The Future of Work Series Framework

The Project: What’s the Future of Independent Work?

Let’s step back and take a reality check here of what’s really going on in the world right now, what’s really going on in the economy, which is actually affecting politics and all kinds of things. If you really cut to the chase—the core of what’s going on around the world right is a fundamental shift in the nature of the global economy.

I will strongly argue that that is the case. Even if you don’t think it’s the case, it’s worth thinking through the argument just in case, on an outside chance, it might be true. What the world has been going through in the two decades before now, the two decades around the turn of the century, is a world historical event. It’s really got a triple whammy. We’re going through a triple whammy transition that’s all interconnected and in the end just transformative. Hugely disruptive in the short term, and ultimately transformative in the medium to long term.

And it really starts with the computerization and the interconnection of everything. That’s the core technological foundation that was introduced in the 80s, connected up in the 90s, spread up in the developed countries and ultimately has reached close to half the world. Because of that foundation, that core infrastructure, we’re able to do pretty much everything differently. Not just differently, but better. More efficiently, more productively, more transparently, quicker, faster, more powerfully. Throw in whatever adjective you want, basically.

It’s just so far superior to the old way of doing things that it’s disrupting everything around it. At its core, it’s transforming the economy. Everybody’s livelihood is rooted in the economy, so it’s a very big deal.

So what is happening in the economy? There are many ways to think about it. One basic line we’ve already come to terms with is that it’s globalizing everything. It’s connecting everything beyond national borders. It’s essentially pushing everything to a planetary scale. So the technological changes are the first piece. The globalization is the second piece.

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And we’ve seen the ramifications, good and bad. We’ve seen incredible growth of the global economy in the first decades of the 2000s where the whole global economy is on fire. Every region booming. China, Brazil, Turkey, you name it. We’ve seen the positives and the negatives of it.

It’s essentially shifting jobs around the planet, destroying good solid blue collar jobs in the Rust Belt of America. Stressing out the megacities in China. That shift alone has caused a lot of repercussions, particularly in politics. When you look at the trauma of someone losing their job, the devastation of a community that’s kind of been uprooted—that’s powerful stuff. It gets emotions going. Trump has been able to harness a lot of that. But Trump and that backlash is a sideshow to what’s really going on.

So there’s the globalization, which everyone is kind of recognizing, but the piece that people aren’t really fully recognizing is that the global economy is now decoupling, discombobulating. It’s essentially atomizing into all its constituent parts. We’re going from big corporations and bureaucracies to essentially smaller units: quick agile startups. That was where we’ve been, but we’re ultimately going to atomized individuals. Not in everything but in many things. We’re just getting down to the fundamental unit of the economy which is going to be the worker, that independent worker. That autonomous worker. He’s the unit we’re going to actually be building everything off of. Not the corporation, not the bureaucracy.

There’s been evidence of this for a long time, like the increasing amount of temp work, where companies are shedding full-time employees. People look at it and say, “they’re just trying to get rid of the benefits.” Yes, but a more positive way of thinking about it is they’re trying to gain flexibility and versatility in a rapidly changing global economy where they need the room to maneuver. When you hire employees, particularly if you have unions, then you’ve got to have collective bargaining. All that kind of stuff of the 20th century is just really difficult to work with in this new thing. And so companies that are under to pressure to perform are essentially not getting locked into that thing. So we’re seeing really a rise in contract work. That’s the negative frame from the corporation point of view.

But there’s a positive piece of that as well. It’s that in many ways, for a certain segment of worker, certainly the high end worker, maybe the top quarter of workers who are often creative or professional and who have more education, that worker finds that kind of independent work often more satisfying, more challenging, more rewarding, more lucrative sometimes, more balanced sometimes. Raising families, that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of positives with the lifestyle. It’s just not to true to say that nobody wants to do that stuff. That’s just bullshit.

Some professions like Hollywood, that’s all they do. Reconfigure around interesting projects and everyone loves to do it. They’ll kill themselves to break in. And every starlet and every film director and every camera shooter in the world is in Hollywood waiting tables to get a chance at that kind of job, that kind of role. Not a job. It’s work. Independent work.

There are a lot of examples in media, including with writers. Yes there’s some insecurity, and we’ll get to that. But in general the core thing not to miss is that there are totally benefits for the organizations, as well as for the individuals. And ultimately, if you see what’s been happening, you can imagine that playing out in the next decade or two, that an increasing amount of the economy essentially atomizes like that and reconfigures in new ways, through networks.

You could imagine all these pieces, all these workers, reconfiguring in many new kinds of ways to do work. To actually solve problems. That’s at its core what work is, problem-solving.

Humans are great at it. If you can make them better, more efficient, more productive at problem-solving, that’s good for the economy, good for the company, good for the individual, good for the country, good for everything as long as the system is working and spreading the wealth and taking care of human needs.  

At its core, that could be a good evolution of the global economy, not necessarily a bad one. If it was done right, if it was done with an eye for building a robust system around it that works for everybody in the long run.

That’s the premise of this Future of Work project. What are some of the optimal ways that the nature of the economy could evolve to make the most of independent workers and to make sure they all thrive?

We’re going to basically think about that in two main ways. On the one hand, we’re going to look to leadership in the tech community, the people who are often behind this technological foundation and also by extension are partly responsible for this disruption, and should be responsible for making making it all work in the end.

So we’re going to be looking at what the technology community can do to build the tools, the tech systems that could work better for these independent workers.

Are there ways to generate more work, raise wages, increase productivity? How can AI not be seen as purely a threat displacing humans but as augmenting humans to make them more productive, so they have more leisure time? How could robots liberate humans from drudge work and allow them to do more creative, fulfilling work?

In the 80s, if you had a media company, you had to have a huge organization, all these workers, printing presses, trucks, all the stuff you needed to get your word out. By the 90s and the 2000s, with the web, you could actually be a smaller media company. But you still needed in the 90s techies and servers to keep the thing going. I was there at Wired and we were doing that. But when servers go into the cloud, then anyone can do it.

Even in my lifetime, I worked at a newspaper where I had to punch a clock, where I depended on that guy, the printing press, working all night, the truck getting there in the early morning, the paper boy, to get my word out. Then at Wired I was dependent on the team and we had servers go all night, guys sleeping on couches. The thing would crash and they’d have to solve it. Now I run my own company. My server is sitting there in some cloud and I never even see it or worry about it. So now I can just concentrate on my little team.

That’s going to go another notch. I still have to really have my shit together to run a small business and deal with all the bureaucracy of the state and unemployment and insurance. I’ve still got to solve it with half a dozen people. That’s going to go away and I’m going to be a one man band.

The second piece of the project is really going to be about what can all of us collectively do, beyond the tech community. This is essentially the public coming together, which is usually expressed through our government.

What can tech and government do—not for us, but with us? How do we actually help figure this out outside of government, with think tanks, foundations, all those kind of folks. How do we actually come to a place where we understand what is really needed?

There’s an initial bare bones kind of vision about what is needed to help people already caught in this transition. We need portable benefits regardless of your state of employment, where you can actually be healthy in the United States and not freaked out that you can get wiped out financially and die because you didn’t have the right insurance, let alone the right employer. That’s just not a good human society you want to be part of.

But there are a bunch of other things. If in fact you think that the whole economy is essentially atomized units, what would be the civic infrastructure that allows those workers to thrive?

First order of business is how do you avoid catastrophic situations? Health care, if someone gets hurt on the job—who pays for it? There’s a catastrophic side.

What would be nice to have? Let’s say you want to change your career because your whole industry is getting disrupted. How do you retool, how do you retrain? Maybe there’s a certification process that could be state-sanctioned that isn’t going back to school and getting the four year degree. Maybe there’s something else.

Ultimately there’s a visionary way to think about it. In the middle of the century, what would we want for our kids coming out of college? How much anxiety would they have? Maybe a little dose of anxiety isn’t a bad thing. It keeps you motivated. These are all things that would be interesting to debate and discuss.

We’re not going to get too caught in the long-term vision, but it informs what are we going to do in the next 10 years. If you’re thinking about civil society in the next 10 years, you might not want to start with the federal government, which is a mess—polarized, dysfunctional. Maybe we want to focus on a manageable kind of unit, and a good place to start would be California, which would function ultimately as a kind of laboratory for democracy, with the idea towards scaling nationally over time.

To be sure, there are independent workers, particularly at the more educated end of the spectrum, who are already thriving and fully capable of making this transition. That said, there are dilemmas on the near term horizon. The rise of AI, for example, is going to touch sectors of the economy of knowledge work that were once thought of as safe from automation.

We want to look at all income brackets for this project. People at the bottom are probably least capable of navigating or understanding these changes, yet they’re also hit. What we want to explore throughout these discussions is what’s the implications for someone lower down the food chain in terms of the economy? What can tech do for folks at that end? How does it drive down through the whole society?

In the end, we’re going to do several things. We’re going to have several physical gatherings.

A kickoff that reframes everything and starts the beginning of thinking about those two other spaces, tech and government, in terms of the best opportunities. Then we’re going to do roundtables, virtual roundtables, that talk about reframing AI opportunities to augment humans, what could the state of California do to model the independent worker system.

The key thing is ask the right questions and you’ll get the most interesting people to the table.

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