A history of work, and why you may need to be worried

We’re all products of evolution. Work, as we know it today, wasn’t how our parents knew it, which would be different from how our grandparents knew it, and so on. Let’s dive a little deeper into this. The nature of work they did was definitely different – vocations primarily revolved around manufacturing and varieties of administrative responsibilities, professional services necessary for society such as law, medicine, education, the military and other government functions. Essential services, if you will. Creation of solutions and products, as a concept, was the responsibility of a very select group of inventors, and if you want to be kind – poets and philosophers. One could speculate that this arrangement worked because the “essential services” bracket could accommodate practically everyone who wanted to be a part of this social construct. There was a certain self-sufficiency to how things operated, in that the manufacturers made what the consumer needed, and professional services ensured the smooth functioning of the government and people’s affairs.

The industrial revolution changed things with the introduction of scale in production. Perhaps the beacon of this revolution was Ford motors. From an estimated week that it took to assemble a car, specialized worker skills and the concept of an assembly line resulted in the production time shrinking to 90 minutes per car. More scale mandated more compartmentalization in job functions for increased efficiency, and the advent of standard operating procedures to further accelerate production while ensuring quality and eliminating the need for direct supervision. The need for a set of specific, predictable skills was the order of the day, and the invention of the MBA course scratched precisely this itch. Nothing could beat this bouquet of high-impact skills spanning Operations, Marketing and Human Resources! And spur growth and scale it did, with the commencement of global trade, cross-functional work forces and perhaps consumerism as we know it today. Even the legend of the American dream grew from the considerably uneventful (albeit lucrative) and consistent growth trajectory that an employee could expect as long as he put his head down and followed the employee handbook.

This lifestyle boom had implications. On the positive side, one could afford a house, pay the bills, educate the kids and set aside a respectable retirement kitty – pretty much the contours of what is perceived as a successful life even today. This heralded the emergence of the middle class the way we know it today. Perhaps most importantly, though, it tipped the baseline in favour of entitlement for the first time (and maybe lastingly) for the generations to come.

While most other countries in the world might have taken up to a decade to chronicle this transformation, it’s fair to say that this sequence has been replicated globally.

Fast forward to the present day digital wave that started in the mid-90s. The invention of technologies such as computers and programming languages started multiplying the rate of innovation. Both development and utility periods of solutions have continued shrinking endlessly, to the extent that we now find ourselves in a hyper-growth cycle where we are progressively developing more sophisticated solutions on top of our existing ones. We are so closely coupled with technology that even immensely personal themes like connection, awareness and growth are being realized almost solely through technology apps like Facebook, Google and Twitter. Suddenly the proverbial Jones’ are everywhere!

An interesting trend in this transformation has been the transition from personalization to scale and then back to personalization in today’s times. In the olden days, a large chunk of goods and services were customized for clients. You would place an order for a shoe or a dress, for instance. In our pursuit of industrial scale and time optimization, somewhere we traded craftsmanship in lieu of standards. In an ironic and intriguing turn of events on the other side of the millennium, personalized services have made a roaring comeback. The consumer demand for increased offerings has resulted in a large set niche vendors and services providers suddenly flourishing. As explained eloquently by Chris Anderson in the The Long Tail, by sustaining themselves through highly customized offerings for a microsegment, the market has truly opened up for small service providers and the discerning customer alike.

The bottom line is that only two types of professions are assured a job in the upcoming decades. One, folks who can help codify human operations through automation and algorithms and two, folks who can churn out emotional labour – imagination, creativity and innovation. The former requires coding skills and the latter requires self-awareness and equanimity.

Where do you stand?

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