Who Owns Work, and Its Future?

An essay in the A Working Future series on the present and future of work

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times

Update 2021-03-29 — I have been reviewing earlier essays that I penned in various other book-writing efforts, and I am drawing my subscribers’ attention to them as I coordinate my thinking toward 2021’s A Working Future.

This essay — in a revamped version — is likely to form one of the introductory essays in A Working Future.


Here, at the outset of writing an on-going series of essays on the future of work, called A Working Future, I want to frame the discussion around work in an uncommon way. Specifically, I won’t be advancing an argument about some list of hifalutin principles or aspirational goals, which, if adopted universally would miraculously resolve any and all friction or dissatisfaction at work, make us more productive, and end gender, racial, and age bias across the board.

Neither will I pull out of my hat a tightly-crafted metaphor that miraculously provides deep and useful insight into the knotted difficulties that unite and divide the worker, the workforce, and the company: the organization as a city, for example, or the workforce as an orchestra. Metaphors can sometimes help, but they are slippery and rely on magical thinking, and for once I will try to put conjuring to one side.

Instead, I will take a different tack and consider work and its future as a large-scale social problem, something like poverty, illegal immigration, or global climate change¹. We don’t usually think of it that way, but perhaps we should. And like other problems, it’s reasonable to ask ‘who owns it?’

We have become inured to a world dominated by work, but as with homelessness, poverty, and injustice, we have learned to look away. In the case of work, however, we are looking away from ourselves.

For the individual, work is at best an accommodation to the pressing need to provide for ourselves, and that can provide the wherewithal to pursue happiness. At the worst, it is a global system that requires the majority of adults worldwide to dedicate a large chunk of their waking hours to demanding bosses, harrowing commutes, stressful and dangerous workplaces, and often tedious, repetitive, and unrelenting labor.

We have become inured to a world dominated by work, but as with homelessness, poverty, and injustice, we have learned to look away. In the case of work, however, we are looking away from ourselves.

Wicked Problems

Just as with those other social ills, I believe work falls into the category of ‘wicked problems’, a term introduced by C. West Churchman, Horst Wittel, and Melvin Webber in various articles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

John Camillus contrasted wicked problems from ‘tame’ ones:

A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer.

I’ll expand on the idea of work as a wicked problem in the next section.

By work I intend the full gamut of meanings and their interrelation:

  • a person’s job or occupation (My work involves a lot of long nights, generally on the docks.)

  • the place where we apply our labor (She’s not home yet, she’s finishing a report at work.)

  • the shared effort of a group to achieve a result (This project won’t complete itself. Let’s get to work.)

  • the result of labor, the product or end state (The pre-industrial clothing industry relied on piecework, rather than mass production.)

I positioned my essay as being about the ownership of work, and its future. By that I mean who gets to steer the discussion, who decides who gets to speak, and who decides what is within the bounds of legitimate discourse about work. Let’s examine some of those closest to the issue to see if we can determine who among them has a claim to owning work:

  • Is work principally an attribute of the individual, the person that commutes to work (the place), works all day (the job), works closely with their team (the collective), in order to get the work out the door (the product)?

  • Or is work defined, shaped, and by extension, owned by the business owner that employs people and controls the ‘means of production’?

  • Is work alternatively a negotiated or emergent property of the team, the workforce, or the network of networks that animate a corporation?

  • Or is work actually just a means to an end, energy expended to get a product to the marketplace, where its meaning and value are defined, controlled, and therefore owned by the market, the eventual customers of the products and services provided?


Are there some overarching principles or even a means of understanding this mess, which in general forms the unexamined foundation of our thinking and talking about work? Perhaps.


In a sense, all of these alternatives are possibly right, at least from the perspective and interests of the various actors mentioned: the individual worker, the business owner, the workforce, or the market. And we shouldn’t ignore the larger realm of actors like governments at various levels and in various forms, institutions like unions, and even the treaties and trade agreements between nations, like NAFTA and the European Union. All of these actors play a part in the messy world of work, today, and in the future. They play together or in opposition and at times, both. And all have some obvious claims of what the courts call ‘standing’, meaning they are legitimately involved in the problem area since they can be harmed by actions taken by others.

How can we balance the needs, wants, and perquisites of these various players, which are simultaneously pursuing their own interests, while interrelated by convention, law, contracts, and both common and cross-purposes? Are there some overarching principles or even a means of understanding this mess, which in general forms the unexamined foundation of our thinking and talking about work? Perhaps.

The Polycentric World

The economists Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, and their colleagues² advanced the ideal notion of polycentric governance, where complex issues in modern-day societies may best be governed through a general system of rules intended to mutually order the relationships of multiple independent actors.

The world of work in the greatest, most expansive sense, can be considered a network of relationships between various interest groups, as discussed above, all of which are operating at various ‘levels’. A business operates at the day-to-day level, selling products, buying parts, hiring and paying workers, paying taxes, and so on. At another level, though, the business is operating in concert with others — other businesses, business organizations — as well as attempting to influence the determination of issues critical to the business leaders’ and owners’ interests. So the Burger King franchisee pays dues to the Chamber of Commerce to fight against unionization, and the Burger King corporation and executives provide campaign contributions to political candidates that will fight against corporations being considered a ‘joint employer’ of franchisee’s workers. The unions, the courts, elected officials, the workers, the academics, the observers… all are connected.

These points may seem obvious. But when we wander into the universe of discourse about work, there does not seem to be any real efforts to broker a system of rules between the many parties that would allow us to contend with the wicked problem that is work. And so, when we are threatened by a destabilizing event or trend — like AI’s potential to create joblessness — the likelihood of damage to society, business, and the workforce is higher than it might be.

In a more rational USA, we might have a federal government with panels made up of members of the various constituencies charged with looking into an issue like AI’s possible impact on joblessness. But today, instead, our national discourse on this and other topics is more like the war on the ground in Syria: all struggling against all, and no rapprochement in sight.

If we are to get somewhere, let’s start by trying to understanding the mixture of wicked problems in a polycentric world.

Work as a Wicked, and Polycentric, Problem

Horst Wittel and Melvin Webber boiled down the definition of wicked problems to ten characteristics. I’ve taken the liberty of interpolating commentary about the problem of work.

1 — There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. It’s not possible to write a well-defined statement of the problem, as can be done with an ordinary problem.

This essay is itself an inadequate attempt to create a defined, neatly-boundaried area of discourse about work, but I concede that my effort is inherently flawed. This essay could be made ‘better’ in some sense, but the shifting dynamics involved with the myriad actors, institutions, and interest groups means that such a description can never be complete, and the inherent contention of the many worldviews means that it is even difficult for the different parties to talk each other about work.


The polycentric world leads to no center, no concurrence, no convergence. Every week, another burlap sack full of angry weasels.


Thomas Kuhn, in his groundbreaking work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, discussed a closely related topic, which he called incommensurability. The idea — despite its cascade of syllables — simply means that during the shift from a dominant scientific paradigm to another, revolutionary paradigm, the traditionalists and revolutionaries are ‘talking past each other’: their worldviews have diverged to such a great extent each group may find it impossible to understand the perspective of the other. They are speaking mutually unintelligible languages, for all intents and purposes. And, as a result, neither side can create an impartial, shared view in which neutral comparisons can be formulated, or as he said,

Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing science and its problems, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs.

Kuhn’s theory has many detractors. I will not summarize their arguments here, but let us simply say his thesis is not universally accepted. However, the underlying tension of scientific inquiry leading to contention and the difficulties involved in finding a common language to effectively share a common understanding is less controversial.

2 — Wicked problems have no stopping rule. You can tell when you’ve reached a solution with an ordinary problem. With a wicked problem, the search for solutions never stops.

The resolution of the myriad tensions within work will never be settled, as with these examples from the front page of the newspapers:

  • As soon as a new court case leads to questions about the classification of Uber drivers as independent contractors, Uber moves to challenge drivers’ rights to collective bargaining.

  • The $15 dollar minimum wage movement makes some headway in progressive urban settings, leading to Republican-controlled state legislatures passing laws to constrain cities’ legal right to set wage minimums.

These disputes demonstrate the degree of divergence in perspective of the various parties, and the polycentric nature of the infighting involved, with unions, workers, courts, legislatures, and businesses all contending for the upper hand or ‘getting a fair deal’, depending on which side of the table you’re on.

There is no steady state, no permanent equilibrium, just an ongoing multiparty vying for legitimacy, leverage, and advantage.

3 — Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad. Ordinary problems have solutions that can be objectively evaluated as right or wrong. Choosing a solution to a wicked problem is largely a matter of judgment.

Travis Kalanick — and presumably the members of Uber’s board, and a large group of the entrepreneurial community that is all in on ‘work platforms’ like Uber, Lyft, and Task Rabbit — would judge as bad any court decision that affirms Uber drivers’ claims as being misclassified employees.

The entire premise of the Uber disruption of traditional taxi and transport markets is to externalize the expenses associated with drivers, like salaries, taxes, insurance, and cars. They would frame it as allowing the drivers to become ‘entrepreneurs’, as independent contractors. But some judges are starting to disagree since the burden of those expenses then fall on the drivers, and society as a whole. From that perspective, Uber is a getting a free ride.

Who gets to define what good is? Good for who?

4 — There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. It’s possible to determine right away if a solution to an ordinary problem is working. But solutions to wicked problems generate unexpected consequences over time, making it difficult to measure their effectiveness.

How will we know that raising minimum wages — so that those working 40 hours per week at minimum wage are living above the poverty line — is a good thing? Even if we were to enact such a law nationwide so many other factors would be impacted that it would be impossible to determine that a new minimum was the real and primary cause of the new state of affairs.

5 — Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot” operation; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly. Solutions to ordinary problems can be easily tried and abandoned. With wicked problems, every implemented solution has consequences that cannot be undone.

The dissolution of the former implicit long-term contract between employee and employer took place over several decades in the US, a cascade of lost benefits, growing inequality, and an increasingly precarious economic footing for the average worker. Now that we see what has been lost, we might wish to go back in time and make different decisions. But there does not seem to be a way to unwind what has happened, even if all involved would like to do so, and they just don’t.

Witness the fact that Emmanuel Macron is trying hard to unwind job protections in France in the name of ‘flexibility’ and ‘growth’, and is being cheered by neoliberal businesses and economists, while the labor movement is preparing for strikes. If he undoes decades of labor protections, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle in the next election if things go badly.

6 — Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. Ordinary problems come with a limited set of potential solutions, by contrast.

Where is the playbook for dealing with the new economics or labor infringements of the Uberization of work? It’s not clear at all how we should respond to these new challenges.

We are operating in unknown territory.

7 — Every wicked problem is essentially unique. An ordinary problem belongs to a class of similar problems that are all solved in the same way.A wicked problem is substantially without precedent; experience does not help you address it.

Consider the case of AI and the potential for widespread joblessness. How are we — our society, our polity, our companies — supposed to act? There aren’t any great templates from the past to apply, as nothing quite like AI has come along before. There is no real precedent and attempting to draw analogies from earlier technological breakthroughs, like steam power or ordinary computing technology, may be a dangerous mistake.

8 — Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. While an ordinary problem is self-contained, a wicked problem is entwined with other problems. However, those problems don’t have one root cause.

We can’t separate trends that are happening at the same time as being independent, and we can’t be certain what takes precedence. Are work platforms the newest manifestation of the broken social contract, a sibling problem to widespread inequality? Is the rise of AI and the job displacement it’s causing just a new way of offshoring work, except now we’re offshoring it to robots and artificials, and to self-driving trucks and driverless drones?

9 — The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. A wicked problem involves many stakeholders, who all will have different ideas about what the problem really is and what its causes are.

In the course of a week, I can read hundreds of news stories, op-ed pieces, and academic reports on the connections between AI and work, and I will find dozens of contending ways of framing the situation, and an equal number of recommendations for policy positions, technological decisions, and societal adaptations. The polycentric world leads to no center, no concurrence, no convergence. Every week, another burlap sack full of angry weasels.

10 — The planner has no right to be wrong. Problem solvers dealing with a wicked issue are held liable for the consequences of any actions they take, because those actions will have such a large impact and are hard to justify.

I recently wrote a post explaining the reaction of attendees to conferences where I speak about the future of work. Many people dislike thinking too much about the future. Some actively hate future sketches that run counter to what they would like to occur, or what they believe will occur. They will actively deny facts — like hedge funds laying off quants as control of investment decisions are being handed over to artificials — in order to conserve their images of the future. And some will hate the people who are creating these sketches.

The first consequence of being a ‘planner’ — someone who is actively taking a role in the discussion about work — is that we will be held responsible for the unease we cause.

And relatively quickly, those that are angry about the confrontational aspects of work futures will ask the final question: whose views about work are legitimate?

Who Gets to Ask These Questions?

I started out by asking ‘Who owns work?’, but will close with the prequel to that question: Who gets to ask these questions? Who gets to say our problem is wicked?

And the related questions: What to do when some actors assert that others should have no say, that business owners can compel workers to accept their worldview or else, that state legislatures can overrule cities, when media can decide which commentators are legitimate, and who isn’t?

The answer is that there is no single answer. This is a fractal, so every part of the wicked problem and every niche of the polycentric world it exists within is both wicked and polycentric, too. This is not a Gordian knot, a tame problem that can be solved with a single stroke of Alexander’s sword. We are stuck. We’ll have to deal with it, and all the forces converging on this space.

We will need to push and shove, elbow and cajole, picket and march: there are no shortcuts, no utopian dawn where all rancor and opposition will be put aside, no beating our weapons into plowshares.

As I said at the outset, this essay is doomed to be unequal to the task of creating some perfect shared understanding of the world of work. It fails on many levels: it’s not comprehensive, does not provide enough details to allow readers to compare pros and cons, and it lacks a solid list of conclusions or takeaways.

But I have asked some important questions, and if I have only made it clear that work has more in common with social ills than social good, perhaps I have accomplished something.

Work is a wicked problem — a snarl of dilemmas, not a list of initiatives — and the whole world and all its actors are fighting to control it, bend it, contain it: in short, to own it.

We won’t get to ‘solve’ work, but we can push in a certain direction, even though we can’t be sure of our success since we are living inside a wicked problem. And it may be even worse than that. Kelly Levin, Benjamin Cashore, Graeme Auld, and Steven Bernstein suggested that there is a class of ‘super wicked problems’ in which work seems to fit, that have some additional characteristics:

  1. Time is running out.

  2. No central authority.

  3. Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.

  4. Policies discount the future irrationally.

Exactly.


Footnotes

See Beneath and Beyond Corporate Culture, in the A Working Future series.

  1. David Thompson and Michelle Shevin convened a small group in New York City recently to discuss the complexity of organizations, and suggesting they are wicked problems. See Wicked is the New Normal: Unifying Languages and Methodologies for Navigating Complex Problems for the thinking involved. The event was named Wicked Is the New Normal. This essay is motivated by that discussion and some work before and since.

  2. Vincent Ostrom, Charles Tiebout, and Robert Warren (1961), The Organization of Government in Metropolitan Areas: A Theoretical Inquiry.