Jasmine Gartner - trainer, anthropologist and business consultant on employee engagement - discusses change and what the future of work means to her.
When I think about change, I like to contextualise it by thinking about how people have handled change in the past. Things that we take for granted now were once new and surprising, with both positive and negative impacts – how did that affect people in the past and what did they do? It’s a good way to start imagining what to do in the future.
The last technological transformation we went through – the Industrial Revolution – changed the very fabric of our society. It changed the way we interact with other people, and it changed the very way we see our world. However, at the time, while the changes might have shaken people, they couldn’t have seen the far-reaching impact that it would ultimately have.
Think about holidays before trains (and later, airplanes): if getting to your destination could take days or weeks, what kinds of people would be able to take holidays? Now imagine what happens when travel time is cut down – what kinds of people can take holidays? The structure of society – in this case, class – was hugely impacted.
Another example is photography, which was one of the big innovations of the Industrial Revolution. Officially invented in 1839, photography literally changed the way we see and the way we think about our world. Even those who still couldn’t afford to travel for their holidays, now had access to photographs of various places around the world. They could imagine something in a way that they never would have been able to before.
Before photographs showed us a foreground in focus, and background movement as a blur, we simply couldn’t see this. Famously, Eadward Muybridge showed that a horse’s hooves all leave the ground when galloping. These are both examples of how technology has changed the way we see.
Shelley Rice, an historian writing about nineteenth-century Paris, notes that industrialisation forced a change in people’s basic understanding of time and space. Speaking about the new means of transportation that were becoming available – trains and buses – she argues that:
“Where once proximity in space meant human interaction, the new patterns of mobility now rendered that impossible.... In these transports, as in crowded restaurants and cafés, department stores and passages filled with strangers, people stared at each other without speaking... These new, purely visual relationships, which had nothing to do with acquaintance or even polite conversation, came to fruition on Haussmann’s boulevards, the stomping ground of the anonymous crowd... People of different classes, nationalities, backgrounds, and professions rubbed shoulders in public. But their synchronicity in time and space was a cover for a new, truly modern form of alienation, which permitted anonymous visual contact as the only form of human exchange”(Rice 1997:110ff).
Today’s technological revolution is happening at a speed of knots. Unlike old tools – we know how and when to use a hammer or a pencil (for writing, or holding my bun in place, obviously!) – we don’t know how and when to use the new technology quite so precisely. It’s not like taking a train or a photograph. We use new technology for everything – communicating, recording our lives, improving the workplace, measuring, quantifying, commerce, war, medicine, and so on.
So it too will change the warp of our culture, and in ways we may not yet be able to grasp or predict.
Much like revolutions in the past, it will change work itself. As I heard one commentator on Radio 4 say, “well, you don’t see horse-and-carriage drivers anymore” (though I couldn’t help but think, he’s not been to Central Park in New York City, then).
Of course, some old ways of working will go and new kinds of work will appear. Of course, we will lose jobs that made sense in a different time, but that are no longer necessary.
I’d like to think that what we’ve learnt from past revolutions is that we need to handle these no-longer-necessary jobs and industries more kindly and more humanely.
In other words, this time around, can we make it different?
Instead of just dumping the horse-and-carriage drivers on to the trash heap of history, can we think about identifying the skills, knowledge and experience that made sense in what might be a dying industry, and therefore retrain the people who worked in those industries and help them to use their skills, knowledge and experience to adapt to new industries?
For me – and admittedly, I’m a hopeless optimist – the future of work will be about helping each of us as individuals reconnect to the fabric of our culture. In other words, it will meld these amazing new technologies that are allowing us to make such huge leaps forward with something quite old-fashioned: building human relationships and taking care of each other.
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