Back in 2010, there were lots of discussions about the future of work in 2020.
The first camp predicted that the future of work would be automated and digitized. They told us — We are in an unprecedented period of uncertainty that is more disruptive than previous economic revolutions. If companies can replace a human with an invisible algorithm or a robot, they will. Whatever you’re doing for a job right now will fundamentally change, so it’s time to start preparing for a future that is murky and unclear. Be agile, nimble, mobile, global, local, and social.
The second camp told us that we’d seen economic upheaval before, and we survived it. Change is constant. Technology isn’t new. Efficiencies have made life better for millions of people around the world. While economic inequality runs rampant in many parts of the world, survival rates and life expectancy are up. To prepare ourselves for the future of work, we should bet on our innate humanness. Get smarter. Think faster. Make technology work for us instead of the other way around.
Sometimes I think both camps were correct about 2020. Other times, they missed the mark.
What nobody talks about is how the real world impacts the future of work. I’m worried about unchecked powers prevailing over the good of the people. Many of us are engaged in a daily fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, ableism, xenophobia, religious discrimination, government tyranny, and private-sector greed. We’re losing the battle against austerity, isolationism, climate change, human trafficking, antibiotic resistance, free speech, excessive corporate tax cuts, and corporate surveillance. There’s no consensus on how to treat people, and technology seems to be exacerbating our differences instead of bringing us closer.
I’m not sure how we have a solution-focused discussion about the future of work when we can’t even agree on the problems. But there’s some movement that makes me optimistic.
Here in America, the Business Roundtable is an association of chief executive officers of America’s leading companies. Back in August of 2019, they put out a statement and redefined the role of a corporation. They wrote, “We believe the free-market system is the best means of generating good jobs, a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all.”
The updated statement moved away from elevating shareholders over employees and customers, which is a good start. There’s a closer alignment to conscious capitalism, which is a fancy way of saying that people matter as much as profits. In fact, an investment in people will lead to an investment in profits. The statement reads, in part:
“While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders. We commit to:
• Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
• Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
• Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.
• Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.
• Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.”
Is this a corporate public relations stunt? Sure, maybe, but a healthy future of work requires us to stop over-indexing on robots and start advancing and, even, protecting the role of people and communities in the corporate equation. So, in that way, this is a good start.
The future of work requires brave and bold individuals like you to hold companies accountable to the standards set forth, at a minimum, by the Business Roundtable. Spend your money better as consumers. Don’t entrust your time and energy into a career with companies that contradict your values. Be an active investor with principles — someone who has more than just a passing interest in how you’re building wealth.
Finally, you are the firewall. Be the person who speaks truth to power when you see a company behaving in a way that’s antithetical to a healthy and vibrant future of work that benefits workers and consumers as much as it benefits shareholders and institutions.
I can’t believe it’s 2020, but the future of work is here. We need your leadership now more than ever.