The Future of Work? People.


It's been a while now since the hot topic around has become "the future of work." Digital is gone, economic crisis is gone, (lean) startups are gone, and we're now collectively thinking about what work itself will look like in 10 or 20 years from now.

The question seems to be "what factors will drive change in the way we perceive and live work in our near future?" Will it be the Internet of Things? The new flat, bossless, or liquid organizational models? The peer-to-peer / platform / sharing economy? Maybe algorithms and/or artificial intelligence, mostly?

The list of possible factors goes on. Discussions have a few very good insights and a lot of buzz. Same old story. Let me reframe the problem here, though. What elements external to humanity itself have ever driven change in the history of mankind?


All these factors that I hear mentioned, studied and dissected, are "tools" we've devised and developed to extend our capabilities into the world. To evolve. They are media, in the sense Marshall McLuhan meant the word: the extensions of man. They are all technologies in the way Clayton M. Christensen meant the word, that have always been crafted and then disrupted and always will be.

Generation after generation we devise and create what we need in order to evolve as a whole, as an adaptive system. We extend our bodies and consciousness in order to fly, to compute, to communicate, to be faster, to reach further, and so on. Good or bad is not of interest here. This is just how it works. Maybe a technological singularity will change this. Maybe. But in the meanwhile, and since mankind was born, this is what we do.

I recognize four layers in human systems as basic components, each one built on the previous and also back-feeding to the previous. They are continuously evolving, and in understanding their current status we can have some grasp of how the future we're evolving into looks like. They are, from bottom to top: people, culture, competences, tools and processes.


Analyzing how this "sketch" of a human system works stretches beyond the scope of this post. Nevertheless one thing is key: the amount of discussions I hear about "the future of work" is inversely proportional to the depth in this four layers model. In other words, a lot of people are talking about new technologies, tools and processes. Many are talking about new competences. A few are talking about the evolution in culture. And just a handful are focusing on the evolution of people.

All of this is ok, of course. Buzz and trends are one of our anthropological means to implement stigmergy. Conversations about what's happening in the world transfer information to people and countries about where to move next together. But as a human system evolves and all the four layers evolve together, the upper ones are faster to change, they have less change inertia. While the bottom ones need more time to ripen. They are the ones that grant continuity and allow for identity to stabilize.

Now, in times of concentrated change like the one we're living through, if you focus on tools and processes, you'll be observing the results of a change in people that has happened yesterday. It is now reaching the surface and quickly generating new tools and processes, but it has already happened. It is, at best, the present of work. It might not be mainstream yet in some aspects, but from a systemic point of view, it is already all here.

If you want to really have some sound insight of what the future of work holds, you have to look into people. Observe the children in your family, look at the elders, travel and talk to people from different lands and cultures. What is it that makes them tick? What are the problems that bother them most? What are they looking for? And how all of this is different from what you would have observed 20 or 40 years ago?

You'll definitely notice that many things have essentially not changed. From this perspective change is much more focused, indeed. And you will notice a few root areas where things are changing, where the evolution is at work, and that will blossom into the competencies, tools and processes needed tomorrow in our world (of work).

Here follows what I see. But I'd really love to hear from all of you, to put our observations together.

  1. Complexity is reality. It's clear to (almost) everybody today that complexity and variability are back to their full strength, after a century of mechanistic illusion of control and stability. People do not want "experts" telling them how to deal with complexity by technical models and theories. They live complexity as part of life, they always have. And they now want work environments that allow it to be expressed and "surfed", without the frustration that comes from strict planning plus command-and-control industrial-age approaches.

  • Work is (part of) life. Our work must be balanced with all the other important activities of life. There is no such thing as "work-life balance." Thus we need our work to be aligned with our identity and values, just as all the other important activities in our lives. Moreover, our time is precious, and the present moment is un-wastable. There is a strong desire to live it in-depth and with full meaning.
  • Tools must be means, not goals. Money, institutions, digital technologies are all examples of "tools" that in the last two centuries have progressively become social goals in many different ways. This has provoked severe identity and happiness problems both on the collective and on the individual levels. These tools now need to be put back in the right perspective, and in some cases even completely re-designed, to revert back to being just a useful means for our collective and individual evolution.
  • Work is not a place. We have broken free from the factory-employee approach. In the era of knowledge and creativity the value of work is produced through interactions, contamination, exchange. And, accidentally, so is also most of the personal value within our lives. People want to be able to move, to use their feet to go and meet other people, different perspectives, outdoor horizons, valuable creation spaces. This is key to fulfill a basic human need: the need for passion.
  • We are much more than rationality. People knew it way before neuroscience proved it, but now it is also proven and understood by science. Emotions, intuition, creativity, inspiration, playfulness, are important parts of our being, together with our "cortical brain" rationality. They need to be expressed and cultivated in order for each of us to thrive. And they are key at work for tapping into each person's full potential, and into the multiplied power of co-creation and collective intelligence.
  • Purpose and meaning are core. Having set profit and power as central goals of most human institutions, both formally and informally, has proven being a devastating choice. This is a fact that in the last decades has been massively recognized by most people in the world. There is now a strong determination to put purpose and meaning at the center of our institutions at all scales, and to have formal structures serve and enable them, instead of the other way around.
  • We are a unique whole. From the first step of intellectually understanding that we are interdependent beings belonging to the same "family", mankind is now moving into realizing that our individuality is the explicated manifestation of an implicated whole. We are one. This awareness changes everything, from social and environmental actions to the deep understanding of love and fear. For sure it will change the future of work too, at the very least.
  • Stelio Verzera is a curious and active contributor to the global community evolving the concept and practice of work in this decade. If you'd like to know more about him, start here. Other blog posts by Stelio are here. Credits: thanks Dawna Jones for precious editing support, and Steven Zwerink for the header image.

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