The mythos of the young person leaving home to find their fortune is as old as recorded history. And some. As early as Revelation 12:21, “The main street of the city was pure gold”. Homo Erectus had a bad case of FOMO and left East Africa trying to find where “it” was at. The American author and newspaperman Horace Greeley summed it up most famously in 1865 when he said, “Go west young man and grow up with the country”. Generations of people have uprooted themselves in search of a better life and a better future, many meeting with wonderful success, even more with disaster, and the vast majority with anti-climax and “meh”. As of May 2018, the dream of greener grass is still strong though and drives Syrians, and Nicaraguans, and Canadians, and Brits (guilty as charged M’Lud) to leave where they grew up and head to where they think their fortune is waiting.
Increasingly I think this mythos is becoming exactly that, a myth. A myth whose time has passed. Increasingly I think that the future of a young person’s work is not in London or New York or Cupertino or Berlin or Bangalore or Sao Paulo. Rather it’s in the neighborhood where they currently live. Where they were brought up. The future of work is right under their feet – literally under their nose, as George Orwell might put it.
Historically, the journey a young (or youngish) person went on was at its root a journey to find work. London meant a job in banking or advertising. Chicago meant construction or the railroads. If you went to Seattle it was to build planes or Windows or save the cardboard industry (and in the process create the greatest personal fortune ever – take a bow Mr. Bezos). But now, the jobs of the future don’t exist exclusively in those cities. The jobs of the future exist everywhere and nowhere. Leaving home to find them doesn’t make any sense – they are right there on your iPhone and/or your laptop as you sit in your PJs in your bedroom.
The top 20 current fastest-growing skills, according to Upwork.com, include Bitcoin developer, Dynamo DB developer, 3D rigging, Shopify development, and video editing. None of these jobs – or the others that go up to make the top 20 list – require you to sit in an office or a factory or even a couch in Park Slope or Shoreditch or Darlinghurst.
In the olden days – like 2015 – to get one of these jobs you did have to go to the office of the hiring company and physically show up. Nowadays, you put some code you’ve written up on Upwork or Github or Reddit or a bunch of other specialist coder environments and watch your IM platform of choice light up. If you can write in React Native you can name your price, your hours, your digs, your currency (“put my crypto on a stick, por favor”) and specify that your mugshot in the company directory (e.g. LinkedIn) should be your Bitmoji.
So why then – I’m sure you’re muttering – do young people still keep showing up in droves in NYLon and the Tenderloin? Why have the megacities never been fuller? Why are the rents through the roof and why can I never get a reservation at the Momufuku Milk Bar?
Proponents of the “humans want to be with humans” school of thought trot out the line that even in our digital age IRL is still vital. Purveyors of cool – cool bars, clothes, apartments, jobs – work very hard to let folks know that there is a party going on, to which everyone is invited. Sort of. Well, “not you, mate” (exclusivity being part of the attraction). Other service based industries (and everyone who works in them) have a vested interest in signing on to “I Love LA” or “when you’re tired of London you’re tired of life” to keep the cash registers ringing (what’s the Apple Pay equivalent of that I wonder?) and the share buyback scheme swinging. WeWork (valued at c. $20bn) is the latest company to monetize the very human desire (pronounced amongst the young) to be where the action is.
But increasingly I think this is nuts. And increasingly I think this model is on its last legs. Why commute for 90 mins from Harlow in Essex to work in a WeWork in Shoreditch? Why commute from Noe Valley to Market Street in San Francisco – a 4 mile journey that will take over an hour? Why pay $4200 to live in Washington Heights – probably one of the least glamorous places you’ll visit in your life – just so you can say you’re not part of the “B&T” crowd – even though you practically are? Why move your family 6,000 miles from Lakhna, India, to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to find out that Scranton, Pennsylvania is ahem, not quite as advertised.
Lots of people are acting as though as though location is important, when it’s really not anymore. Yahoo issued a “come back to the office” memo a few years ago. Didn’t do them much good. IBM have done the same recently ... we’ll see how that works out.
With the means of production to hand anyone can do any work anywhere. And I think they should. I think they should stay put where they live and grew up and create the future of work there. That’s what companies like catalyte.io (and many others in Steve Case’s Revolution stable) are doing – not chasing down someone else’s party, but making their own. At a considerably lower burn rate. I think this is the route to making where you live great again (or great for the first time), rather than making the Durst Brothers even richer.
I referenced earlier that I left where I grew up to chase my dreams and have ended up somewhat “stateless” 3,000 miles from “home”. Over the years I’ve on occasion stared into the mirror and wondered why I did what I did. As I transitioned from childhood to adulthood, it was an unspoken, implicit expectation that at 18 I would leave Watford (“Come on you Horns”), go to University (“Manchester, so much to answer for ...”) and then go to London and never come back. Nobody I knew stayed in Watford. Except one bloke who everyone thought was a weirdo. I look back at that now and wonder why that expectation was so hard wired? Why did nobody think it was perfectly normal to stay where we were? It’s sort of odd looking back at it now from almost 40 year’s distance. It’s particularly odd given that Watford was/is a very nice neck of the woods; so nice, Russians and Chinese billionaires are moving there in big numbers Flows from London keep Three Rivers’ houses buoyant and the Bilderberg Meeting was held there in 2013 And even odder, that whilst the young BP was dreaming of Hollywood and all things American, Hollywood was actually on my doorstep. 2001: A Space Odyssey (and many, many other of the classics of Hollywood) were made four miles from where I was living. I and my friends – and my parents – literally had no idea ...
I wonder now whether the tide is turning and more people (young and not so young) are realizing that they shouldn’t go to the work, but rather make the work work here ... [When the Daily Mail latches onto something, I’m simultaneously intriqued, and horrified].
Even the Boss references this shift in the zeitgeist; in his current one-man show on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen jokes that he and Wendy were born to run, but he’s ended up living 10 minutes from where he grew up. Bruce crossed the river and had a house in the Promised Land (Benedict Canyon in LA) but decided that Freehold, New Jersey was still home. 500 acres rather than square feet mind ...
Dreaming of somewhere better is natural and understandable and probably will never change. But in a world where a semester of foreign language college tuition costs $7,000 to $20,000 but you can get the same skill from Duolingo for next to nothing, where a desk in a WeWork facility on East 42nd Street, NYC will cost you thousands of dollars but a full floor of an old converted warehouse in Fall River, MA will cost you the price of Grande Latte in midtown, where you can use the same machine learning as a service tools from AWS in Fall River as you can in New Amsterdam, does the history of work equation still hold? I’d wager increasingly it doesn’t.
Staying put is still antithetical to the norms of bourgeois society. You’re a brave parent if you encourage your 18 year old to do plumbing (let alone gaming) rather than financial engineering. And to stay here when everyone tells you that the future is there ...
I can’t help suspecting though that in another generation, paying huge money for college, for a crash pad in Alphabet City, for a toehold on a ladder with many, many rungs missing will be far less logical than it appears today. By then the coders and gamers and dreamers currently locked in Fortnite battles upstairs will have figured out that the future of work is all around them. Upping sticks will be for weirdos. Low overheads will rule. As will Mom’s sandwiches ...
Kids, here’s a little secret for you - Bruce and I both got beyond the velvet rope (his slightly more velvety than mine) and came to the same conclusion, “meh”. Stay home, stay put, stay where you. Make the mountain come to you. Create the party, don’t chase it. The future of work needn’t be a dream located in some imaginary glamourous place a bus or a plane ride away. It’s a real place that exists right now, today. Where you stand.