We are now week four of our experiment in asking 200 executives from 20 companies around the world to come together to share, discuss and argue about their perceptions, hopes, aspirations and fears about the future of work. It’s been incredible watching the process evolve. The portal we have designed is beginning to fill up with conversational threads, ideas, views and inspirations. As we track the trajectory of these conversations a couple of themes stand out.
There is much discussion about demography – and in particular the needs of the ageing workforce. The baby boomers in the group are thinking hard about what the future will hold for them over the coming two decades. What sort of work will they have? At what age will they retire? How many will be able to actually experience the ‘portfolio’ lifestyle which appears so desirable? Although the needs of the ageing workforce are so clear its astounding how few companies have actually understood this. In most companies it is still the tacit assumption that you are over the hill past 60. Not good when you think that a significant proportion of the workforce in the developing countries will be in that age bracket.
At the same time the Gen Y’s in the group are having their say. For them the most pressing issues are around how they might achieve some sort of balance between work and life. Our Gen Y’s live all over the world – but interesting their aspirations and fears are remarkably similar. In particular they worry about how they are going to bring up their children. In fact, there has been a fascinating discussion thread about the role baby boomers will play in their lives as grandparents of their children. A number of the baby boomers in the group have said that whilst they let their own children be brought up by carers as they went back to work – when it comes to their grandchildren they’d love to have a second go – and this time spend more time bringing up the young of the family.
The other emerging theme is around how technology might simultaneously connect us – whilst at the same time creating isolation as more and more of our relationships are conducted virtually. There has been a lively debate – which I described in last weeks blog – about where the ‘glue’ will come from. Will companies create mechanisms that bring people together in social clubs and small offices? Or will it be up to the individual to create connectivity in what they do outside of work. My guess is that this will be a topic that runs and runs.
One interesting debate we have begun has been triggered by Nigel Nicholson a colleague of mine and professor at London Business School. Nigel takes an evolutionary approach to human behaviour. His argument is that in fact we are evolutionarily predisposed to deal well with short term threats – but not evolutionarily configured to deal with long term threats which may not affect us directly. Like others he is pessimistic about mankind’s propensity and willingness to take tough short term actions which could have long term benefits. The debate about a low carbon future is a key example of this. As Professor Michael Blowfeild, one of the carbon experts in the group has pointed out – we would have to take some tough decisions right now to reduce our carbon footprint if we are to benefit in the long term from more stable weather patterns. Those who have read Jared Diamond on the collapse of societies will recall the way in which some of our ancestors hurtled into collapse with limited capacity to make the changes which would have had positive long term consequences.
Michael and Jared are both talking primarily about the degradation of natural resources. But perhaps we can make the same case for the degradation of human resources and human spirit. Perhaps the younger folk in the group are right to be deeply concerned about their ability to balance work and life and to be strong and significant parents in the lives of their children in the context of the world of work they see emerging.
Which leaves me with the question that I anticipate will emerge over and over again in the course of this research project on the future of work. Simply put – even if we can really understand the impact of technology, demography, carbon and demography on the future of work – is there anything we will actually be able to do about the darker sides of what we can visualize? Are we, like the Easter Island residents in Diamonds description, simply hurtling towards collapse?
However, before I leave on this sombre note – let me also say that Nigel Nicholson reminds us that we humans also have a marvellous capacity to adapt and change. We are creative, innovative, and generally cooperative and want the best for our children. My hope and aspiration is that through this world-wide conversation we are able to bring all these marvellous characteristics together to help us move to a world in which we are able to make the very best of the human talents and resources we have.