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The Future of Work is Not Work


The Future of Work is Not Work

As the co-director of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and the parent of two teenage children thinking about the...

6 Minutes Read

As the co-director of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and the parent of two teenage children thinking about the future of work is not only my day job but a personal preoccupation.

One phrase I keep coming back to, as I muse about what Cost Centers One and Two could and should do when their time comes to punch the clock, is the old fortune cookie homily, “if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”.

Variously attributed to Confucius and Marc Anthony (and quite a few others) this is, at first glance, nothing more than another mass produced missive from the Department of the Bleedin’ Obvious. Pass another Fried Spring Roll.  

But, if you stop and think about it for a moment, it really is quite a profound and important idea, particularly when you’re pondering what the future of any type of work is. Because what in essence it means is that the future of work is not work; if you love what you do you won’t feel like you’re working. We all want to love what we do ergo we all want to feel that we’re not working.

Before you start imagining I’ve got caught in some logician’s loop and am beginning to lose my ball bearings just pause to noodle on what the future of work not being work really means. As arbitrage and automation advance and begin to nip at the heels of the bourgeoisie (that’s you mate!) our salvation, we all concur, is our very humanity, and central to this, our creativity. Regular readers will be familiar with some of my recent thoughts on this narrative

If this is the case, and this recent paper from “the robots are coming” sentries Frey and Osborne at Oxford University adds heft to the argument, then loving what you do is absolutely central to your future. Doing things that you don’t love – i.e. work – is, over the course of the next 5, 10, 20, 50 years (who really knows?), set to be swallowed up by ever more powerful Turing Machines (none of which incidentally are going to look anything like Benedict Cumberbatch; in fact there’s a derivation of the Turing Test for you – could you imagine a computer ever coming up with a name like Benedict Cumberbatch?)

Put another way, one could say there’s no future in work. Only a future of doing things you love.

With me so far? Good. But here’s the catch. Those of us nutted by reality in our 20’s and 30’s know that loving what you do is not hard. Getting paid to do what you love though is really hard. Very, very, very few musicians, comedians, writers, actors, artists etc – who love what they do – make enough money to sustain a career of not working. The 99.9% (recurring) of people for whom not working doesn’t work find themselves back in the pool of the working class facing a future of work that stretches into an uncertain, hazy, far distant vanishing point.  

The trick therefore – the answer to the question Cost Center Two asked me the other day; “what job should I do when I grow up?” - is to balance work with love. To do something that has as little work in it as possible and as much love. The people who find, or engineer, this easily are the lucky (or just skillful) ones. For the rest of us finding the balance is tricky; sometimes a lifetime’s (dare I say it) work.

In all honesty people who don’t work – i.e. who make money from doing things they love – probably don’t love everything about what they do. The musician often hates talking to the record company executives; the actor hates doing the press junket; the top coder hates dealing with the end-user. At those moments even these folks who don’t work for a living are working …

So in reality, everybody works at times. The trick, again, is to “accentuate the loving, eliminate the working, and don’t mess with Mr. In-between” … Get a job, or make a job, as full of love as possible, and with as little work as possible.

To personalize this for a moment, I don’t love everything about what I do for a living. When I’m doing my expenses or my timesheet or schlepping home at 11pm at night I know I’m working. But 90% of the time being the Co-Director of the Center for the Future of Work doesn’t feel like work at all. Writing this piece didn’t feel like work. Doing a presentation this morning didn’t feel like work. Kitting out our new office in Manhattan didn’t feel like work. Because I loved doing all those things.

If you love what you do chances are you’ll be good at it and if you’re good at it chances are a robot is going to have a tough time competing.

Of course, at times, your 9-5 (or 5-9, or whatever hours you keep) will feel like work; those who can honestly say they’ve never worked a day in their life are truly the unevenly distributed. Your mission though (and you should choose to accept it) is to make sure that you’re working as little as possible.

So, when you have your next check in with your boss, just explain that you’ve hardly worked at all since the last check-in. Once he or she has got over the shock of what you’ve just said you can explain why that’s the case, and start mentally spending the pay rise, prepping for the new job title, and picking out a new house plant for your upgraded pig-pen.

Robots may replace work for us one day in the future; but they’ll never replace love … well not until a few more revs of this …


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