The WEF has issued a triple investment imperative: invest in reskilling at-risk workers, upskilling the workforce generally and in building learning centres in organisations. This is in preparation for the looming Fourth Industrial Revolution, a revolution that has become terribly fashionable in business parlance of late. One would think that 4IR seems quite distant from the realities of our everyday workplaces. Mine for one is not yet characterised by an interoperability of systems, and I complete most of my own dangerous and difficult tasks, with little assistance from connected machines.

a new mandate for business & leaders

Yet the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Study paints a picture that’s worthy of our attention. A significant level of unease on the part of employees is reported, with two thirds of people concerned about their future job prospects in the face of automation. This striking finding is most acute in developing markets. The new fear stalking the office corridor is the fear of robots. Deep involvement in discussion and in the process of sharing news may signal the desire to regain control and take back power. Engagement with media has jumped from 50 to 72 percentage points year on year.

But something else interesting is happening too. A new mandate is being issued for business and leaders.

Edelman has been measuring trust in the four institutions of government, business, media and NGO’s since 2001. South Africa was added in 2014. In the past, a lack of trust was reported across all four institutions. Trust has shifted from top-down (trusting those in positions of authority), to peer-to-peer (trusting people you perceive to be like you, and not necessarily those in positions of authority), to ‘local’, where individuals believe that they can control the relationship with their employers and that it is within their power to influence what happens within organisations. A new ‘trusted work’ paradigm is emerging. Within this paradigm, the rules are quite different. Employers are expected to re-assume responsibility for the learning and development torch that was ceremoniously handed down to individuals with the demise of the ‘job for life’ in the latter half of the last century. It could be argued that we had just started to get used to the psychological contract dictate that we are the masters of our own learning, growth and career destinies. The psychological contract is the term used to describe the unwritten set of obligations between employer and employee. Your working hours, job role and pay may be set and signed on paper, all that you expect your employer to deliver may not. Often these expectations are not articulated. However, unmet expectations erode trust, with the result that employee engagement declines, as does voluntary and creative effort. Given that creativity is a new currency for organisations, severed contracts are potentially disastrous.

The Edelman study shows that development, in the form of reskilling and retraining for digital futures, is falling at the foot of the employer once again. Employers are expected to engage on and address critical issues such as diversity, empowering with information, and retraining or reskilling so as to alleviate fears associated with digital, Fourth Industrial Revolution futures. In return, employees will advocate for the organization engaging broadly in the community on behalf of the organisation, and they will also be loyal to it.

Preparing for the future is becoming a shared responsibility.

75% of people believe that business can make money and improve society, says the study. The ‘trusted work’ paradigm requires that employers have a big idea for the company, a social aspiration or a purpose that employees can feel strongly about. Leaders, by their actions, are expected to persuade others that trust can be restored. 75% also believe that CEOs must stand up and act on important issues, and not wait for government. This finding is particularly noteworthy for South Africa: as trust falls, business is expected to lead.

Do not aim to build resilience, focus instead on becoming antifragile, says the statistician, scholar, essayist and former risk analyst, Nassim Taleb. Taleb looks at problems of probability, uncertainty and randomness. Whereas the resilient take shocks and stay the same, the antifragile get better. Staying the same is well out of fashion, it seems, and rather risky too. A new mandate is emerging for business and leaders, stand up with purpose and lead.

Technological innovation does not drive social change. Rather, social change is usually driven by decisions we make about how to organise our world. These are the words of economic historian Louis Hyman. They remind us that the nature of work is a matter of social choice, the result of multiple decisions by us – companies and policy makers – and not the unavoidable consequence of technological progress.

Pre Industrial Revolution came what Hyman calls the ‘Industrious Revolution’. Independent workers who previously had worked from where they lived or from a farm or shop gathered under one roof in a supervised arrangement. People no longer controlled how they worked and they received a wage rather than sharing directly in the profits of their efforts. This signaled the first real separation between home and work life, and it set the conditions for the Industrial Revolution. Factory technology only worked because the relationship with work had already changed. Machines swept in and took advantage of and consolidated these changes.

A second industrious revolution has been underway since the 1970’s, when the collapse of a postwar era of secure wage-work began. In the 70’s a more strictly financial view of organisations took hold. Stock and bond prices were prized over production, short-term gain over long-term investment. “Lean” and efficient become fashionable, says Hyman. Workforces became expendable and jobs steadily became more temporary and insecure. This growing independent workforce has paved the way for today’s digital revolution. Online tech is swooping in this time, and there is a workforce ripe to take advantage of it. Without this workforce, apps and freelance sites would never work. New digital economies signal a land of milk and honey to some, offering the autonomy, flexibility and independence that traditional jobs don’t or can’t offer. But for many, this job ‘freedom’ spells a tear in the obligation between worker and employer, it signals insecurity and risk.

Gig-economy work comes in two forms, “web-based” working from anywhere, and “location-based” working in the physical world via apps. The evidence is growing that these jobs do not deliver the financial returns needed to make ends meet. Over the past two years, pay for gig work has dropped. Many workers are barely making a minimum wage toiling for giant tech platforms, according to JPMorgan Chase Institute and ILO research. Should these gig jobs be offered by huge tech companies that provide outsize returns to shareholders even if they don’t turn a profit? Hyman urges us to think about this. Our norms and policies need to make digitization benefit today’s workers, and not ‘work’ them over. Technological progress does not make work insecure, our social choices do.

Work is a matter of social choiceAs we stand upon the precipice of the 2020’s, we are witnessing a ‘purpose’ revolution. Purpose is not a new concept. In the 1940’s, legendary concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Dr Viktor Frankl shared his learned wisdoms with us: ‘A man who has a why can bear almost any how.’ We have seen a surfacing of purpose as a concept at work in multiple ways over the years, called by many names. I believe it should be disrupting work, and that it will do so over time. For that reason I am marginally encouraged to see purpose play out on our rather drama-heavy conference stages.

Yet, I cannot help but wonder: has ‘purpose’ become the darling of our business chats because it’s another tool in the war for profit, just as “lean corporation” was touted 40 years ago by business gurus? Or is it a genuine response to our deep knowing that purpose drives the person, that it is the human condition to create meaning, and that creativity and purpose may be the real drivers of a future work that works for many more of us, whatever form work takes?

What will the consequences of our social choices be?

This article was first published here: http://www.talenttalks.net/work-matter-social-choice/