Podcast transcript: How will personal purpose shape the future of work?

30 min approx | 26 Sep 2019

Dario Gil

The way I look at the context of work is a future I envision different forms of AI in their own right will be like colleagues themselves.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Welcome to The Better Question, EY’s podcast series that will answer the questions that will help you lead your business through this transformative age.

What will happen when trends that we already know are underway today start to transform society?

I am Yassmin Abdel-Magied, engineer by trade and writer by vocation.

Over the course of six episodes, we are asking some of the most probing minds around the globe about the world-changing issues that are just over the forecast horizon. And we are asking them, what’s after what’s next?

And I have here with me writer, futurist and the curator of What’s after what’s next? Chris Meyer.

Chris Meyer

Great to be with you, Yassmin. I am Chris Meyer, and my ongoing work with EYQ, the EY global think tank, has focused on the question, What’s after what’s next?

Abdel-Magied

What part of what’s after what’s next are we looking at today?

Meyer

Well, this seems to be a question that everybody, top to bottom, CEOs, people raising kids, people sending their kids to college, are asking, and that is, what is the future of work?

Abdel-Magied

My dad is also asking me this.

Meyer

Indeed.

Abdel-Magied

With deep concern.

Meyer

Well, that is what we are going to get into is the difference between what the generations think work is. You know, we have had an episode on artificial intelligence, and everybody is afraid of rapid automation, and that almost everyone will become unemployable, and what is going to become of people who do not have those sets of skills? And the question is, will it dislocate how people are making a living?

In the AI episode, there was a point of view that says people have always adapted, and AI should be no different. So, on that assumption that indeed we will adapt, we want to ask a better question, which is: How will personal purpose shape the future of work? We started off the episode with a quote from Dario Gil, who is the director of all IBM research and previously led their development of AI technology.

Abdel-Magied

Hold on, hold on. Chris, why are we talking about AI again on our “Future of Work” episode?

Meyer

Two reasons. First, AI and the Internet of Things along with it will become the environment in which people do work. So, if we do not understand those changes, we cannot understand the work itself. Second, that intelligent connected environment will affect the demand for labor, both the quantity demanded, and the skills needed. And Dario made another point to me. And that is that the concern that AI will eliminate jobs is just backwards. What he said is that we need the breakthroughs in productivity that AI will create in order to continue growing or to maintain our output as population declines.

Abdel-Magied

Okay. So, you are saying that technology shapes the environment in which work is performed, just like the Industrial Revolution moved the ironworker from their blacksmith shop to a job in the steel mill, for example. I get that. But is there not a bigger question about the future of work? It seems to me, as a “gig economy millennial,” the meaning of work itself is becoming unmoored. Is it the future of how to make a living? Is it the future of life? Chris, I am having a low-key existential crisis here. I am not really sure where my work ends, and my life begins sometimes.

Meyer

Yes. And as a boomer gig economy person, I totally agree. And totally, we will take the conversation away from the technology, even though that is where we have begun, and toward this question of the meaning of work itself.

Abdel-Magied

I am really looking forward to it. And when we are done, you and I will get together to figure out what it all means, and maybe give me some direction in life. Who knows?

Meyer

So, let us jump right in. Kevin, Aaron, I am really happy to have you both on this episode. Kevin Kelly was the founder of Wired magazine, which chronicled how digital technology was changing our lives.

Kevin Kelly

My name is Kevin Kelly. I am Senior Maverick at Wired magazine and the author of a number of books, including The Inevitable and What Technology Wants.

Meyer

Aaron Maniam is a rapidly rising star in the Singapore government. And Aaron is an EYQ Global Fellow, and he is a member of EYQ’s Global Advisory Board, the EYQ Fellows.

Aaron Maniam

My name is Aaron. I am a public policy practitioner. I have worked in the government of Singapore for several years, but I am also at the moment working on a PhD in Public Policy at the Oxford Blavatnik School of Government, where I study how governments use digital technology to transform themselves.

Meyer

So, we are going to explore the meaning of work, its value, the risks to society – and we will close with a lightning round of questions.

Let me start with you, Aaron. Can you tell me, do you work?

Maniam

I do a whole bunch of things. And I think of work as any labor that I enjoy that is meaningful and that is significantly challenging. So, yes, I work all the time. I work professionally in a government. I get paid for that job because I do policy work that affects a large number of people. But I also think I work in other ways. I work when I am at home, when I am writing poetry. That is a labor. It takes a lot of time and attention to detail. I work when I am out serving my community. I work when I am teaching in a volunteer capacity at our university. I work when I am facilitating dialogue. So, yes, I guess I do work.

Meyer

So, what defines work for you?

Maniam

For me, a lot of it boils down to asking myself, what is my mission and my vocation? What was I put on this earth to do, and how do I use that set of skills and capacities to make the world around me a little bit better? So, I think it boils down to this issue of vocation.

Meyer

And what do you do that is not work?

Maniam

That is a great question, because I guess we all go through periods of relaxation. When I am doing something that is meant to be relaxing, right – when I am doing yoga in the mornings – and those things are work as well. But they are deliberately done in a way that replenishes the body rather than takes away energy from it.

Meyer

So, for you, you try to make your whole life intentional and productive, and it is all work. That is how that sounds to me.

Maniam

Yes, it does. But not work in the traditional sense.

Meyer

We are going to follow that thread quite a bit later on. But let us talk about Singapore and the history of work in the country. So, Singapore has this astounding track recording of raising gross national income per capita from under $7,000 in 1980 to about $90,000 today. How was that arranged?

Maniam

I think we went through many different stages in that evolution. When we first began, a lot of the policies that were put in place were aimed at making sure that the economy achieved a basic level of sustenance and sustainability. And what that meant was that we had to bring in MNCs to jumpstart a lot of the sectoral development in areas like logistics and petrochemicals, and also high-end manufacturing.

Meyer

What period are you talking about here?

Maniam

So, this would be in the mid-1960s or the mid-1970s. And I think what then that allowed us to do was to also realize that work was also evolving, right? Work was not just a series of activities that were there to power the economy. Work was there to power the whole system and its transformation. And very fundamentally, that meant that everybody needed to feel fulfilled and a sense of dignity from the kind of work that they were doing.

Meyer

So, thinking of labor as a factor of production, I think around 1980, Singapore – let it be known, the intention to raise the average wage – I do not think you had a minimum wage.

But that, consistent with the more efficient and productive use of that factor of production, labor, you said it is going to get more and more expensive. That is pretty different from what a lot of your neighbors were doing in Southeast Asia, right?

Maniam

Yes. I think we, very early on, and certainly that is the case today – we realized that we could not compete on the basis of pure cost competitiveness. The aim has never been to be cheaper than everyone else. The aim has been to provide a higher quality product that justifies higher expenditure. And that product might include the safety and security of the country. It would include the access to supporting corporate services that exist in our economic ecosystem – accounting, legal access, financial systems, so that when people come to us, whether they are large MNCs or global startups, they can be assured that they will have access to an ecosystem that is resilient and robust and will give them the kinds of support that they need for economic success.

And what we found is that this meant that people had to be much more interested in bringing their corporate headquarters to us. They needed to bring their R&D plants sometimes, if that was relevant. But if they wanted to do things that were highly labor intensive and highly land intensive, then those were probably not the best sorts of activities for us.

Meyer

Absolutely. But in the future, well, let me ask you about the future then. The whole world is interested to see what Singapore is going to do to evolve in this world. Do you have a next chapter sketched out for the future of work in Singapore?

Maniam

I do not know if I have a next chapter fully written. But certainly, I have sketches of what potential chapters might look like – so, scenarios, right, or alternative stories of what those futures might be. I think that the future that a lot of people fear is one where there is so much automation that human beings get replaced. I think it is a genuine fear that is going to affect a lot of us, but I think the far more interesting question to ask ourselves is what happens when we are able to work together with automating technology in ways that augment existing human talents and human capacities rather than substitute for it?

So, I am very much what I like to call a technology augmentationist rather than a technology substitutionist, because I think tech can actually change human beings in very, very positive ways that allow us to do work that was previously – it might have been work that we could not access or amounts of work that were previously deemed impossible, simply because we work together and are enhanced by, as well as we do the enhancing of that technology that is out there. So, I think autonomy and agency are going to be key.

Meyer

So, are there plans in the education system for helping people take advantage of their agency and autonomy?

Maniam

Absolutely. I mean, I would not even say they are plans. I think some of it has already been actualized. I mean, we have a whole agency that is been set up that we call SkillsFuture. And the SkillsFuture program is really all about helping Singaporeans to constantly be skilling themselves and finding ways to meet the demands of the workplace of the future – to ask themselves, what sort of work is out there around the corner, and how do we start preparing for it today? So, all that is already happening.

Meyer

Last question just for you, Aaron. Since World War II, governments, particularly in Europe, have thought of themselves as responsible for ensuring employment, that everyone has a job. Does Singapore think of government taking responsibility to ensure jobs for everybody, or is it investing so that employment becomes optional?

Maniam

That is a great question, and I think it is really a balance of both. In fact, what I think the key thing the government is trying to do is to ensure employability, right? To make sure that there is a set of skills and a core set of competencies that every person has, and that where those competencies and skills need to evolve and change, that they are also given the space to undertake that process. That change is always going to be frictional. It is going to be slightly scary for people and it is in that change process that I think government can support the individual’s transformation. It can make sure that the friction is minimized so that people at least embark on that whole process.

I do not think we can ensure employment if we accept that the workforce and the job market of the world is going to be deeply, deeply fluid. So, I do not think we can guarantee quantitative levels of employment, but what we can do is ensure that there is a sense of employability by everyone.

Meyer

Great. Thank you, Aaron. So, let us turn to Kevin.

Kevin, in some ways, it is hard to say that you ever had a job in the sense that most people in the West think of it, right? You have been all the time a combination of entrepreneur, public intellectual, sort of gadfly, starter of organizations. Would you say that you work?

Kelly

Yes. So, my definition of work is producing, creating, making.

Meyer

You wrote a book called The Inevitable, and you stated in there, “It is inevitable. Let the robots take our jobs and let them help us dream up new work that matters.” First of all, what makes this inevitable?

Kelly

Well, I think that what is inevitable is the fact that as we humans produce something, or make something, or create something, we understand how that particular thing or service is done, and we become bored with it and are eager to pass that on. It is no longer interesting to us. And those are the kinds of initial tasks that we are going to give to the machines. Efficiency is for machines. Anything that is efficient goes to the machines. And that then liberates us to invent new things that we want to do.

I think one of the maybe important ones for humans is that by and large, most of the things that we make and enjoy are collaborations at some scale. It is very, very rare we have a single person producing something other people use, and no one else is involved.

But most of the time, these are collaborations, and that is the new frontier, are all the new – thousands of new ways that we will be able to collaborate that we cannot right now, and ways that we can collaborate better than we already do, enabled by the technologies of collaboration.

Meyer

So, the second part of the quote is the machines will help us dream up new work that matters. Can you unpack that?

Kelly

Yes. So, I think part of the role of technology in the future in general is that it enables new opportunities that were not available before and gives us new ideas of things that we wanted. And so, I think the possibilities that technology creates gives us new dreams, new appetites, new things that we want, new things that become essentials and not just luxuries. And I think the coming technologies  among them, AI – are going to create this. So, we will have entirely new occupations, entirely new chores, entirely new careers based around appetites that we have not even identified yet.

Meyer

So, that leads us to a concept that EY calls super fluid markets, meaning super fluidity in physics means there is no friction, right? So that the costs of search and record-keeping, etc., go to zero because of the net. And you talk about markets with – I think your phrase was perfect search, total recall, planetary scope. One of the markets in the world is the labor market. So, would you foresee a super fluid market for skills?

Kelly

I do. And I think one of the key enabling technologies for that I think, could come in as little as five years, and maybe not more than 10 years. And that is a cheap, ubiquitous, very reliable real-time language translator. I think one of the major blocks right now for a true global super-conducting labor market is a language barrier. A really good translation system would suddenly open up doors to so many of the talented people in the world whose talents are not in learning English.

And I will make one caveat, which is, I do not want to ignore the virtues of face-to-face. I know many, many, many companies that have a completely remote being. But there is advantages in hanging around. We are humans in meat bodies, and we really, really crave other humans in the flesh.

Meyer

I think I heard you saying something that you could parse this way, that all of the communications technology has eliminated one barrier to working together, and that is distance; that another big barrier you put your finger on is language, and that may be the next one to fall.

I want to bring Aaron back, and I want to continue right on. You said the labor markets are going to be deeply fluid. At a slightly different level, if you can communicate, say, from Silicon Valley to coders in Indonesia, maybe well enough to explain what you want, what about a whole set of infrastructure things? Do you see the fluid labor markets as creating super national infrastructure for trading labor?

Maniam

I do not think there will necessarily be cause for that kind of global homogeneous super structure that you describe, only because I think there can be base standards. I think what we will end up seeing is much greater demand for geographical specificity and cultural and human specificity, rather than the sort of homogenization that you suggested.

Kelly

I would agree with that. I think there is going to be pushback. I think there is going to be friction in this process.

Meyer

Yes. So, we once had in companies, a 70-hour work week. And now, inside corporations, at least for many people, it is a 35-hour work week. Should corporations today still be investing to eliminate labor?

Kelly

You mean human labor?

Meyer

Sorry, yes. And so, if we take this trend from 70 to 35, and say, 15 years from now, we could have a five-hour work week on average, would that be a good thing?

Kelly

Yes. So, I think in that vision of five hours is that, what is everybody doing for the rest of the week? And I would not assume that there is no economic activity happening. It is just that it is not happening through the corporation. You are kind of limiting the scope of the question by talking about the corporation paying dollars out for a salary. But that, I think, becomes only part of the picture.

Maniam

I think the question you asked us assumes that there is a lump of labor, right? There is a finite amount of work that needs to be done.

Meyer

Yeah.

Maniam

And that if we automate some of that work away that there will be no work left. I am not sure that is the right way to look at work. And I think what we will find in these job markets and workplaces of the future is that as the automation happens, there will be new and other sets of meaningful activities that get created.

Meyer

So, I recognize neither of you has run a large corporation, but I would ask you, if you were sitting in that seat, what would you do as a company to get ready for this future?

Kelly

That is a good question. I do not think this future is coming next year. And so, the best that they can do is not be surprised by it. I would insist on paying attention to how the new companies that we are looking at to acquire are organized, seeing what is happening way beyond our borders, so that as things change, we are not surprised.

Meyer

Aaron, any thoughts?

Maniam

I would ask the company first of all to decide what is the company’s vocation? What is its reason for being? I suspect companies that are able to do that will actually be able to ride out lots of trends, whatever those shocks or surprises might be, because they will have really figured out the “why” in the activities that they do, and that “why” will help them navigate the source of volatilities and complexities that come about.

Meyer

If today, we have large organizations with jobs that do not add much value, and we imagine that there is a set of people who are not fit for high value-added jobs, how does society manage that?

Maniam

It suggests too much that somehow these people are at fault; that they owe it to themselves that they are in that sort of employment situation. But I think the realities that we know they face are much more complex than that. These are folks for whom poverty becomes a cycle that is very difficult to break out of.

And I think it is actually incumbent upon societies to make sure that we work at lifting up as many of them as we possibly can. Now, some of that can come from governments, right? And I think policy can work on emphasizing employability. But all of those ways in which we soften the economic disparities out there, that is how I think we actually deal with these problems.

Meyer

Kevin, some thoughts?

Kelly

I think we collectively as humans know how to, we know what the solution is. I mean, we know how to do it. We know, even in the US, we have a massive program for taking people who have very low skills and giving them high skills. It is called the US military. And we do it in large numbers very successfully. So, we kind of know collectively, we know how to do this. I think the reasons why it is not done are it is a will. It is a political will, which is very, very difficult to do, very messy. And it is going to be painful.

I think looking abroad and seeing how other places do it is actually one of the best things we can do right now in the US, is to lift our eyes out and understand that we are very parochial and should be paying more attention to how other peoples around the world arrange their lives, and taking inspiration from them.

Meyer

All right. We are going to do something that we have fun with on this podcast, which we call ping-pong. It is like a lightning round. I have one question, and I want you to each give three answers to it, alternating.

So, the question is, 10 years from now, how will work have changed?

Kelly

On average, not much.

Maniam

People will bring more of their whole selves into their jobs.

Meyer

Kevin, second one?

Kelly

Yes. More remote.

Maniam

Greater job autonomy for more people.

Meyer

Kevin, last one.

Kelly

More partnership with AIs.

Maniam

People will do fewer functions and be more involved in developing a portfolio of work.

Meyer

Great. Thank you both.

Kelly

My pleasure.

Maniam

That was awesome. Great fun. Thank you.

Abdel-Magied

I have to be honest. This conversation took a direction that surprised me. I thought we might hear more of the usual story. We will have low-skill work and high-skill work, and the divide will increase, and the middle-class will disappear, and no one knows what to do about it.

Meyer

Yes. Our guests shared a much more positive vision.

Abdel-Magied

So, boil it down for me.

Meyer

They do not seem to see a deep difference between using these tools and those we have been developing for the past 50 years to get our work done. The second big point, I would say, was to overturn a fundamental assumption about what people are doing when they are not working in the classical sense of being paid by someone else to do something you didn’t choose for yourself.

Abdel-Magied

The main question that came out for me was what about all the people who do not necessarily have a relationship with work that is about something they choose to do, but their relationship with work is that it is something they need to do in order to live.

Meyer

You know, I think overall, we have had 50 years in which the pendulum has swung toward power to investors, about where it was in 1900. And as it did later on in the Industrial Revolution, I think it is going to swing back toward labor again, because both talent is scarce, and the labor markets can be so much more efficient, matching talent with their needs.

So, for management, the challenge will be to learn to actually follow through on this opportunity. Companies say they want people to be entrepreneurial in their jobs, but they want them to be entrepreneurial in the context of the job they have been given.

Abdel-Magied

Totally!

Meyer

And then people like you show up and say, well, I do not think that is my job. I want to do this. And they say –

Abdel-Magied

Oh my god.

Meyer

Right. Exactly. Millennials. What a pain.

Abdel-Magied

The millennials. You have described every conversation with a corporate that I have ever had.

Meyer

Right. And that points to the biggest implication for C-suite management. For the increased expectations of scarce talent to be met, companies are going to have to consider how the gains from new technology get distributed. There should in fact be plenty to go around, as we discussed during our episode on artificial intelligence.

Abdel-Magied

It was really nice to hear a hopeful tone, but I am going to be honest. I am a little skeptical, and by a little, I mean hugely, simply because the way that I see trends at the moment is that monopolies around technology companies and monopolies around the way we do things and the barriers to entry are becoming higher and higher.

I grew up in a very different strata of society than the one that I inhabit at the moment. And I sometimes look around and I think, where are the people that I grew up with? And not all of them have made the same journey that I have, that I feel really fortunate and grateful to have. And so, while we get excited, we also need to make sure that the laws and the incentives and the structures that are there to make life better for everyone remain focused on that goal.

Meyer

Absolutely, we do. The point that I am trying to get to is that the changes happening today in the way work gets done are going to lead to a whole new set of social arrangements about how value is created and distributed, and it is certainly not going to take 40 years. We are seeing them already.

Abdel-Magied

It is an exciting time to be alive. Chris, tell me, what about the listener in the C-suite? What are the three questions they should ask to help get through What’s after what’s next?

Meyer

First, how engaged are your workers today? How many would stay with you if they did not have to work to eat? What would change their minds about the attractiveness of working with you? What would change their minds about the attractiveness of collaborating with you?

Second, will the transformation projects you are undertaking today make working with you more attractive or less? Think about it. Would you yourself take a job with your company after it is transformed?

How will you engage with the labor markets in the future, when people with skills have lots of options, not only in where they work, but how, for how long? How will you manage to get the work of the company done?

Most people are asking whether we will have enough jobs. Our guests suggest that that will be up to us, that the better question is: How will personal purpose shape the future of work?

And on our next episode, we will be speaking to two experts on how we change behavior.

Seth Godin is probably the best-known marketer on the planet. And we will speak with EYQ Global Fellow neuroscientist Tali Sharot, a professor at MIT and University College London. Maybe we will get some insight into how people with different values will learn to work with one another.

Abdel-Magied

And that concludes today’s episode of The Better Question. For more on this subject, visit ey.com.

If you would like to share your better question with us, leave a review.

I am Yassmin Abdel-Magied. The better the question, the better the answer, the better the world works. Until next time.

Disclaimer: The views of third parties set out in this publication are not necessarily the views of the global EY organization or its member firms. Moreover, they should be seen in the context of the time they were made.