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The Future of Work: Nice Work If We Can Make It

It’s time to privilege empowerment over efficiency.
workers are empowered!!!

Workers of the world—feel the power! (Photo: kurhan/Shutterstock)

Work holds dominion over us. It’s through work that we exercise our talents and build an identity, though work that we fit ourselves to the world. Politicians can’t seem to say enough about it: In stump speeches, the word “work” is used more often than “liberty,” “hope,” and “justice” combined. There’s good reason for this—the ebb and flow of job numbers steer financial markets, sway voters, and decide elections.

Yet no matter how bullish, numbers don’t reflect the way we feel—that for whatever reason, work is simply not working for us.

For me, the weirdness of our relationship with work reached its apogee in August, in a New York Times exposé of—what else?—Amazon. Apparently, the nation’s most valuable retailer is also among its nastiest employers—punishing employees for such transgressions as having miscarriages or cancer. Public response to the report was explosive —the Times website was swamped with readers’ outraged comments, the article’s authors deluged with requests for interviews from media outlets around the world. But what I found most alarming about this narrative was not that Amazon brazenly abused its white-collar workforce—after all, the company had a long history of treating its warehouse workers as disposable. What most alarmed me was that so many Amazon employees were complicit in their own mistreatment, or at least that of their colleagues. One executive, oozing enthusiasm, credited the company’s draconian work ethic for Amazon’s high-speed delivery services, “A customer was able to get an Elsa doll that they could not find in all of New York City, and they had it delivered to their house in 23 minutes. We’re trying to create those moments for customers where we’re solving a really practical need, in this way that feels really futuristic and magical.”

What most alarmed me was that so many Amazon employees were complicit in their own mistreatment, or at least that of their colleagues. 

How did we get to a place where rapid-fire toy delivery became a “need” so pressing it trumps our hard won inclination to treat workers—including ourselves—with dignity and respect? That question is perhaps as unanswerable as it is unavoidable. What we do know is that work has undergone a dramatic shift in the digital age, and history is not a reliable guide to where work is headed. Those of us born in the 1970s or earlier were raised to think of work and career as one and the same, but today’s gig economy calls for viewing one’s career trajectory less as a steady ascent of an organizational ladder than as a ceaseless struggle to meet the insatiable demands of a fickle global marketplace. Corporate hierarchies are flattening, and employees are being urged to act as self-directed “intrapreneurs”—to become, in a sense, our own “boss.” In theory, this may sound like a very good thing. But for many, even most of us, this turn toward competitive “self-management” seems less a career strategy than a threat: How do we “manage” something over which we sense so little control?

Alexandra Michel, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, left a rising career at Goldman Sachs for academia, a perch from which she now observes her former colleagues like so many sitting ducks. “Bankers are supposedly accountable only to themselves, hence, ‘masters of the universe,’” she says. “But they have no real control over their lives.” Shadowing two-dozen young Wall Street recruits over the course of a decade, Michel watched as they lost their hair, their waistlines, and their sense of themselves as corporeal beings. She walked in one day to find a young banker vomiting blood into a wastebasket. He had pneumonia, but refused to leave. “It’s like a war,” he told her. “My body is my worst enemy.”

The work culture of Wall Street, once a distant abstraction for most of us, has trickled down to Main Street: A Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that almost half worked in excess of 65 hours a week. (Ironically, thanks in part to scheduling software that anticipates their productivity to the minute, the working poor are often victims of too few hours.) Overwork, once the unhappy lot of the working poor, is today a “credential of prosperity.” The Wall Street Journal describes employment that entails more than one job’s worth of labor not as servitude but as a super-job.

The Industrial Age brought what to earlier generations were unimaginable efficiencies, and progress. The rise of the Information Age brought with it a new idea: that work could and should be meaningful, not just for a lucky few, but for all of us. Rather than “settling” for “just” doing good work, we are charged with finding meaning on the job, as though meaning were a gift that a job can bestow. As the numbers show, it’s a gift that keeps on giving—but not necessarily to us. Workers are more productive, and profits higher than ever before, yet polls indicate that most of us are either not engaged or actively disengaged on the job—far more disengaged than were our parents and grandparents. Our relentless focus on productivity and profits has, it seems, undermined our ability to extract meaning from work.

The modern quest for “meaningful work” underpins a paradox—we are both disengaged from our jobs and terrified of losing them. We are caught in a trap of our own making. But there is a way out.

Today, the underlying rationale of many if not most institutions—from supermarkets to universities—is scalable efficiency: to specify tasks tightly, and then to standardize and integrate them under a theory of organization that relies on people fitting into specific roles. This model is built on the presumption of the Industrial Age that efficiency is and must be the highest priority of innovation. But in the Digital Age, this metric makes work of every sort vulnerable to automation and degradation—and threatens the economy by sharply decreasing both opportunity and the demand for goods and services. Left unchecked, this pattern has precipitated a downward spiral, tumbling the middle class into what feels like free-fall. It has also, at least for many of us, turned work from a source of satisfaction to a grueling and unwinnable game of shadow boxing.

As economist Elinor Ostrom observed, neither markets nor the rules of the state prove an effective means to provide and sustain a “public good” so complex and essential as work. It is up to us to take control, and to push back against our instinct to privilege efficiency over empowerment. We can find ways to incentivize innovation that cultivates human ingenuity and effort, rather than striving to eliminate the demand for those things. It’s time to think anew, and to reward work of a new sort, work that brings us not only more stuff faster, but peace of mind, health, safety, and delight.

Humans tend to fixate on what we can measure, and for far too long, we have measured things—like efficiency—that reflect only part of the story, and not necessarily the most important part. We need a new form of measurement, one that balances our demand for ever-higher rates of productivity against the essential human need to be productive.