How will we live in 2041? In a series of six articles, we sketch the Netherlands of the Future. How rich will we be? How do we live? How do we consume? How social are we still? How do we spend our free time? In this third episode, we ask ourselves: how will we work in the future?
Working in 2021: that means sitting and waiting in a building from nine to five. That is, if we are still allowed to come into the office during a pandemic. At the office, we think of home and at home, we long for the office. But American futurologist Thomas Frey believes that in 2041, after two more disruptive virus pandemics, the many vacant offices have now been converted into homes. And because the government still, to our despair, demands that we work at home, at the kitchen table with children, we have found a solution, according to Frey.
"By then, we'll be working from a mobile office. Everyone enjoys peace and concentration in their own, renovated camper. A mobile workplace with darkened windows and stable Internet. Can be set up at will as a workplace, film studio, tattoo parlor, a base for a raging reporter, pawnshop, fertility clinic or simply as a mobile office for a knowledge worker. Our desk on wheels is full of technology and robotics, with whom we chat just as pleasantly as with that colleague at the coffee machine. Algorithms propel us through the day, dots on the horizon markers keep us focused on the goals. As a moving billboard, we advertise our business, pick up an appointment for a meet-up and drop it off before the next one starts. Although we mainly meet virtually, with VR lenses that immerse us in a laboratory in India, or with AR glasses that lay a layer over the production facility to be renovated in China."
Okay. Let's just take a step back. We'll try to hook up with Frey again later. We will still need his optimism, because we will first dive into the prospects of the 'knowledge worker' with philosopher and digital fitness pioneer Martijn Aslander. And those prospects aren't particularly rosy. "In twenty years, most of the Netherlands will call themselves knowledge workers," says Aslander. 'We all gather, process, analyze, cluster and share knowledge all day long. But hopefully, we'll go about it a bit smarter than now.
At the moment, the knowledge worker works as if he were a conveyor belt worker. Someone who delivers a certain production on one specific working day. While his best ideas are born in the shower, we expect him to spend all day looking at a screen. We're effectively forcing him to put on a play.
According to Aslander, those days are coming to an end. "We're in these hip open-plan offices with slides, once forced upon us by old gurus of 'the new way of working'. Disastrous for our concentration. All day long, we're distracted by stimuli and talk and get nowhere. Take our working hours, for example. Twenty percent of us are at our best in the evening, whereas twenty percent function optimally in the morning at seven o'clock. Then why do we judge each other on fixed working hours? No wonder so many people suffer from stress and burnout, public health enemy number one."
Didn't the 1950s promise us that automation would take a lot of work off our hands? Why does it take so long before we can spend our days in idleness? "Simple," says Aslander, "we've been standing still for seventy years. At the time, we sat at a desk with some drawers, a couple of mail trays, a telephone with a cord, and a typewriter. Now, we're still tapping a keyboard - with two fingers, because we've never learned to touch type. We use a plane to drive on the highway."
Aslander made a study of the errors of the knowledge worker. He says we create documents throughout the day, send them to twelve others who make changes to them, and then save the new version separately. "We think this is work. One phone call down the line and we have a perspective that immediately renders the latest version worthless. In between all the time confetti - checking e-mail, texting, tweeting, chat - we shove around paper and put it away in folders and sub-folders, which all look alike. We hide bits of information all over the place, like squirrels do with acorns. But… where did we put it all? Our spatial and visual recall is the most highly developed skill of our brain, but it's not being used."
Aslanders' point: we have forgotten the purpose of work. We confuse it with a fifteen-year steady job doing the same trick. Okay, we network more than before and we now meet standing up and we scrum agile. "But what are the benefits if we can't access the right information right away? A quarter of our energy is spent on thinking. It's a shame to spend that on tracking down that one observation, that golden idea that you sent yourself in an e-mail last week."
When we put money in the bank, Aslander says, our monetary capital grows. But we put our information capital in an old sock. We hide that sock under the mattress so that no one can reach it, including ourselves. "In the meantime, the amount of information that comes our way every day is increasing rapidly. We must therefore process information more intelligently. But we don't learn that skill at school or in organizations. If knowledge work is a craft, few have mastered it. Most of us just plod along. Which of us has adapted to the dynamics of 2041 in time and survives the competition? I think the speed and ease with which you're of value to others will determine your success. Take care of your information capital and your social capital, so that you are less dependent on monetary capital."
In the meantime, our employers are preparing for the digital future by delving into AI, Big Data, blockchain. Exciting developments, according to Aslander, but pointless if employees don't even grasp the finer points of Outlook or Excel. "We're not digitally fit. We can't even deal with the tools we currently use: an Ikea set of Allen keys to build an entire house with. If you look at our work tools from the future, most of them will drop out. Tools must store information, be searchable, sortable, able to organize, reorder, metadatable, and shareable. I use Evernote. I scanned everything I had using a super scanner, 93,000 notes in total. I found my swimming certificate and that particular taxi bill from 1989 in just a second."
Welcome to 'the new work reality'. Only when we have the basics in order and comply with a minimum of digital hygiene, if we can access everything immediately and everywhere and have knowledge and connections ready - then we'll be ready for the skills we can use to distinguish ourselves. Now and in 2041. "Thinking critically, being creative, doing business, communicating, working together," says Aslander. "Only then are you the solution to someone's problem. That's when you score in the elevator pitch, the boardroom, at a birthday party."
Great for people with high-quality work at the top, but what will automation do to regular jobs in 2041? In 1867, Karl Marx predicted that the importance of the factor of low-grade work would continue to diminish. Shortly afterwards, engineer Frederick Taylor divided the work at Henry Ford's automotive plant into separate, endlessly repetitive tasks on the assembly line. And while in 2021, automation continues where industrialization left off, and we're still micromanaged by technology in call centers or as a food delivery service, one in four people experience their job as useless and meaningless. 21 percent of all work is performed by machines. By 2025, this will have risen to over fifty percent. Was Taylor trying to turn us into robots? Now we fear that robots will take jobs.
What is work, really? "Work," said the philosopher Voltaire, "saves a man from the three great evils: boredom, sin, and desire." For a long time, we saw work as a Christian duty: we earned our living by the sweat of our brow. Now, we see work more as a duty to ourselves - we want to develop. We get meaning from efforts, enjoy getting a job done. What will be left of that by the robots in 2041? Will the little work there is be something 'for on the side'? Will we be dutifully earning our money to waste our time in philosophizing and the arts, as the ancient Greeks did?
"Task by task, our jobs are automated out of our existence," Thomas Frey acknowledges. "So will we still have our jobs later? Of course! Just not that job. Contrary to what we fear or fantasize, an era of super-employment awaits us." And not only that: Frey thinks that robots will make our work more fun. "They take over mundane jobs such as cleaning sewers or scrubbing toilets, but in most other jobs, we work with them as equals. My reason for believing that? An unimaginable amount of innovative technology awaits us. Hundreds of thousands of micro-industries have emerged, with work for hundreds of millions of people who are going to reshape life."
Moreover, in 2041, we see a revaluation of old professions, Frey believes. "The teacher, the coach, the journalist: these are the vital professions of tomorrow. When all the answers are available in the information society, asking questions becomes essential. More than ever, it's about trying things out, messing around, failing, reflecting and continuing to practice. Things that a robot can't do very well, but we can. In which professions does that happen? In journalism, we're still working as a raging reporter or as a brilliant news analyst, in addition to the robot fact-checker. But there are also data detectives and data ethicists. Robot personality trainers and drone traffic controllers. AI accountants, 3D homebuilders, cryptocurrency regulators, sensor troubleshooters, aerospace impact controllers, asteroid miners, gene therapists, mixed reality coaches, cultured meat designers. And yes, there will also be a lot of work for interior designers - for our mobile work camper."