Thoughts on Narratives for the Future of Working

Why we need radically new stories to create the planetary culture we want to live and work in

We define ourselves through stories. As individuals and as groups, as organizations, as nations and as humanity as a whole.

Stories — and the archetypes invoked in them — serve as the foundation for how we operate.

At the beginning of the 21st century we find ourselves at a new threshold. Various dynamics are at play that will drastically alter the way we live and work in the coming years.

Massive changes are occurring on various fronts:

  • Planetary consciousness — When the first astronauts experienced the pale blue dot that is earth from space, they had near mystical experiences. It shifted their consciousness. Most of the people currently alive were born when there were already pictures of earth from space. While many still live in flatland ignorance, the meme is in the noosphere. A growing number of people alive can no longer think in nations and separation. They understand that we are all part of a frail ecosystem roaming through space.
  • Automation of jobs and increase in artificial intelligence — an estimated 50 percent of jobs will no longer require a human within a decade. Considering exponential development trends, this will be an even higher percentage in the quickly arriving future — including highly specialized work like the practice of medicine, law or finance.
  • Wealth leverages have changed — In the same year Kodak went bankrupt and Instagram was acquired, they were valued roughly the same. While Kodak employed 145,000 people, Instagram had 15 employees. Kodak fed 145,000 families, Instagram made a couple of young people incredibly rich (at least ten of them have a net worth ten times that of George Eastman, the founder of Kodak). Just like machines made production manifold times more productive, software is allowing an exponential increase in efficiency across the landscape of work.
  • Mobility and virtual access — We can all participate in global work now. Through the virtual world we can engage with anyone around the planet.
  • Loss of Geo-Arbitrage — Many of our current systems rely on ignorance of each other. We produce in low income countries to afford the shiny products we consume in “developed” parts of the world. This is going away quickly as more and more people get access to the same information sphere. E.g. a kid in India can now look up salaries in San Francisco. Why would they then continue to work for their current wages?
  • New means of production and near zero marginal costs — From 3D printing, which is still in its infancy, to programmable matter, which is arriving quickly, we will soon be able to create locally any item we require. There are even the first molecular printers. Instead of producing globally and wasting precious resources on shipping items across the globe, we will share open source software and virtual models and will be able to create most items locally at a fraction of the current cost.
  • Brain Interfaces — while still in early development, it is not far fetched to assume that we will have efficient brain interfaces in the near future, which will allow for the acquisition of hard skills instantaneously. This will shift focus drastically toward soft skills.
  • Longevity — With all the exponential increases in technology, we are also seeing a drastic increase in human longevity. Whether that will indeed lead to the holy grail of immortality is to be seen, but in any case, we will have more humans being around for much longer than in the past — and able to be productive into ages well past the current typical retirement thresholds.

All these trends and others not mentioned here are massively disrupting the current world of work.

Most of our current political, social and socio-economic systems will no longer provide feasible solutions in the future.

We can no longer rely on old narratives and cannot simply adjust to the new times.

We need radical new approaches to creating meaningful activity for the quickly growing population on this planet.

All these changes could mean that there is no more foundation for survival for this many people. Some people assume that this would require some sort of mass extinction event, whether through a global war or disease. Not a pretty notion.

Most of our current science fiction is dystopian in nature. This is an issue since we are invoking those futures.

If we want to build anything, we have to imagine it first. If we wish to build a table, we have to imagine it, then we can sketch it, decide on materials, make a picklist, get the materials and build the table.

If we wish to have a future where humanity thrives, we need to imagine it first.

We need new stories and archetypes to serve as a foundation for the culture we wish to live in.

In order to construct these new stories, we need to choose some foundations, some core archetypes around which we can construct those stories:

  • Hyper global future — people will be able to participate in a global workforce through virtual means. Asynchronous communication and new business models will allow for compensation in time shifts. We will work and play around the planet and beyond.
  • Hyper local future — At the same time, production will to a large extent become local again. This will include the just-in-time production of goods through technologies like 3D printing and soon programmable matter, as well as the collaborative production of food in community gardens and green cities. Both will address the current wasteful use of resources in our distribution system and corporate agriculture business.
  • Flexibility and adhocracy — While we will continue to have some form of lasting collective agencies (primarily to ensure infrastructures), we will see a lot more spontaneity around collective action. Clusters of individuals will form around guiding missions, and dissolve when those missions are complete. Longer term collectives will be learning organizations that adjust as new information is surfaced. Planning inside organizations will continue to change and adjust in near real-time to ensure focus on the mission.
  • Personal mobility — individuals will continue to move — not just from area to area, but also from project to project, as well as vertically and laterally within organizations.
  • Abundance — We have plenty of resources on this planet to provide for the basic inputs required by each human, namely food, clothing and shelter. As we shift our value systems, we will come to realize that most resource scarcity is artificial (or based on skewed values), and can be overcome by innovation.
  • Input-process-output, metabolism, as criteria for life. Every individual has these three. Each individual has gifts to share. Our current education systems have created idiots. Focused on mental intelligence only, and limited through standardized testing, we have neglected many gifts that could have been shared while cutting off a large percentage of people from participating meaningfully in the economy. We need to find new ways to provide basic input requirements (food, clothing, shelter), for example through a basic income, and new ways to account for personal input preferences through extra effort, to honor differentiation of achievement. We need to also focus on learning about our unique ways of processing and provide opportunities to create value for each individual.
  • Integration of male and female archetypes — As Artificial Intelligence takes on an increasing amount of work that is associated with typically male archetypal traits/ “left brain” thinking or “hard skills”, female archetypal traits or “soft skills” will become increasingly important. As a result, we will come into balance as individuals, honoring both aspects in each of us, overcoming the current gender dialectic.
  • Work/Play are becoming one — With layers of abstraction and gamification we will be able to continue to blend the lines between work and play. While at the moment most people work in order to create time, space and resources to play, we will find that the two will continue to merge into meaningful activity. Instead of play as compensation for work, our daily activity will be more and more focused around enjoyable and beneficial activity. Value-add will be a requirement not just of work, but also play. Already now we are seeing blending of play and value-add, e.g. in abstracted computer games that are solving real world problems.
  • Meaning and Purpose — While seen as a luxury in today’s wage slave economy and ignored by close to 80% of leaders in the current corporate culture, meaning and purpose will become central to our activities. With that will come clear and transparent missions of organizations — or whichever form collective action will take in the future. Each individual and each collective of individuals will have narratives about how their work is contributing to the achievement of their stated purpose. Transparency and new metrics will ensure that this purpose is kept alive and aligned, and will ensure accountability. Choice of work will be based on values rather than necessity. Individuals will chose loyalty to narratives that align with their personal values. Individuals will get acknowledgment for their uniqueness. We will be seen and appreciated.
  • There is plenty to do on this planet. If we remember that we are stewards of this place, and that human life is about showing up as a prototype for being human, we will find plenty of things to apply ourselves to. Life is not about work. Work is meant to be an expression of individual contribution to a whole that we are all part of. Life is about fully participating and sharing the talents and gifts each of us have been given.

While this is in no way an exhaustive list, it is a beginning on how to think about the future as we are starting nearly from scratch in constructing its underlying narratives.

We need to encourage our creatives, our writers and storytellers to create new narratives based on some of these concepts instead of reacting to the challenges of our times with overwhelm and dystopian fantasies. There are some glimmers of this already, but we need a much more radical shift if we wish to create these narratives before it is too late.

While we need those storytellers for the core narratives, it is the responsibility of each of us to create new personal narratives.

What would your day look like and how would you add value in a future where you don’t have to work?


 


 

This collection was inspired by participating in the Future of Working summit (http://futureofworking.org) and my work as a partner in LUMAN (http://luman.io), where we focus on helping organizations get ready for the future through new ways of being, new narratives and understanding exponential trends in the context of planetary ecology. 

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