Make Work More Human

2013: The Incredibly Shrinking American Middle Class – Bill Moyers

2013: Five Myths about Canada’s Middle Class – Globe & Mail

2013: RIP: The Middle Class – Salon

2013: The Next Middle Class – Harold Jarche

2014: The Middle Class is Steadily Eroding – New York Times

The titles above indicate a shift in the economy and many of our assumptions about the nature of work, at least in my part of the world. There are many definitions of what middle class means, but for me it is the class of people who are experienced, trained or educated yet still have to work to earn a living. Where I grew up, many of our parents were immigrants who all had jobs. We were lucky. School did not require fees and most extracurricular activities were free. Many things have changed since then.

We are moving into a post-job economy, or at least an economy where the job is no longer the main redistributor of wealth from capital to labour. Capital is also changing, from tangible goods, to intangible services. But it is still being distributed in the same old way. Founders of intangible services companies make vast sums of money, but most people working in these types of companies remain wage slaves.

This is a complex situation. We cannot blame a single culprit for the problems facing the people formerly known as the middle class. But we can use what we have to make a society and economy that redistributes wealth more equitably and creates more human workplaces. What we have is our collective intelligence. Never before have we had the means to work together collaboratively and cooperatively on a world scale, with no intermediaries. The solutions are staring us in the face. We just have to stop looking in the rear-view mirror and see the many possible roads ahead.

In any industry affected by the Internet (that would be most) the real power belongs to those who own the platforms. It’s Facebook in social networking; Google in advertising; Amazon in retail; and soon upstarts like AirBNB in temporary lodging or Über in personal short-haul transportation. Companies like Google’s YouTube create nothing, use free labour, and make huge revenues. As they say, if you are not paying for a service online, you are the product.

Taking control of the means of production is one possible solution. It may sound Marxist, but knowledge workers of the world now own the means of production. But most companies and labour laws are structured around an industrial model of capital & labour. The innovation that will save the middle class will be new business models. This is why I joined Change Agents Worldwide. Susan Scrupski describes CAWW as an un-consultancy. We are much more than that. Most of all, we are a community of practice; and you know you are in one when it changes your practice. We are working differently. We want to make work more human, as Simon Terry succinctly noted to the world.

make work more humanI have this conversation frequently with middle-class, mid-career professionals and many, if not most, are unhappy with the workplace status quo. This time though, we actually have the means, not just in our knowledge, but the tools to create new ways of working that do not dehumanize people. What we are doing at CAWW is only one example for one type of work. We only accept experienced people, we work transparently, we require that everyone contributes and we distribute power to all members. It is one model, amongst many possibilities.

There are other examples of more human work. The usual examples of ‘bossless’ companies are often discussed, but seldom replicated. The only way to create better workplaces is to vote with our feet. If those who are educated, knowledgeable and experienced do not push for a better world of work, then who will? Many young people are moving to a shareable economic model, which is quite powerful, but this may not be enough to sustain other aspects of society necessary in the network era, such as utilities, healthcare, public education, basic research, and many other areas that could also do with more democracy and more humanity.

The people formerly known as the middle class have the unique opportunity to become the people who will make work more human. If not you, then who? It’s all about changing our worldview.

3 Responses to “Make Work More Human”

  1. Jon Husband

    From Peter Drucker (1999)

    “Bribing the Knowledge Worker
    What might be needed to prevent the United States from becoming the England of the twenty-first century? I am convinced that a drastic change in the social mind-set is required—just as leadership in the industrial economy after the railroad required the drastic change from “tradesman” to “technologist” or “engineer.”

    What we call the Information Revolution is actually a Knowledge Revolution. What has made it possible to routinize processes is not machinery; the computer is only the trigger. Software is the reorganization of traditional work, based on centuries of experience, through the application of knowledge and especially of systematic, logical analysis. The key is not electronics; it is cognitive science. This means that the key to maintaining leadership in the economy and the technology that are about to emerge is likely to be the social position of knowledge professionals and social acceptance of their values. For them to remain traditional “employees” and be treated as such would be tantamount to England’s treating its technologists as tradesmen—and likely to have similar consequences.

    Today, however, we are trying to straddle the fence—to maintain the traditional mind-set, in which capital is the key resource and the financier is the boss, while bribing knowledge workers to be content to remain employees by giving them bonuses and stock options. But this, if it can work at all, can work only as long as the emerging industries enjoy a stock-market boom, as the Internet companies have been doing. The next major industries are likely to behave far more like traditional industries—that is, to grow slowly, painfully, laboriously.


    Increasingly, performance in these new knowledge-based industries will come to depend on running the institution so as to attract, hold, and motivate knowledge workers.

    When this can no longer be done by satisfying knowledge workers’ greed, as we are now trying to do, it will have to be done by satisfying their values, and by giving them social recognition and social power.

    It will have to be done by turning them from subordinates into fellow executives, and from employees, however well paid, into partners.

  2. Simon Terry

    Harold, your call for people to vote with their feet is spot on. The future of work will not occur. It must be led. It is up to those who can see better ways to lead others to experiment and to learn the path for each organisation. If there was a formula, it would be easy but each organisation must seek its own path and own meaning in the changes.


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