The Future of Work?

The way we work has been undergoing massive changes over the last decade or more, but today, I believe, we are at the cusp of a fundamental shift in the relations of work, facilitated by the developments in technology. By relations of work, I mean the role each individual plays in a ‘value chain’ and how the part contributes to the whole.

Before the advent of the modern corporation, people worked not for a corporation (they weren’t around, remember?). Rather, artisans, for instance, manufactured their final product, say a bicycle (if they were around …) as a single entity, and sold their products in a marketplace.

With the advent of the corporation came the concept of people working in jobs where they did specific work, which contributed (often in indefinable ways) to the overall value chain. In this way, the individual would do their part of the work, and pass on their output to someone else, who would do their part of the work (value add) and so on …

This aspect is changing, and, I believe, set to change in bigger ways. As we are seeing there is a trend towards organizations outsourcing their work to freelance contractors. As this grows (and we are seeing this happening more so in the technology sector) we would likely come to a state where instead of many individuals being brought together under the ambit of the organizations, people would work more in their capacity as individuals, being brought together under the ambit of the value chain. This value chain, by definition, would span organizations, which means that we can expect to see, more and more, the value chain being formed as a loose federation of individual freelance contributors, their output orchestrated by a set of organizations partnering together to create a certain set of products or services.

So in terms of work structures this could likely be a move towards towards ways of working the modern corporation replaced, though in ways which are very much the new millennium. This has massive implications on the aspirations of youngsters (I don’t quite rely on the generation nomenclature, partly because I don’t understand it …), in that they can probably no longer aspire to long term jobs and designations may lose their meaning, the content of work, and the satisfaction that generates being the main defining factors there.

In a way, going back in time, but in a 21st century way.


The Future Work Economy

A topic I have been thinking about for a while now is what is the future of work, and of employment. There are a number of questions which come up, to which I must say I don’t have any answers.

One question I think about is the expected mismatch between the demand and availability of work in the future. Another is about the possible mismatch between skills requirement and availability.

Coming to the question of expected mismatch between work demand and availability, one dimension we need to consider, when building future scenarios is overall population. We are told repeatedly that technology is meant to make our lives easier, so we can spend more time with our loved ones. While thats a nice idea, what that means is that in the future, we are likely going to see much more work being automated at a global level, with people having to work less and less. This means lower demand for human resources, which could lead to a future this op-ed from Washington Post describes.

That said, however, there is another aspect which we need to consider. This is the fact that while a number of traditional occupations might not be around a few decades from now, there are likely going to be a number of new occupations, or even industries which could be generated over a period of time, as this piece from University of Kent tells us. While video games have been around for a while, no one could have anticipated the level of growth the gaming industry would see, for instance. New occupations and industries, of course, would require different skills, something we need to prepare our children for.

The other dimension is the mismatch between skills demand and availability. With Europe growing older, for instance, Europe will likely need to import workers, and with Africa growing younger, its quite simple to see where the additional workers required would come from.

This is an illustration of possible imbalances we could see in the future. The larger point here is this … the regions of the world which are well-off are likely to have fewer people in working age-groups in the future, while the regions which would have larger working-age populations would likely be unable to give access to the kind of education required to meet the needs of the job market.

Does this mean that it might be important for certain regions of the world to subsidise education and skill-building in other parts of the world? Should Japan, for instance, invest in education/skill-building in India? In other words, are we headed toward a far more integrated world as the viable solution to the problems of tomorrow?


Social Eminence

A discussion I was having the other day with colleagues about eminence and the role of social media in creating the persona of people who are experts at things brought out some rather interesting thoughts. One of the ideas that came out was that social reputation is based on one’s willingness to share knowledge. While I completely agree with that, this viewpoint confuses knowledge with the act of sharing. One can actually share things on social media without really knowing much about them. One of the things I see, for instance, on twitter, is that the rate at which people share links must mean they are reading like probably a thousand words per minute. Quite a few people I know just glance through an article or blog, and share it on social media. This is why I say hat sometime knowledge can be confused with the act of sharing.

Another important thing to understand is that it is very easy to manufacture things on social media. You might have seen a number of quotes from Albert Einstein on the web, and I don’t know how many of them are attributable to him. Taking an instance of a talk show I was watching, the analyst on the show was quoting a long-departed leader as having said something. This didn’t quite sound logical to me, so I started searching. After much searching, I found a blog which told how a lie was fabricated and why, and how it was circulated all over the world over social media. The “fact” may find it’s way twice around the world before folks start finding out. Also, there will be a number of folks on social media who will have spread the word, and very few who would take the effort to validate. What this means is that social eminence can be manufactured, and while there are self-correcting mechanisms which are there in the social ecosystem, these methods may not always be effective in a world with a very short memory. By the time you figure out something is wrong, nobody’s really interested, and setting the record straight is a moot point.

The point I am trying to make is that we need to be selective in the sources we subscribe to, and that we need to do our research before publishing something, a thing which is seldom done.


Folk Dances in India

Heres a nice blog about folk dances in India. The point the author is making is that in India, folk music and dance has two purposes. One is the dedication to God and religion, where the dances play out episodes from the epics or from mythology, and the other is to celebrate life, and to mark the passage of seasons, with their importance to the agricultural cycle, especially the harvest season.

Folk Dances in India

And do check the videos. Really nice ones!

Happy viewing, and Happy Dasahra!


About Education …

Been a while … Not sure whether it was writer’s block, or whether nothing was able to overcome my natural lethargy. I think its the latter, for, one has to be a writer for writer’s block to occur. Be that as it may, ex-boss, friend, and educationist, Prithwis Mukerjee share this link. I found it quite a nice read. The article gives you an understanding of how well schools in different cities are doing. A nice way to foster collaboration within the education system.

Be that as it may, there are a few things i wasnt too convinced about, with the survey. One of the things which stand out are:

“There’s more. Even the top schools exhibit rote learning. They have not been able to display the analytical skills that were expected of students of such top schools,” he explained. 

Serious malaise in the education system? Maybe. I am not one to comment on the broad spectrum of schools in a country as vast and diverse as India. On the other hand, there seems to be some sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy thing with this. Look at it this way … surveys that are run like these, are exam-based. What this means is that as part of the survey, children are probably given a test, and their performance defines whether the school is teaching its students well or not.

And this is where the fallacy comes. A malaise of the education system we are seeing is that there is too much focus on education, far less focus on learning. Schools, parents are more focused on how well the children do in the exams, rather than on whether they actually learn something or not. This means that in a survey like this, schools which focus on rote learning, on the exam-centric form of education will, by definition, outperform schools which might be focusing on learning.


The New York Dispute

Theres a dispute raging about whether Park 51, and the centre for multi-faith dialogue and engagement should go ahead or not. As predicted, passions run high. The question that comes up, though, is whether this is about religion at all or not. Looking at it as a political dispute is also probably missing the basic idea. It is, i feel, more about the attitide people have for others different from themselves, and though i have no opinion, either for or against, i am just trying to look at the larger picture of intolerance and misunderstanding that provides the backdrop for this, and a number of other disputes raging across the world. I do feel this is more about attitude and ignorance than anything else.

There is an interesting piece written by Mr. Ashok Malik in Hindustan Times about A Strange Crusade. There is a picture of an a protestor holding a placard saying “you can build a mosque at ground zero when we can build a synagogue at Mecca”. Interesting, that, isnt it? Well, there are places in the world where religions can co-exist. Yes, there can be disputes, but they dont necessarily need to go out of hand, do they? There are numerous examples of this from around the world. Interestingly, there are quite a few examples of this in South Asia, considered one of the most volatile regions in the world. No, i am not talking from a political perspective, rather from the perspective of the common man, the human being.  I was, for example, recently reading a book titled Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia, and i feel she has written wonderfully, capturing the synthesis of Islam and Hinduism into a common cultural fabric, which, though sundered by partition, is nevertheless part of the social psyche, the Punjabi Taliban notwithstanding. This, i feel, should be a wonderful demonstration of the way sometimes mutually opposing philosophies (and religions cannot be mutually opposing) can find a way to live together.

This finds much more expression in the Sufi tradition of the sub-continent. Though originating from the Middle East (i havent read much about the history of Sufism, so if you know of a good book which is available in India, please do leave a comment), i feel Sufism came into its own in South Asia, where the tradition drew from the rich heritage of both Hinduism and Islam to build something which is all encompassing, transcending organized religion, looking at The One God. Why this cannot be an example for building a movement towards greater inter-faith engagement i dont know, and where this should be physically located may also not be the central question, in this virtual world of today. Should the movement gather enough steam, the virtual world itself would keep the momentum going. What is more important is attitude.

What i found interesting in the article is that Mr. Malik writes that Christians and Jews paid tax which Muslims didnt have to pay when Cordoba was a part of the Caliphate. Jaziya, if i remember history. Though what that has to do with 2010, New York, or any other part of the world, as Mr. Malik says, i dont really understand. What i also find interesting is:

To laypeople in the West, the Moorish rule of Spain was simply occupation and colonisation by an alien people. That may not be the entirety of the story but it is certainly the popular one.

That may or may not be the entire story, but its the popular one. One mistake we make is that we tend to see history in black or white. History, i feel, is never so. Rather, since history is the story of the changes human civilization has been through, and changes are always gradual, at least at the social level, history is full of transition periods where civilization is changing from one form to another, and these transition periods are shades of grey. There is no “us-or-them” in history, what we see as something which is neatly dividing into pigeonholes is actually more like a flowing river. Or, in other words, what we see as a series of lakes is actually a river. This sentiment is basically assuming that anything Islamic cannot be native to a particular region. But this doesnt consider that its people, culture, psyche which are native to the region, and is a belief system which people adopt, in a way which goes along with their cultural ethos. Which is why you find that the same religion is followed in different ways in different parts of the world.

I feel it is important for us to understand this. That there is no “us-or-them” block which can divide me from the next person, and that we are all in it together. Its not easy to divide the present into neatly divided pigeonholes, just as we cannot divide history on similar lines, for both are defined by the flow of time.


How we Behave

There are times when i go to watch a movie with my son. Of course, these movies are children’s movies, but then, i seem to enjoy them probably as much as he does. Having said that, that’s not what i am writing about. Today, i went to see a movie with him … Toy Story 3. Now, this is one of those few series of movies where the sequel is as good as the original (somewhat gives a reason for them to actually create sequels) but again, that’s not what i am writing about.

So what am i writing about? Going to the theatre was fun. The popcorn and water was fun, too. We had reached a few minutes early for the show, so we had to wait. Which is ok, too. This is about father-son quality time, remember? The movie is in 3D so we had to collect the 3D glasses before going for the movie. And this is what i am writing about.

Actually, not this, but rather, the way we react to things. Sonny was excited about the movie, so he decided that he would get in the queue to collect the glasses (you cant really trust papa with these complex things, can you?). Slowly we moved to the top of the queue. Now, this is not to say that the queue was really a queue. As Jug Suraiya had written a few days back, we Indians don’t believe in vertical queues, but rather, in horizontal queues. Gives each one of the feeling of being close to the gate, window, whatever is the object of the queue, without anyone getting the feeling that they are being discriminated against in terms of distance. This again is something that i am used to, sometimes having participated in this phenomenon.

So what am i writing about? Its simply this. Some people believe that they have the right to reach out and get what is being given, even if that means, no, not breaking the queue, but almost jumping above a child who is being a good boy, standing in queue to approach the window to collect the glasses which would enable him to watch the movie he has been looking forward to for a few weeks now. As we approached the place where the glasses were being distributed (you had to show your ticket and get the glasses), a gentleman walked up to the counter, collected his glasses and walked off. Then a lady, with an infant in her lap walked up to the counter, collected the glasses and walked away. What is interesting is that neither bothered to look at the child standing quietly in the queue. After all, what are these stupid things they call queues?

I tried sarcasm. It usually works. Told my son that aunty (or uncle … choose your pick, i don’t really think its much of a difference) is quite a bit of a hurry, so he should let her get into the queue ahead of him (between him and the counter in other words) and take the glasses. Not that either of them actually got into the queue. They just pushed whoever was in the queue aside, reached out to the counter, and got what they wanted. Your stupidity is to believe in abstract geometrical concepts like lines, which don’t mean much either way.

What i found amazing is that this is the Sunday evening movie-going crowd in Gurgaon. This is the famous “educated Indian middle class” which behaves in a way which one wouldn’t expect from any educated people. And its not just about getting into the queue ahead of people who just happen to be decent enough to not shout scream and so on. What’s also unnerving about this “education” is that “educated” people believe that they can push aside any child as long as its not their child. What this means is that i am here to only ensure that i can push my child through, its ok, whether i push aside any other child, it doesn’t really matter.

The question i have here is just this … is this what education is meant to be? Are these the values, world-views that education is supposed to give to the people it is supposed to uplift? Because here i couldn’t find too many values in the way these “educated” people were behaving. Or is this just the way things are meant to be … the jungle brought to the city? Or am i over-reacting?