machines

Routine and manual labor jobs being replaced by algorithms and machines may make way for a demand for highly qualified jobs that require diverse, interdisciplinary skills and knowledge, where future employees will have much greater responsibilities and autonomy, overseeing complete business transactions (ibid). The possibility that human work will be tracked and measured by algorithms instead of human beings brings thoughts of a future where work is being evaluated and remunerated fairly according to individual performance (ibid.) removed from the subjective layer that human supervision may have. With open ledgers of transactions comes the possibility to reduce inequalities in wages, since the payment and performance would be visible to everyone (9). However, the thought of machines deciding who is doing a good job evokes thoughts of a surveillance state, which could lead to an increasing pressure to perform, the reduction of human contact and could generally lead to paranoia (1). A distrust for technology is something that does not seem too far-fetched considering how the mechanization of manual labor in the industrial revolution gave birth to the Luddites mentality (12).

The Rise of Digital Nomadism

The possibility to record one’s skills, training and history of work performance on a blockchain facilitates seamlessly finding and matching future talents to different projects (13). Such developments fuel the notion that flexible short term work arrangements may become the standard in the future with the growing popularity of gig economies (14) and freelance work (15). Where cheap internet and aviation make it easier to travel and work from afar one may wonder if “digital nomadism” may become the future work life? According to the founder of the digital nomad website levels.io, Pieter Levels (16), the amount of remote workers will be 1 billion by the year 2035. The growing number of co-working spaces around the world (an example is the digital nomad hostel and coworking chain Selina (17)) suggest the growing need to accommodate working travelers as well.

Millennials & Generation Z: Setting the Future Work Trends

Now looking at future generations and their preferences, one may get an idea for what’s to come. Millennial and Generation Z’s² view on the future is characterized by insecurity (18,19). Especially the trust in the positive impact of businesses is decreasing (18). Personal freedom and the ability to pursue personal goals score high, just as their demands for their working environment are high. In times of automation and employees as numbers, future generations want to work for an employer who is caring, appreciative and aligned with their personal ideals (19). Recent reports of fashion companies seeing the need to integrate sustainability into their organization may not only come from the increasing threat of climate change, but also in order to ensure that future talents of Millennial and Gen Z generations will choose them as their employer (20).

In a survey on the Swedish population (19), Generation Z did not see themselves as being a leader but rather as an expert in their field, valuing problem solving and collaboration over leadership. With a generation that sees leadership as threatening, traditional management of organizations centered around the power of a board of directors, may appear outdated. Such attitudes fit the logic of the decentralized blockchain, where smart contract applications like Aragon (21) enable managing a company democratically and decentralized across borders. Tokens symbolize the stake in the company and enable voting, funding or adding new employees to the payroll (22).

Modeled after the Silicon Valley work style, future work will be organized around projects (23), transcending boundaries of time and space (24) and swap freedom, flexibility, autonomy and innovation for the requirement of extensive responsibility from every individual (25). Such an assumption, that every individual can and will work like an entrepreneur, opens the door to added pressure and psychological stress (26). The aforementioned insecurity that the younger generations feel is going hand in hand with decreased quality of mental health (27), where future employment seems uncertain and a society puts increased pressure on one to succeed in the workplace (19).

Growing Sustainability Consciousness beyond Profits

A widening gap between the renumeration of workers of a company and the returns on capital (28) (where payments to shareholders seem to have become prioritized) raises questions about an increasingly unfair distribution of wealth and power. At this point it may be of interest to mention Marx and his theory on capital and labor, proposing that the automation of human labor (29) would result in an unbalanced relationship between the factors capital and labor and have severe implications for the future of human work (30).

Is there a future for mankind in an economic model that is based on growth? In view of our planet’s limited resources and the threat of climate change, one may wonder how the urgent need for sustainable development may impact work; and what the final purpose of work is in an economic model that eats up nature’s resources and pollutes the environment in order to sell soon-obsolete products. Several authors (31–33) are questioning the prevalent system of eco-efficient so-called “green growth” and call for a “post-growth” system, that maintains well-being without continuous growth.

Taking the example of fashion consumption, which already sees a shift towards buying less, but better, the need for design of proper high quality products as well as growing popularity of reuse models like the clothing renting platform GIBBON (34) is growing (35).

There exists a mindset of prioritizing environmental and social good over economic growth.

Demand for Minimum Income — a Necessity for More Freedom

Time is more precious than money (36) and to see the working hours in developed countries declining since the 1950s (37), together with the aforementioned rise of freelance, short-term and project work, strengthens the vision of a future where one works as much or as little as one wants. In view of growing screen time and the robotization of human contact (38) (e.g. startup Care.Coach operating care robots to provide psychological support (39)), where “the ability to disconnect becomes a new status symbol” (35), human contact becomes just as precious as time away from work. The presidential candidate in the 2022 US presidential race, Andrew Yang, proposes universal basic income as a solution to the automation of jobs, not only to uphold consumption of products, but to give Americans the time and freedom to do what matters: to educate themselves and to take care of their children and other loved ones (40). The importance of implementing a basic income in the era of automation and resulting inequality has been communicated by several voices, among them Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk (ibid).

Conclusion

The future of work looks to become much more productive, taking the shape of “less work”. Throughout history, labor has shifted from manual labor like agriculture and manufacturing, to labor in the service industry. It seems paradoxical and interesting to see how humans are constantly trying to reduce the amount of physical and mental work they have to do albeit the role that work obviously plays for the well-being and self-actualization in the life of a human being (39).

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Kara Xenia Tucholke

Kara Xenia Tucholke

Written by Kara Xenia Tucholke, Scientific Research Analyst