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.
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