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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2018-01-25 21:20

Cathryn Barnard



As a topic, the future of work is this year’s horror story – the robots are coming and that’s that. It’s not though. Work WILL change and it will be very...


Last night I went to see Johann Hari talk about depression - his new book Lost Connections argues the case that depression isn’t necessarily simply caused by neurochemical imbalances and that as such, anti-depressants can’t logically be the only solution for someone who is suffering from depression.

It was a very insightful talk - Hari is a great speaker, combining stories of the things he learned and experienced while researching the book, with great humour, warmth, empathy and candour.

Afterwards he did a meet and greet and book-signing. I was waiting in the queue and there was an older man in front of me.  He had a copy of the book in his hands and he turned and asked me what I thought of the talk.

I told him my thoughts and said how important and timely it was to be having this conversation, explaining briefly Working the Future’s specialist interest and focus on the future of work and the likely impact on humans.  I then asked him about his work and he told me, as his eyes shifted to the floor, that he didn’t do anything. He told me he’d lost his job two years ago and hadn’t been able to find another one.  He opened the book, turned to the table of contents and pointed to a specific chapter: Disconnection from a Hopeful or Secure Future.  He seemed, in retrospect, a bit exhausted and a bit broken.

In the moment, I didn’t have time to process my thoughts or feelings about this. But we did, he and I, have a short conversation about hope.

We are very aware, Patrick and I, that lots of people and organisations are pushing the Future of Work as this year’s big topic. Perhaps it will become this year’s GDPR or AI.  Here’s the thing though.  Many of those organisations are using the topic as a means by which to promote their agenda, which is often not much more than a way of showing how their technology, product or service will inevitably disrupt the workplace and change the way that people connect with work forever.

We KNOW these changes are coming, but what we also know is how important it is to give people hope.  It is simply too brutal to talk about disruptive change and then walk away, leaving people with no degree of certainty over the future of their work and financial security.  We have to give people hope.

When we talk about the future of work, our overarching goal is to help people imagine what the future might look like.  When, as humans, we are able to envision a future, it immediately gives us comfort and a sense of direction, and perhaps even purpose. When we are unable to visualise what the future might look like, a sense of hopelessness prevails.

A year ago, a very dear friend of mine gave me a book - Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit.  At the time I thought it an interesting choice; Annabel clearly sees me as being somewhat radical and activist (I don’t agree, but it’s interesting how others see you). Anyway, one of the opening sentences of Solnit’s book sticks with me throughout the work we do now:

"Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away." 

As a topic, the future of work is this year’s horror story - the robots are coming and that’s that. It’s not though.  Work WILL change and it will be very different to what we have experienced previously, but if we stay true to our values, we WILL find a way for work to gather more meaning and purpose.  It will of course be more fragmented and uncertain but for those of us whose nature is to want to help, and for those of us who need help, it also provides an opportunity to rediscover the things that are most important to us - human connections and social interactions, and being there for one another.

Hari’s book has inevitably drawn criticism - there are those who challenge his thinking that anti-depressants aren’t the solution.  The irony for me is the idea that this "one size fits all" solution is in fact part of the problem.  The very people who experience anxiety and depression in part feel anxious because they’re sick of being labelled and their stories being ignored.  His ideas for me however, have great resonance; the global challenges that we face are seismic, complex and converging.  Environmentally, politically, economically, societally - never have we been more broken.  As an optimist however, I have to believe that we can overcome these challenges, by coming together and using collective (and inclusive) intelligence, which I suspect will go some way in healing us along the way.

This morning I can’t stop thinking about the man in the queue. I wish I’d been able to say more to him. I wish we’d connected for longer. I hope though, above all else, that he got some hope from Hari’s talk, and from being able to connect with someone, however briefly in that queue. 

​Hari, J (2018).  Lost Connections - Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions. London: Bloomsbury
Solnit, R (2005). Hope in the Dark - Untold Histories - Wild Possibilities. Edinburgh: Canongate

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