I’ve been reading a couple of stimulating books which deal, from very different angles, with the future of work. Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots sets out some pretty scary pointers to just how much work might be handed over to automated processes: not just routine manual processes but quite a lot of what we now consider to be intellectual and non-routine. He suggests that we may be heading quickly towards the scenario sketched out by Keynes, where people will work far far fewer hours – the difference being that in the modern version there will be colossal inequalities as the benefits of automation will go to a very small segment of the population.
Working time is also a central theme of The 100-Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. They are mainly concerned with how we might move away from a traditional 3-stage model of life. Their book opens up a huge range of issues, from the essential but depressing challenge of how we plan financially for greatly extended longevity to the much more exciting prospect of new stages of exploration and independent life. The changing shape of the life course, and how and when we start and stop work, will be the main theme of my next book, once The Paula Principle is off my hands.
In both books, skills of very varied kinds, from occupational to interpersonal, are quite central. They made me think more about teamwork as a desirable competence. Teamwork is often identified as a soft skill that will become increasingly important in future workplaces. It may be one of the means by which humans are still able to outdo even the most powerful of computers. The collective capacity of their different competences interacting with each other will be much more than the sum of the individual parts – especially if they can draw on technological support. Gratton and Scott relate how a group of amateur chess players, augmented by mid-level machines, were able to beat both Grand Masters and supercomputers working separately.
So team work may become more and more important in an age of increased automation. The question is, how is it rewarded? Women, typically, are seen as more likely to possess teamwork skills. One of my interviewees put it this way:
“Women are interested in ‘getting stuff done’; they hate game-playing and internal politicking; they only build networks if they see them as a genuine vehicle for getting things done, and not for the same reason as men do, ie personal advancement. Their language is about ‘we’, about looking for complementary skills in a team, recognising that they themselves cannot do it all. For men it is about ‘I’; competitive; their personal career.”
In other words women are – as a generalisation – more likely to behave in ways which maximise the overall capacity of the group But how are these teamwork skills recognised? For the organisation this is obviously good news, but who benefits as a result? I’d love to see some evidence on how this ‘invaluable’ skill is actually valued – especially since it might help us reach a better accommodation with the robots.