The future of work? The millennials have got this
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The future of work? The millennials have got this

9 Oct 2017

As AI and machines begin to make us fear the future of work, the millennials – those so-called snowflakes – may actually have this covered, writes John Kennedy.

Future of Work Week

Life is short. And let’s be honest we spend most of our lives at work rather than with loved ones. We rush here and there for ever-diminishing rewards and only realise too late that most valuable thing we have – our time – is used to hit targets, meet deadlines and achieve criteria for things or people that when you look back weeks, months or years later, don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things or the story of your life.

We tell ourselves we are ambitious, passionate, ruthless visionaries, strategists, tacticians, leaders and heroes and that we are driven, resourceful, talented, we show initiative – but in the overall scheme of time we are just insects, worker bees working on this year’s crop of honey, working for the man, earning a little bit of crust. And we call this the dignity of a job.

If work is to take so much of our time, it has to have meaning. If work is to take so much of our time, we need to leave a legacy. But how do you do that in a noisy world where attention spans are slackening?

Life is short, and we spend a lot of time in the workplace. And, let’s be honest, we spend more time every day with colleagues rather than loved ones. Workplaces aren’t the most natural of places and you don’t always choose your colleagues. Sometimes workplaces have a great dynamic – they call this culture, apparently (yoghurt is called culture too). And sometimes it’s a not-so-great dynamic, giving rise to cliques, boors, bullies, sycophants, office ayatollahs, fiefdom fascists, you name it. But this is where we spend the greater part of our lives. Some workplaces can be toxic and resemble a scene from Mean Girls or Lord of the Flies, others can be inspiring, life-enhancing and life-changing.

And if the tech companies have their way they are a veritable Disneyland resort with free Skittles and hoodies that mask an underlying reality haunted by the spectre of spreadsheets and performance metrics. It is not all candy floss.

Ultimately, the best places to work are where people get freedom to shine, to lead, set an example, and make their mark. To be what they want to be. And there are many of these, too.

Life shouldn’t be validated by endorsements or references. Will your epitaph be a ringing LinkedIn endorsement, or how many likes you got on Facebook, or followers you have on Twitter? Really? Seriously?

This whole thing called mindfulness has grown up and, while I respect the sentiment, I sometimes suspect it is a kind of antidote to the stresses caused by mindlessness, thoughtlessness or the low EQ of the quick-fire, attention-sapping economy.

And that’s my pickle, my beef with the tech industry. And this thing, this ruse we call work-life balance. What balance? Where is it?

The biggest lie of all is how technology is making our lives easier as we tread water for our lives in an ever-expanding sea of emails, SMS messages, Skype calls and god knows what the tools will be in five years. And that broadband is making our lives more flexible, supposedly taking cars off the road (email me if you have seen any evidence of this), allowing us to live and work where we want.

Certainly, the tools we use for productivity are making us more vastly more productive, but who is winning? And at what cost? Is it really called winning when some unnameable impulse makes you continue working into the night or the weekend simply because the umbilical cord between you and work continues to exist wirelessly in a pulsating flurry of 1s and 0s?

And now the biggest betrayal of them all is seemingly coming – the machines. People in offices around the world are being taught about the wonders of artificial intelligence (AI) while all the time suspecting that they will train these AIs to take their jobs once the systems are clever enough and have learned enough. That’s the suspicion anyway.

The maelstrom

Life is short. Many in the working world marvel at how quickly the transition from being young and dynamic 20 and 30-somethings to being in your 40s and 50s happens. And it does happen, and it is a journey that everyone goes on.

The speed of that transition stems from various reasons. Things happen, like having children, buying your first home, health issues, opportunities to travel, to have fun, stresses, traumas, miracles, weddings, funerals, christenings. Before you know it, you wonder where the time went. And all that time you have been working, feeding the beast that gorges itself on tension-filled emails or meetings about meetings. Life is short.

And the biggest irony of all is how hard people are on millennials. Those so-called ‘snowflakes’ forging their place in the workplace today. It is unfair because not only do older workers have an obligation to help others along, the stresses millennials face in the workforce today are vastly different to those in the 1990s or early 2000s.

Previous generations entered the world of work and followed a defined path of progression and certainty. In 2008, the world changed, the financial markets collapsed and many of those bright, optimistic 20 and 30-somethings transitioned to the bitter, resentful, mortgage-laden, middle-aged haters of beardy millennials with their avocado toast, craft beers, burritos and apparent aversion to challenge.

They could not be more wrong.

Today’s young worker is facing a far more uncertain world than 20 years ago. There is an accommodation crisis characterised by high rents and low availability. Today’s millennial earns a lot less than their counterparts of 10 or 20 years ago and, despite the apparent shortage of skilled workers in tech, it is harder and harder to find a good job. They can nearly forget about getting on the property ladder any time soon.

Compared with their counterparts of decades past, today’s young worker works just as hard, if not harder, unencumbered by the ‘work hard, play hard’ (and, let’s be honest, drink hard) culture of the past. They are more grounded, more focused.

To make up for the lesser wages and opportunities, the millennials want to believe they are working for a cause, for something to believe in. In a recent post I quoted Lisa Earle McLeod’s pivotal point to employers: “I’m desperate for you to show me that the work we do here matters, even just a little bit. I’ll make copies, I’ll fetch coffee, I’ll do the grunt work. But I’m not doing it to help you get a new Mercedes.”

The new enterprise revolution

And that’s why the young worker today is the one to watch as the productivity battle lines are drawn between the worker bees and the AIs that are seemingly out to get us all in a dystopian tomorrow.

Having recently sat through a meeting about email and why it is failing us – and why Clutter in Outlook is possibly doing more harm than good in terms of lost messages – we have to recognise that email is not so much dead, but has become a Living Dead-style zombie that insists on following us around.

For at least two decades, the workplace was defined by Microsoft Outlook and, to a lesser extent, Lotus Notes.

But the new enterprise movement – the tools influenced by social media that millennials grew up on, characterised in platforms like Slack (for communication), Wrike (for workflow), Trello (for projects) and many others that are embraced by young workers – is hopefully going to help us all to breathe. Hopefully, these applications won’t, in time, become more levers to grind our gears. Ironically, even Microsoft is getting in on the action with Teams, its rival to Slack.

Unlike enterprise tools like CRM or ERP, that tended to be prescribed, these new enterprise tools are being adopted by young workers themselves, who chose them on their own initiative, leading to a groundswell that is changing the way companies function from the inside out. Slack et al get this, and that’s why they are growing so fast.

The traditional world of tech, where tools were prescribed and top-heavy, failed to deliver the work-life balance we were promised.

As workers have less choice but to work alongside AIs, maybe this world of bots and messaging could be harnessed to “augment” human capabilities and make humans super rather than redundant.

Life is short. Don’t be so hard on the millennials, I think they’ve got this one covered.

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John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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