A Working Future

Returning to the plan to write a book on the future of work


A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.

| Neil Gaiman


Over the past ten years, I have planned — and started writing — several different books on the future of work. Because of time conflicts, changes in work situations, and other entanglements, those projects were shelved. I had written manifestos or preambles for those projects, elaborated outlines, and in one case I had even secured a publishing deal.

I have, however, managed to continue writing the Work Futures newsletter since the start of 2017. So I have decided to take another run at a book, once that I might be able to accomplish, integrated into Work Futures. The new project, which I am calling A Working Future, will be accessible only to paid subscribers. Other free materials will continue to flow but the book project’s materials will be placed behind the paywall.

The tack is that I will write one essay a month, each issue on one of the many topics that have attracted my interest over the past years. At some point, after a dozen or so are written, I will turn it into a published work, either by self-publishing or through a publishing house.

I hope the community of subscribers will offer their thoughts and feedback along the way, which will make the project a shared experience, and improve the final product. For example, I will be sharing a survey on themes related to A Working Future soon.

The first installment will be coming in the near future. Expect other subscriber-only extras to be coming soon, as well.

I liked the angle I had taken in one of these pitches, and I think it’s a proxy for my feelings, today:

I won’t be laying out a logical, consistent, well-considered and footnoted argument for a new way of work, with all the reasons why standing up in sequence like a domino show, just waiting for the reader to push the first one over. That approach, which I now reject, implies that if we just convince enough people to make enough changes in themselves, their teams, and their businesses, then — once all the dominoes have fallen — we will find ourselves in a new world of work.

Now, instead of pretending to be a grand architect — or sorcerer — that can design or conjure a new way of work into existence with a few thousand well-chosen domino-shaped words, I’ve decided to bail on that sort of writing project. Perhaps I’m not enough of a charlatan to pull it off, or, to be more charitable and self-aware, I just don’t have it in me to write a book that I might not really want to read.

Expect me to be turning over rocks related to the impacts of gig economy platforms, behavioral psychology of the workplace, complexity economics, and the emerging landscape of the post-pandemic way of working. I’m more interested in capturing the tensions and transitions we are confronted with than characterizing a perfect form of business organization, telling others how to become better leaders or followers, or acting like I have all the answers. I’m really only good at asking questions.

That’s one of the messages of A Working Future: we will have to spend more time working on the questions, before the answers become visible, or even knowable.

:::

Elsewhere

The 5 worst Super Bowl commercials, from Dolly Parton’s betrayal to that awkward Oatly jingle | Maura Judkis and Sonia Rao consider Dolly Parton's participation in the Super Bowl ad for Squarespace a betrayal of what the original 9 to 5 movie stood for:

But it’s the message of this commercial that falls flat: that people should be working their 9 to 5, and then working a second shift on their side hustles from 5 to 9. “Gonna change your life, do something that gives it meaning!” sings Dolly, in her updated lyrics. But for many people this year, side hustles aren’t the topiary-sculpting/cake-baking/furniture-building passion projects the commercial depicts. Those are the types of businesses that have been struggling during the coronavirus pandemic — and side hustles tend to be uncreative, app-based gig work that’s even bleaker than the day job this commercial depicts. Besides, that job probably has health insurance! Kind of important right now! Anyway, there’s also something craven about encouraging people to work harder and longer hours during a freakin’ pandemic. We’re all exhausted, Dolly!

The cult of overwork is everywhere.

Is the gig up? | Theodore Kinni reviews a recent book by economist Juliet Schor, After The Gig. The bottom line:

With some exceptions, our data suggest that being dependent on a platform is not a viable way to make a living.

Her research shows that those most reliant on gig work for their baseline income fare the worst: those who don’t need the money do alright. It should only be an adjunct to a real job.

Kinni goes on:

Still, Schor, an economist by training, isn’t ready to give up on the potential of the gig economy. In the final chapter of After the Gig, she mostly dismisses the idea that regulation can pave the way for a sharing economy in which gig workers get an equitable share of the rewards, citing the overwhelming market power of the dominant platform companies and their unwillingness to relinquish their data. Instead, she proposes a rebooting of the sharing economy through the development of platform cooperatives — picture an Uber or Airbnb that is owned and controlled by its workers.

Schor points to Stocksy United, a platform owned by the photographers who sell their images on it, as an example of such a business. The photographers make all the major decisions concerning the platform, and hire staff to run day-to-day operations. They also earn more on the platform than on other photo sites because founders and investors aren’t siphoning off a third or more of its revenues, as is common on other sites. (Reportedly, the co-op’s annual revenue in 2018 was US$11–$12 million.) “While Stocksy isn’t perfect,” writes Schor, “it is a genuine success story — with satisfied artists, strong revenue and growth, and commitment to its values.”

But how to compete against VC-backed platforms that can operate unprofitably for years, and which are designed to eventually destabilize normal economics and then siphon off all the profits in a winner-takes-all economy? Why doesn’t New York City — or any municipality — create its own Uber as a platform cooperative, owned by the drivers?

France to Scrap Law Banning Desk Lunches | Roger Cohen tolls the bell for a shift in policy and culture in France:

Eating habits are as good a guide to France as any, and they are about to undergo a radical change.

The Labor Ministry says it will allow French employees to eat lunch at their desks in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, a practice previously forbidden under Article R.4428-19 of the 3,324-page French labor code, or Code du Travail.

French eating habits have already been sorely tested by the pandemic. A 6 p.m. curfew prevents the pre-dinner stop at the boulangerie or the butcher, and the closure of all cafes and restaurants has propelled takeout in the form of “le click & collect” — an English expression the French have adopted. It has been a case of one indignity after another.

A spokeswoman for the Labor Ministry said a decree opening the way for another sharp lifestyle adjustment would be made public in the next few days with a view to limiting employees’ exposure to Covid-19. Companies have up to now been barred from “allowing workers to have their meals in places dedicated to work.”

Just another concession to the pandemic, although it's unclear — according to Cohen — whether all French workers were abstaining from eating at their desks, even before the coronavirus appeared.

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