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The Water Cooler

A blog of fresh ideas and findings from organizational leaders and researchers on how they’re making work better, shared regularly.

The History and Future of Work with futurist Marina Gorbis

The History and Future of Work with futurist Marina Gorbis
Humanity’s working life only recently started revolving around large, centralized organizations. The future of work may look more like pre-industrialized work, in terms of how economic and social networks become more integrated again.

Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of the Institute for the Future, speaking at Google’s 2014 re:Work event, shared a brief look at how labor has evolved. Historically, we haven’t worked in centralized organizations for very long — early work was primarily transactional, agricultural, and focused on subsistence. The industrial revolution brought about a shift in work, scaling up production and productivity by consolidating and integrating processes and people. The rise of “the firm” allowed for the aggregation and reduction of transaction costs, allowing unprecedented scale and profit.

But today, with the advent of open platforms and widely accessible technology, the technological advantage of the firm is being disrupted, Gorbis asserts. Transaction costs for the individual are shrinking, allowing more people to make a profit working outside of large organizations. Gorbis’ research reveals four new kinds of workers:

  1. Microworkers are task-oriented and available according to their own schedules, working when, where, and how they want using open platforms to find jobs. These workers are part of what’s called “the gig economy.”
  2. Amplified Entrepreneurs use open platforms to manage people (often microworkers) across a variety of disciplines and geographies, making it possible for one person to achieve scale that previously only organizations could achieve.
  3. Dream Builders segment their lives between work and play, separating making money from finding meaning. They may have a traditional job to pay the bills, but they put their passion into their personal pursuits outside the office.
  4. Culture Hackers redefine what work is and where it happens by mixing office and home spaces, meaning and money, and blurring so-called “work-life balance.” They pursue life, learning, leisure, and labor all together.

“These are people who are redefining what work is, what life is, what leisure is, what the learning is. They're stitching it together in completely new ways,” Gorbis said. But she acknowledged that social security issues around healthcare, benefits, and retirement still must be figured out. “But it's important to remember that it took us probably decades to work out during industrialization all of the social protections.”