Book review of ‘The Shift-The future of work is already here’

Is development the future of work? 

We are now facing a revolution in the way we work. A substantial schism in the past which is so great that the work we do will change - possibly so that in two decades our working lives will have been so REWORKED that they are unrecognisable.
This is not just about the impact that a low carbon economy will have on the way we work. It is also about how the nexus of technology and globalisation will work together with demographic and societal changes to fundamentally transform much of what we take for granted about work.

Why will things change so quickly? What will these changes look like? Who will benefit and who will suffer? How do we navigate our career through these times?

Lynda Gratton, Professor at London Business School, is the perfect person to answer these questions. For the past three years she has worked with companies around the world to draw up a picture of the Future of Work.

I’m usually not a big business school book person and predictions about the future, be they on work or other social aspects, are usually not applicable to a huge amount of people who are likely to work in similar ways than they do today.
However, Lynda Gratton’s book about the future of work largely avoids generalisations and delivers great food for though on two accounts: First, it’s a neat summary for those who may ask ‘us’ what the hell we are doing blogging, doing PhDs or managing a governance project. The book is a nice gift idea for parents, younger siblings or friends who really don’t have to or want to live ‘global’ lives. And second, I found the book interesting for reflecting on the ‘development industry’.
Gratton’s book has a straightforward outline, focussing on ‘the dark side of the default future’, ‘the bright side of the crafted future’ and how to make ‘the shift’ to a future-proof career.
What really enhances the accessibility of the book is the fact that it’s organised along the (working) lives of a group of fictitious global citizens.
Her analysis is guided by five forces, technology, globalisation, demography and longevity, society, natural resources (14) and three major shifts: 
You will need [...] “serial mastery” to add value’ in the virtual world ‘where self-marketing and creating credentials will be key’; ‘Connectivity, collaboration and networks will be central’ and ‘strong, diverse emotional relationships cannot be taken for granted, they have to be shaped and crafted’, and, third, in the future the ‘focus [will be] more on the production and quality of our experience and the balance of our lives, rather than simply the voraciousness of our consumption’ (18-19).
For anybody who works in development and/or academia this already sounds very much like ‘now’...
In the first chapter Gratton outlines 32 pieces that shape our future along those five forces. I won’t review all of them, but there are quite a few that really ring true for the ‘development industry’: social participation increases, micro-entrepreneurs emerge, frugal innovations, a regional underclass emerges, the ascendance of Gen Y, the rise of reflexivity, the role of powerful women, environmental catastrophes and the emergence of a culture of sustainability. None of this is ground-breaking per se, but the jigsaw pieces form a holistic mosaic of female DIY aid entrepreneurs that work on grassroots solutions – however, just like a 3D-picture that changes its meaning when looking at it from a different angle, this is also the world of underemployed female development studies majors who are offered unpaid internships, build up student loan debt during their PhD studies and may embark on voluntourism to help themselves and the children of Africa...in short: the development industry is a good indicator of ‘the future’ that other industries still may face. In that sense, those in the development industry are very well prepared for the future-but they also experience the downside of increased competition, project work, long-distance relationships and less planning of the future.

The dark side of the default future - Fragmentation, isolation and exclusion
In 2025, Jill from London is a new type of knowledge worker and her world is a world of fragmentation ‘where it seems that no activity lasts more than three minutes’ (58). Jill loses the concentration of mastery, the capacity to observe and learn as well as the creativity of play – the downside of global project work and 24/7 competition. Rohan in Mumbai is a surgeon who operates virtually, Anon in Cairo is an IT consultant and they both experience the loss of face-to-face relationships and easy companionship. This may be less of an issue for development workers, but as an academic researcher who currently works from home it resonated well. Gratton suggests to building three types of networks to support your global, potentially virtual work life:
a posse of people to whom you can turn and with whom you have created long-term reciprocal relationships; the big ideas crowd, which is a diverse and large group of networks, many of whom are virtual, from which great connections can be made; and finally, a regenerative community who are real people with whom you can meet frequently, laugh, share a meal and relax (104).
Gratton rounds off the first part by looking at the shifting axis of exclusion. Briana in Ohio and Andre in Liege, Belgium, are her examples of those who live in developed countries but are excluded ‘from joining the rapidly globalising talent pool’ (107). Unfortunately, Briana and Andre are depicted as having a low education and few skills. In ‘my world’ Briana would be an anthropology major with student debt and Andre would probably be Javier from Spain who has a degree and foreign language proficiency, but still can’t find a job. But as I will argue in the end of my post, Gratton’s future is still very much anchored in today’s middleclass beliefs of social mobility and aspiration. 

The bright side of the crafted future - Co-creation, social engagement and micro-entrepreneurship
But let’s turn to the bright side of the future first. Miguel in Rio is a global innovative scientist who is tendering for a project together with friends to reduce carbon emissions in Lucknow, India-on a virtual platform, of course. This is interesting, challenging work for a multi-disciplinary team and comes implicitly with a changed understanding of how institutions and organisations interact with the world: Rather than the World Bank or a global consultancy firm an Indian city would be able to tender globally with interested parties.
The rise of ‘expert volunteers’ is the most direct link to the ‘development industry’: John, an American retail manager, is also an expert water rights:
His year in 2025 is a culmination of almost 20 years of involvement in water rights in Bangladesh. He did not start as an expert, but over the years has learnt more and more about the challenges and the solutions and joined many other “expert volunteers” around the world (161).
I don’t want to go too much into detail (what about local experts? What about development professionals? How is he managing a year off work?), but Gratton relies on the rise of empathy and a different attitude towards consumption to make this experience for John and his wife Susan feasible.

How to prepare for The Shift
In her final part, Gratton describe some features of ‘future proofed careers’ and DIY aid features prominently without using the term. She predicts a ‘proliferation of enterprises built around developing and supporting advocacy skills and capabilities’ (213-214) and the rise of social entrepreneurship (unfortunately, she mentions TOMS Shoes as a leading example).
Her emphasis, though, is on becoming and being ‘creative’: 
We cannot be creative if we hate what we do, or find it insubstantial or meaningless. We cannot coach and care for others if we find out work boring or repetitive (227). 
This not only puts a lot of pressure on the individual, but also may contribute to more graduates of social science or humanities degrees who don’t want to work in ‘an office’ or quit a dull temp job, because it wasn’t creative enough. Gratton reminds us of the ’10,000 hour rule’ which to some extent apply to development or academia, too...10,000 hours of aid coordination meetings or working on research papers sounds scary, but there will always be a dilemma between creative tasks as the tip of the iceberg and the administrative ‘underbelly’.
Her final ‘notes to children, CEOs and governments’ seem very much rooted in the business school discourse: Children’s ‘success will depend on how creative and innovative’ (319) they are, business leaders need to offer more flexible packages and governments should support ‘every young person to gain marketable skills’ and find ways of how they can support healthy Gen Zs who want to work into their 70s and 80s (325).

A Western middleclass vision for tomorrow's creative class?
The key problem I have with her analysis is that it puts the onus of becoming ‘future-ready’ solely on the individual and conveniently leaves out any institutional and economic underpinning of this model. People don’t just spend their money on ‘stuff’, but on rent, utilities, mortgages, credit card payments, student loans, child care, health care and care for ageing relatives. I’m sure many industries will be happy to offer ‘flexible’ solutions, but in corporate-speak that’s most likely a term for ‘more expensive’. How can we as society avoid a flexible future that turns into a rat-race against inflexible institutions that benefit handsomely from monthly contracts, regular payments and late fees? 
This is linked to the potential for a lot of unpaid preparatory work, networking, writing proposals and dealing with clients and potentially uber-outsourcing: It would be great if the city of Lucknow could connect to a Brazil-based group of experts, but my fear is that in 10-15 years time there may still be a few layers between the two (the tendering platform charges the user, a consultant will offer to check your documents, a legal expert will advise you on some details, etc.) and many global ‘serial masters’ will have to work a lot. Nowhere in the book does Gratton mention any incomes, expenses or concrete numbers.
And just to be clear: Gratton’s future, of work and otherwise, is based on a Northern-centric middleclass, maybe even elitist, notion of social mobility through continuous investment in education and the availability of ‘free’ (unpaid) time – but then again, much of this model is also true for development work and academia.

Despite, or maybe even because of, these caveats I found Gratton’s book entertaining and stimulating. It is great introductory reading on the subject of ‘the future of work’ and in addition to parents or first-year students, it should make its way onto reading lists for development studies courses to provide food for thought on the present and future of the industry.

Gratton, Lynda:
The Shift. The future of work is already here.
ISBN
: 9780007427956, 384 pages, C$19.99, HarperCollins, Canada.
 Full disclosure: I received a free review copy from HarperCollins Canada in November 2011.

Comments

  1. A very clear and intelligent analysis of the patchworking people trying to organize resilience and their own future.

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