The crisis as an opportunity for the future of work: overcoming alienation
The corona pandemic currently divides the working population into four groups: some are losing their jobs, e.g. startup entrepreneurs with weak liquidity; others, such as craftsmen or restaurant owners, fear for their economic survival as they are not generating any turnover during the lockdown while still having to cover maintenance costs. A third, comparatively privileged group can pursue their work with more or less efficiency losses in the home office, including yours truly, who as an assistant professor teaches and researches online and who also makes use of his computer to keep a virtual connection with his team for developing his software/AI company. The fourth group of the labor force, on the other hand, that is referred to as “systemically relevant”, still carries out their work physically at their workplace, but must consider particular safety precautions, such as following social distancing measures. In this context, it is interesting (and good) to observe that the concept of systemic (& social) relevance has been greatly expanded since the last global crisis in 2008. To put it in somewhat exaggerated terms: 12 years ago greedy bankers passed on their mistakes to the general public, whereas today medical staff, supermarket employees, infrastructure or service providers and many more take on personal risks in order to protect others and, even more, to maintain social order.
Each of these groups, including the individual cases behind them, has to struggle with their own, sometimes specific problems. What they have in common is the exposure to the dominant effect the pandemic has on the macro-economic level, namely the stand-by mode of an economy which has been, thus far, only following a rule of growth. Overcoming this paradigm may turn out to be late modernity’s central challenge (Anthony Giddens).
The breakdown of the blind pursuit of growth
One may ask why we experience the isolation measures taken against the spread of the virus as “oppressive”. Of course, we could define ourselves as social beings, as “Zoon Politikon” (political animals), but perhaps that does not fully appreciate the phenomenon. For even before Corona, we could witness, again and again, that we tend to fill all (spontaneously) arising spare time with new obligations, tasks and activities, and almost notoriously reach for our mobile phones and gadgets as soon as we are disengaged or alone with ourselves. We thus unconsciously seem to always fall in a pattern which frantically projects our expectations of a good, fulfilled life to the future. We accept to be constantly on the chase for resources, meet deadlines and work off to-do lists during our working hours instead of working (figuring) out the world (which, according to Georg Simmel, is what forms the human soul in the first place). We legitimize this behavior to the extent that once all these “to-dos” will have been ticked off our list, we will safely arrive at what we “actually” want and are. However, the current crisis and the accompanying “pause mode” of the economy seems to bring this “projected point of longing” within our immediate reach. And precisely this opportunity appears to be too much for many people who, having been too busy with their daily work routine so far, have not found their answer to who they actually are or what they actually want.
The perverse or irrational thing about striving for constant increase and growth, which is embedded in the organizational structure of most businesses and processes, is that today’s efforts do not generate lasting relief for tomorrow, but rather complicate and aggravate the problem. The more the economy grows in one year, the more productive and the faster we are, the more difficult it will get to outperform (each other or our former I) in the following year, while ideally also maintaining the growth rates. In and potentially beyond 2020, Corona is not only likely to foil this plan but it may well break the underlying logic known to us so far. Instead of finding fulfillment in an unexpected state of potential leisure (at least for the lucky few who are not more stressed than before), many people panic that the silence might persist, that their own inner voice and the voice of the world will remain silent. Only then will the sad extent of the late-modern world’s inherent alienation become palpable. Or in the strong words of the German philosopher Erich Fromm: “The problem of the nineteenth century was that God is dead [Nietzsche]; the problem of the twentieth century is [let us include the most recent twenty years] that man is dead [mentally and emotionally].”
Not the “to-do list” counts, but a captivating vision of a new relationship with the world
The challenge has been described above. Yet, what positive lessons can we learn, especially in the context of digitization, which is shaping us? In particular, the opportunity to make an analogy between our working life and AI stands out. We must recognize that the latter is also often employed crudely according to our old, narrowly interpreted productivity logic, in which the “wheel is turning , but the hamster is dead”, as we constantly strive for new records, which will inevitably be deemed unsatisfactory.
Perhaps, by following the same productivity logic, AI could ultimately prevent innovation as well because it is primarily aimed at replacing human labor in certain production steps or individual service tasks.
Even though productivity and innovation are not necessarily a contrasting pair, innovation and purpose need to be the first priority: How do I generate value by doing what is useful and socially desired? Maybe, it ought to become part of every job to think about what it is actually supposed to be. In an entrepreneurial spirit, for example, you can make it your business to make yourself redundant in your job time and again. This is how we create our next job and shape innovation. To avoid tensions between social classes and growing social disparities, such efforts should not only be made by tech entrepreneurs and the elite of the digital era, but turn into a more general and inclusive task. Otherwise, we will risk that AI and related new and impactful technologies will only or primarily be open to a privileged class that is already well-off, better educated and wealthier and who could then access resources even more easily.
Holistic thinking about innovation, which includes reflecting on the interplay with others and the world as well as strategic foresight, is what we should do. Admittedly, at first glance, reflection does not constitute productivity. However, productivity will collapse when, from one day to the next, you have to think about how to qualify employees whose jobs change as a result of a shock such as Corona — or disappear because the adjust-ment of the job profile and/or the additional training required for employees do not work. Let me end with a bon mot, commonly attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to collect wood, assign tasks and divide the work, but rather teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.”
About the author
Christian Hugo Hoffmann is an entrepreneur with two Fintech startups under his belt, as well as Assistant Professor of Finance and Fintech at the University of Liechtenstein. He is also deputy director of the Swiss Fintech Innovation Lab at the University of Zurich and director of Startup Grind in Geneva.