Douglas Coupland talks millennials, joblessness and life at Google
Human Resources

Douglas Coupland talks millennials, joblessness and life at Google

It is impossible not to feel a sense of irony as I trudge from a miserable coach, through the rain, towards a doorway which welcomes me to the future of work. I follow a snake of people up several floors of what looks like metal fire escape to join a queue at the top. Desperate to escape the steady drip, drip, drip I eventually squidge myself inside to collect my badge.

This is Konica Minolta’s Spotlight event on the future of work. And it features a raft of high profile speakers including author and artist Douglas Coupland who has, in one form or another, been commenting on the nature of our relationship to work for nearly three decades.  

In 1991 Coupland burst to fame with cult novel Generation X. This followed a group of twenty-somethings who were sick to death of nonsense office jobs and had moved to California to work in bars and tell each other stories. In 1995 he established himself as a tech commentator with Microserfs which chronicled the lives of six overworked Microsoft coders who become disillusioned with their pointless existence as cogs in the corporate machine. And between 2015 and 2016 Coupland took the role of artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris which provided deeper insight into life within the tech zeitgeist.

The future of work is a very hot topic at the moment. Vast swathes of commentators and tech companies are trying to predict exactly what the future workplace will look like and, of course, to deliver the solutions which ensure they stay rich in years to come. Most positive forecasts focus on the continuing demise of the nine to five (“the nine to five is barbaric,” says Coupland), the increasing predominance of the ‘work anywhere’ culture and how escalating automation will free us up to be more productive. Most negative forecasts tend to focus on a dystopian future where robots have stolen our jobs and humanity has been been displaced by machines.  

Coupland is a very engaging speaker – his conversation is peppered with vignettes and personal stories – but like his monthly column in the Financial Times he is a little disjointed. He takes a slightly off kilter tack to the standard debate on the subject both during his official speech and when I catch up with him for a short interview afterwards. “There will be less to do and we have to be prepared for that,” he says. “In the future every day of the week will be a Wednesday.”

Coupland offers Greece as an example of a place where life used to be easy because not too much was required and now cyclical budgets have flipped this on its head and left everyone with nothing to do. “It is a dark mirror vision of capitalism in the same way Venezuela and Detroit is,” he says.  

“It takes the issue of doing very little, which used to be a very desirable thing, and suddenly you put it through this capitalist lens and it goes upside down and it is called unemployment and nothing to do. It sounds like a truism, but keeping people occupied is full time work and I do think it is the job of government to do.”

This is an interesting point because a future where people are released by machines to have more free times is often cited as utopia. It is held up as one of the core benefits of Universal Basic Income (UBI), which is getting talked about a lot at the moment, and held up as held up as the path to personal fulfilment. “Too much free time is a disaster,” suggests Coupland. When I ask about UBI he counters with a question “Is anyone actually doing that?” (This is currently being tested in Finland and Kenya.)

The changing nature of work – and our increasing expectations for a decent work life balance – are often wrapped into the debate about way technology is changing our brains. (“I almost forgot my pre-internet brain… now I don’t miss it anymore,” says Coupland.). And if there is one company that epitomises this transition it is Google, where Coupland held the post of artist in residence for a year.

“I got there and they said: ‘what do you want to do?’” he tells me. “I said ‘let me look around and see what we have’ and [what was striking] was most people involved are engineers or scientists and they really are not interested – I mean in a very profound way – about how people are using it [Google]. “It’s not that they don’t want to think about it they just don’t think about it. They really don’t think about it.”

The upshot of all this was a private, very limited edition, book about what people really search for. Instead of showing the top two or three things people search for, he explains, it shows the next 100 things. “It had to be an in house book because technically it is a data breach.”

What was interesting about the searches he says is they would mostly “be fantastically predictable” but then every so often there would be “something that was shocking, amazing”. Hair was one of the categories, he explains, and after all the usual stuff about different styles, types, and colours “near the bottom” people were looking for “how do I donate my hair to charity? It was like oh, I feel happy to be a human being, thank you.”

In some ways technology changes people. In some ways it simply doesn’t. But it is this total reliance on everyday technology that is usually offered as a reason to criticise the millennials who have grown up with it all their lives. In fact, Coupland is quoted in The Times last October as saying: “Millennials are clueless on all levels. I’ve given up on them. I cannot work with anyone under the age of 35.”

This struck me as extremely surprising. All the criticisms levelled against today’s young workers are exactly the same as the tendencies displayed by the characters in Generation X. In this respect it feels like a remarkably modern novel.

When I ask Coupland, he says: “The Times must have taken the comment out of context. I am not negative about millennials. Everything they used to say about generation X they now say about millennials. Every 20 years they blow the dust off and bring it back, in that sense there is a lot of similarity.”

In the end nobody knows what the future of work will look like exactly. Tomorrow is extremely hard to predict. However, like the characters in Generation X – who are both exactly the same as younger workers today and yet still not on WhatsApp – it seems inevitable that in future things with remain both exactly the same and also completely different.

 

Also read:

Free money: The answer to a post-automation world?
Office 2021: Why robots won’t end drudgery or steal our jobs
What will the workplace of 2026 look like?
What is Google doing to your brain?
Konica Minolta wants to get in on the ‘workforce collaboration’ act

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Sean Smith on April 21 2017

I find the comments of Coupland in this article to be ambiguous, useless and self-fulfilling for his own career. What is patently clear is 4 key dynamics at play:- 1. Human beings will do less work. Machines, robotics and software applications are already giving this insight. 2. Job creation will be outstripped by the active workforce and the dynamics of this lie in Asia from a global perspective. This will be countered by people I doing less thus creating more job sharing and fluid role allocation. Historically people have been employed in specific static roles because of a lack of intelligence to capture and transfer the status of tasks in an easy way. Technology and machine learning will break this barrier dowun so that a seamless transition of a role between many "workers" can occur. Think the end of "Chinese whispers" and you are kind of on the path I am speaking of. 3. Economically and socially there are some massive challenges in accomodating this emerging paradigm. People aspire to a standard of living, much more so than a work life balance and I believe the two have been confused for some time. Human behaviour, within and in addition to Mazlow's theories, share the traits of risk for reward and effort for reward. This is what has driven free market economies back to the days of the Romans. The challenge this change brings is maintaining the standard of living where people effectively produce lower individual outputs - or engage in productive endeavour for less time. We know organisations operate on a yield to capital basis and paying wages for less productivity flies in the face of economic modelling. Indeed, organisations are perpetually seeking to right size labour resources, particularly as technology brings digital transition and automation of many traditional labour tasks. 4. The world will develop new jobs, that is a certainty. Those jobs could perhaps be created merely through the increased leisure time and the fact we are now in an experience economy. But governments, corporations and even small business will need to accept that the traditional days of a free market economy are most likely coming to an end. This is because those markets simply cannot arbitrate these massive cyclical and structural changes under their own devices. This is not an indication of a need for a seismic shift to systems such as socialism or communism - but countries must prepare by modifying the intervention by regulation at a macro level to allow this change to occur. Coupland talked of Grece and Detroit and it is the single point that I agree with him on. They are both laminating examples of what happens when ecosystems are exposed to free market shifts where no foresight or government intervention (planning, investment, innovation) occurs. In as much as the world continues to consume and expects things faster, better, cheaper and to be personal to the consumer, our path is forged and significant action is needed now. If we look to climate change as an example of how government's cope with serious global issues, we should all be taking a very sober look at what we expect of government as we hurtle towards this new world. Very happy to share more on my thoughts on these topics. Sean Smith

no-images

Sean Smith on April 21 2017

I find the comments of Coupland in this article to be ambiguous, useless and self-fulfilling for his own career. What is patently clear is 4 key dynamics at play:- 1. Human beings will do less work. Machines, robotics and software applications are already giving this insight. 2. Job creation will be outstripped by the active workforce and the dynamics of this lie in Asia from a global perspective. This will be countered by people I doing less thus creating more job sharing and fluid role allocation. Historically people have been employed in specific static roles because of a lack of intelligence to capture and transfer the status of tasks in an easy way. Technology and machine learning will break this barrier dowun so that a seamless transition of a role between many "workers" can occur. Think the end of "Chinese whispers" and you are kind of on the path I am speaking of. 3. Economically and socially there are some massive challenges in accomodating this emerging paradigm. People aspire to a standard of living, much more so than a work life balance and I believe the two have been confused for some time. Human behaviour, within and in addition to Mazlow's theories, share the traits of risk for reward and effort for reward. This is what has driven free market economies back to the days of the Romans. The challenge this change brings is maintaining the standard of living where people effectively produce lower individual outputs - or engage in productive endeavour for less time. We know organisations operate on a yield to capital basis and paying wages for less productivity flies in the face of economic modelling. Indeed, organisations are perpetually seeking to right size labour resources, particularly as technology brings digital transition and automation of many traditional labour tasks. 4. The world will develop new jobs, that is a certainty. Those jobs could perhaps be created merely through the increased leisure time and the fact we are now in an experience economy. But governments, corporations and even small business will need to accept that the traditional days of a free market economy are most likely coming to an end. This is because those markets simply cannot arbitrate these massive cyclical and structural changes under their own devices. This is not an indication of a need for a seismic shift to systems such as socialism or communism - but countries must prepare by modifying the intervention by regulation at a macro level to allow this change to occur. Coupland talked of Grece and Detroit and it is the single point that I agree with him on. They are both laminating examples of what happens when ecosystems are exposed to free market shifts where no foresight or government intervention (planning, investment, innovation) occurs. In as much as the world continues to consume and expects things faster, better, cheaper and to be personal to the consumer, our path is forged and significant action is needed now. If we look to climate change as an example of how government's cope with serious global issues, we should all be taking a very sober look at what we expect of government as we hurtle towards this new world. Very happy to share more on my thoughts on these topics. Sean Smith

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