Debate Magazine

The Workplace of the Future Belongs to . . .

By Stevemiranda

I came across two stories in the news today that illuminated important themes about the changing workplace. First, from The Economist:

“It’s been one of the hottest economic questions for at least the last few decades: what sort of jobs will provide a comfortable, secure, middle-class lifestyle for the next generation of Americans? America still has a vibrant manufacturing industry, but it no longer offers large numbers of desirable jobs. During a panel at last week’s Buttonwood conference Harvard economist Larry Katz had an answer. He reckons that future ‘good’ middle-class jobs will come from the re-emergence of artisans, or highly skilled people in each field. Two examples he mentioned: a contractor who installs beautiful kitchens and a thoughtful, engaging caregiver to the elderly. . . .

“This is consistent with a shift in the labor market I’ve observed. It seems the market now rewards individual more than firm-specific capital. That’s economic jargon for the idea that it’s better to be really good at your job than merely good at being an employee. There’s less value in being the company man; you must be your own man possessing a dynamic skill set applicable in a variety of ways.”

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The second story was from Gallup, which published the results of a survey of worker engagement on the job.

“Seventy-one percent of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive. That leaves nearly one-third of American workers who are ‘engaged,’ or involved in and enthusiastic about their work and contributing to their organizations in a positive manner. This trend remained relatively stable throughout 2011.”

And if you think a college degree is going to be your ticket to a career that gets you excited to go to work, well, not necessarily: “Americans who have at least some college education are significantly less likely to be engaged in their jobs than are those with a high school diploma or less.”

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The workplace of the future belongs to the artists. And by artists, I don’t mean necessarily people who paint or draw or make sculptures. Being an artist in this context means using creativity and imagination to add value in surprising ways, writing your own job description instead of merely conforming to the existing one, and bringing your full self and all your diverse talents to work every day.

Some people are content to show up for the job and be a factory worker, waiting to be told what to do next. I think they are that way because the artist within them has been shut down, in some cases by a system of schooling that trained them, in K-12 and beyond, to be compliant rather than creative.

We can create schools that prepare young people for this future by treating them like artists instead of assembly line workers. We can do that by helping them develop a powerful sense of self and deep understanding of their signature strengths.

But I don’t think we can do that within the existing paradigm. We have to build new kinds of schools, organized according to a new kind of structure, driven by a set of assumptions that will have very little in common with the factory schools of the 20th century.

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