I believe that the future of work is — no jobs.
Do you want a job in the future? Is my theory crazy?
The idea of an ‘employment contract’ will fade away as we realise that the whole way we understand employment is paternalistic, hierarchical, and unequal.
A ‘job’ isn’t a contract between equals — it’s ‘tied service and patronage’, where ‘human resources’ exist to protect the company, where one avenue open to management is to keep people down.
‘The annual review: a courtly ritual where, every year, I remind you of two things: I own you, and you are insufficient’ (Peter Block)
The future is true adult-to-adult relationships: ‘free agents’ contracting together as equals basis, with 360-degree feedback done live based on ongoing work.
This would see:
- Abolition of tied employment contracts, replaced with normal peer-to-peer contracts.
- Universal Basic Income
- Removing the bizarre tax on the selling of labour (why do we disincentivise people to work and companies to employ?!)
And a switch
FROM complex taxes on employment, all consumption, capital gains, and company profit
TO much simpler, more progressive tax on total income, capital, and luxury goods.
(And wealth transfer out of the country, financial transactions, and progressive carbon taxation).
Of course, our entire legal basis is the result of an unsteady compromise between blatant exploitation, pioneered in the early industrial revolution in the UK, and worker’s power through the unity of the Trades Unions movement.
Visit Quarry Bank Mill — a ‘progressive’ establishment — to learn how the norm was a 72-hour week for children, with rent and the bill for adulterated food in the owner’s shop deducted from salaries. It’s no wonder there were links to slavery — electric lighting (which allowed working all hours), sugar (cheap, acceptable, storable energy), and people themselves were all just food for the machine.
Rights legislation and limits to exploitation come from this fundamentally unequal starting point.
The future will need to consider health and safety protection (who’s responsible for the back damage laptops and posture inflict on ‘digital nomads’?), anti-discrimination, and other safeguards which are so vital to civilised society.
We have to protect the fundamental human right to an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Exploitation lurks and will seize on new systems if we are not vigilant.
But our current laws are all established in the context of tied-in, power-over relationships embodied in employment contracts.
This isn’t going to happen fast.
Reid Hoffman has been going on about ‘tours of duty’ for ages — working a job for four to seven years, then deciding what to do next. I think the language gives this away — this is just a ‘more acceptable’ model of tied exploitation.
Venkatesh Rao has made thoughtful contributions about the ‘gig economy’ — which can be beautiful if you are ‘above the API’ (making the machine work for you), but is far more brutal and dehumanising than the average employed ‘job’ if you are ‘below the API’ — just a cog in the machine, controlled by the algorithm.
And it’s partly the privileged who will have this option first (though worldwide remote opportunities and flexible work will also create freedom in poorer economies, just as they create servitude in richer countries).
The messiest period is now, when the old is not yet dead and the new is not yet fully emerged. But I think something like it will happen.
What do you think?
See also my piece on ‘tribes’ and the future of work: