Unwrapping the futures of work: Ouishare's stage at FutureFest
To work or not to work: a timeless debate
The future of work. Those four words have the capacity to inspire as many fantasies as they infuse nightmares. Some dream of a post-work society, where intelligent and autonomous machines will take care of everything, leaving humans to occupy themselves with leisure-based activities. Others fear a bleak future, leaving half the population unemployable and wealth ever more unequally distributed.
These ideas are not new. Since the late 19th century, people have been scared of radical disruptions to the labour market due to technological advancements. Since the Great Depression, fear of a depleting job market has remained in the social and political background. For a lot of experts; however, these fears are rather absurd. Regardless of technology moving forward, more jobs always emerge. It's just a matter of time.
However, many argue this time that the rise of the machines is different. Not only due to the speed, rate and depth of change ushered by technology, but the very type of innovation humanity is investing in. And here lies the key issue: technology is not some neutral force operating in a remorseless and inexorable fashion. Rather, it is shaped by the choices in politics of production. In other words, automation will mean what we make of it.
Automation will mean what we make of it.
It's not about the robots, it's about the politics
Until now, the so-called future of work debate relies mainly on trying to answer these four questions: What type of jobs will we have? What type of skills will we need? What kind of workplaces there will be? And what will happen to remuneration?
But, thinking about work through only the perspective of technology and employment is incredibly limited. I would argue that there is a missing question, one that is at the core of the debate:
What will be the social norms and values around work?
When we think about it, has work itself really changed that much in the last decades? Or rather, have the political and economic conditions, as well as the social norms around it, changed? And wouldn't it be fair to say that those are precisely the drivers that shape our future?
Let me explain. In 1930, Keynes predicted that his grandchildren's generation (those currently dominating the labour market) would only work 15 hours a week. The fact that work has continued to dominate human life, despite rapid progress in technology, is no accident. It's due to the political, economic and social choices we have made.
Welfare policies that are meant to provide a minimum standard of living –health, housing, education and security– have been under attack for the last four decades. Since the 1980s, the predominant economic narrative has not only argued that the private sector provides better outcomes, but that individuals should work hard for those services and not take them for granted. At the same time, wages have stagnated and many key workers' rights are sacrificed for so-called "market flexibility".
This has not resulted in changes to remuneration or better working conditions, but rather the need (and willingness) to work more at the risk of being worse off. In other words, these political and economic choices have come to determine the rules and expectations of work.
By remaining obsessed with the fear of losing our jobs to machines, we forget why work is so important in the first place.
By remaining obsessed with the fear of losing our jobs to machines, we forget why work is so important in the first place. Not so long ago, working was considered to be the burden of the poor. In fact, the origins of the word “work” meant "to torture or inflict suffering or agony". Today, our jobs are mechanisms that generate economic value and validate social worth, making them a crucial part of our identities. It was that (intentional) change of paradigm around the idea of work that ultimately shaped the world today. Therefore, questioning those changing social norms is the best way to understand what lies ahead.
Why Future(s) of Work?
This year, Nesta invited us to be a Content Partner for FutureFest, to "occupy the future" and offer radical alternative visions. With this in mind, we designed a programme that takes place in the future; it imagines possible scenarios set in different years, each exploring a different reality. Some are contradictory, some unexpected.
We believe the ultimate distinction between these alternative realities will not be determined by technology itself, but by the social conflicts and conditions around it, most specifically, the inequalities that will continue to divide us.
What do we want to question?
Through each session, we want to explore three ideas: access to work, its value and meaning, and the everyday reality.
Who is going to have access to work?
Society is further divided between those who work by choice (and/or have the luxury of choosing their jobs) and by necessity. This will only increase inequalities, fundamentally changing how we understand and experience work, and leads us to question:
What value and meaning are we going to give work itself?
Is it a source of joy, personal development, and a way to contribute to society? Or rather an unrewarding daily struggle for survival, making some slaves and others masters?
What is going to be the day-to-day reality of work?
Depending on how we answer the previous questions; our relationship with time, the type of spaces and conditions will we work in as well as the type of organisations we belong to, and the way we relate to one another, will be different.
Taking participants into the future
Tired of traditional keynote presentations and panel discussions, we decided to shake things up a bit. The programme consists of five sessions set in near futures, starting in 2030 and finishing in 2023. As we go further forward in time, our macro-level discussions will develop into more micro-level analyses of a world that we could soon be living. Our role-playing and design fiction will create immersive experiences that explore future environmental, societal and individual issues.
Below you can find out more about our alternative futures sessions:
Fancy joining any of our alternative futures of work?
Join us at FutureFest, Friday 6th July in London.
Tobacco Quay, Wapping Lane, London E1W 2DA
Any questions? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Our participation at FutureFest would not have been possible without the support of the BMW Foundation Herbert Quant.