Reinventing Work in the 21st Century

“Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart, give yourself to it” ~ Buddha

The job, as we knew it, is dead. That’s from Eamon Kelly of Global Business Network. I agree: we need to find new ways to think and talk about work.

The concept of the job was one of the stickiest ideas of the 20th century. Essentially invented by Henry Ford and other industrialists, the job gradually became synonymous with the timeless concept of toil. A job was not necessarily fun. It did not have to be rewarding. You put in your time and you got paid. Jobs were for life. Jobs were acquired, learned and performed until we retired. Obviously, those ideas are no longe aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar valid.

Consequently, we need to change expectations, and better prepare our young people for the new world. Let’s look at two real-life examples. On one hand, take a bright graduate from IIT or IIM. Tell him that he has to earn a living, but he cannot take a full-time job. What are his or her chances of success?

Is that new graduate prepared to make his or her way without the prospect of traditional employment? In contrast, take a kid who may have failed SSC or HSC but has spent time behind the cash-counter of his or her father’s kirana shop. That kid is more likely to have the basic skills and mindset to be an entrepreneur or independent contractor or freelancer – and be better suited to survive in the new world where jobs are going the way of the dinosaurs.

The 21st century requires people who are useful, not just employable. Charles Handy came up with the idea of an inverted doughnut: the company’s core activities represent the doughnut and the hole represents various partners. Companies and governments are becoming flexible and agile by concentrating on their core activities and outsourcing the rest. It’s like when you build a web site: Put up what you do best, and link to the rest. Organizations today demand specialized partners who are experts in their own fields and are able to collaborate and co-create innovative outcomes.

Work, whether in a company or outside, demands far more creativity and mastery than traditional jobs. Fitting in, and delivering incremental improvements, is no longer good enough. Studies show that more than half the workers that UK companies use are not traditional employees. This trend is going to continue all over the world. Even if you are indeed an employee with a job description and set hours and a salary and benefits, today’s employer still expects you to be entrepreneurial. You are expected to come up with ideas and take initiative. Individuals need to step out of their comfort zones.

In the past, a degree from a reputed college was likely to guarantee life-long success. Now, this is at best just an entry permit – not a green card. Professionals and managers in the 21st century must constantly challenge their team members and themselves to deliver more with less. They need to take responsibility not only for outputs, but also for outcomes. In order to do so, they need the commitment and access to continuous learning. The 21st century worker is a perpetual learner, eager collaborator and a committed contributor.

We need to recognize that India, having skipped the Industrial Age, has always been different. Fewer than 6 percent of the 500 million workers in India are employed in the organized sector. Most of those employed are in the government or public sector. Close to 60 percent of Indian workers are in agriculture – mostly due to lack of alternate employment. Schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee program touch only around 10 percent of this segment.

How, then, do we empower and equip the Indian worker to be productive and gainfully employed in the 21st century?

First, we need to recognize that with 60% of our population in rural areas, we need to create employment opportunities closer to home for our youth. The 21st century is likely to see the emergence of the ‘Deep Economy’ as Bill McKibben calls it – the self sufficient village economy that Gandhi envisioned.

A cluster of villages produces food, goods and services largely based on local resources. Those local products and services are mosbbbbbbbbbbbtly consumed locally, reducing the need to pollute the environment with unnecessary transportation. Our governments – from local to regional to national – need to support this local economy with better village infrastructure and connectivity. One place to start would be to empower the Panchayats with adequate powers and funds.

Second, educational and research institutions need to focus on creating and supporting designers and innovators creating appropriate technologies based on renewable materials and energy sources. The focus needs to shift from using our educational degrees as passports to high-paying, investment banking type jobs. Instead, we need to focus on encouraging graduates perform meaningful work in their own chosen disciplines.

Third, private enterprise and public-private partnerships must provide all workers with just-in-time training in specific areas of work. We need to give people the chance to re-train themselves in new and emerging areas of work. Most people are going to be either self-employed or work in small organizations; basic business and financial skills should be imparted starting in school and continuing until joining the work force – and beyond.

Fourth, banks and financial institutions should probably operate through local front-end organizations to provide financial, accounting and other logistical support to small businesses. These front-end organizations would be both local and industry-specific to provide effective service to the businesses.

The Next Age – what I call the Connected Age – is likely to see a massive shift in the nature of corporations and, more importantly, the nature of work. Forget the Industrial Age paradigm of spending your whole life in a dull, meaningless job that employs only a part of you. Forget chasing a career that stresses you out. The children of tomorrow are likely to have the opportunity to pursue their true calling, looking at work as a means to fulfill one’s own dreams and making an impact on the world around us.

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