The drivers of this imagines change, unsurprisingly for two science fiction writers, were technological advances – the increased levels of automation, the use of computers and robots, synthetic production replacing harvesting of raw materials, and world peace (yes you read that right). Basically, I’m paraphrasing, everyone would be able to just chill out a bit.
From a technology point of view what has happened has outstripped the predictions of futurists and science fiction authors of 20 years ago. The ‘portable computers’ they predicted are so portable they are on our wrists and capable of more than they imagined. Synthetic production of replacement raw materials has indeed gone from strength to strength (think fibreglass instead of metal and 3D printing where more energy-intensive moulding may have been). Although synthetic meat was not on most people’s list!
Technology has done its bit, and on the whole, the trajectory is playing out. But we were promised a future where everyone got a fairer share, leisure time expanded in line with technology and we should be spending more time working anywhere in the world sipping Mai Tais. So what went wrong?
We haven’t seen world peace. We have almost boundless greed for increasingly sophisticated devices and more elaborate ways to spend our leisure. Wealth gathers in the top 1%, who own 43% of all the world’s money. We are creatures of habit, unable to make fundamental and desirable changes to how we work without the huge intervention of a global pandemic. And let’s not forget that anything we say in the developed world doesn’t apply to about a 3rd of the world who live in extreme poverty.
But in the developed world, where technology is as ready to aid as it’s ever been, the possibility of a life of leisure seems teasingly always out of reach. An invisible hand slowly moving alife of comfort just inches away from our fingers. Partly due to how we have chosen to use technology.
Despite not quite getting there yet for most people the world is waking up and talent-savvy companies need to get ahead of the curve:
67% of people feel more productive following a vacation (even though many checked their emails whilst away) (2014)
9 out of 10 people want to continue to work from home in some capacity (2020)
Many German companies are banning email outside of work, and French firm ATOS’ chief exec claimed employees were ‘wasting their lives’ on emails
Looking through the research, particularly some of the older work (we are talking 2000-2010) the assumption remains that work is sort of 9-5 and it destroys the family when it isn’t that way.
But my informed view of this is it’s all about the psychological contract. If the deal (maybe even the employment contract) says 37 hours per week then going beyond that feels like you are being ‘taken from’. What if the explicit deal was to ‘get X done however you like’. By extension, the contract with families and friends was, ‘I may need to work in 20% of our ‘vacation time’ but will always be available from 3 pm to pick the kids up and only work a max of 3-4 days in the week’.
The point is that we, leaders, businesses, society are so used to having something one way we stumble through progress and point out the issues to try and keep the brakes on. Humans have a tendency to run away from the bright light of change and cower of the cave of familiarity. This tendency is as likely for young CEOs as it is for elderly grandparents – the threats are just different.
When we are at work, it has long been the biggest cause of non-event stress (i.e day to day stress). In developed economies, we shouldn’t accept this. We need to understand fundamental issues such as:
Why does work feel so different from leisure?
What are the trends with working hours?
How likely is it that you can genuinely do what you love?
What design of work-life is most conducive to the flourishing of the individual and communities?
How can businesses benefit from being more human?
As leaders, we need to understand the value of better work/life integration to business, individuals and society and make distinct strides in the right direction. This is very different from having talks on mental health and yoga sessions at lunch. Progress is the enemy of change.
All of the above questions will be answered within the other parts of this article and shared over the coming weeks. But I also wonder if with all the leisure time expanding we aren’t going to just need more people working long hours on things that aren’t as easy to shortcut with the latest AI and robotics – who will make all the Mai Tais?
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