Rehumanising Work to Herald a 5th Industrial Revolution: The Great Rethink

By Gideon Arulmani

At last, the masks are off, handwashing while singing the birthday song is not mandatory, we are free to travel wherever we want to or not, we can shake each other by the hand…why, we can even hug!  Pandemic related lockdowns and restrictions have been lifted and it seems we are free to return to pre-pandemic ways of living and working.

But are we returning to pre-pandemic ways of living and working? 

Here is some startling data published by the Workforce Institute (Texas, USA) of its survey conducted between September 16th and October 1st 2022, covering about 2,200 employees, high-ranking C-level executives and HR professionals from the United States, Australia/New Zealand, Canada, France, Germany, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, and the U.K.:

  • 46% of employees within this sample said they would not recommend their company nor their profession to their children.
  • 38% wouldn’t wish their job even on their worst enemy!
  • 57% of those in the high wage bracket (100 to 200 thousand dollars per annum) are saying: “I wish someone had warned me not to take my current job”, “I don’t want to work anymore”, “I regret choosing my line of work.”.
  • Barely 28% and 11% respectively felt they are in a career that is their calling, while 61% admit they go to work to collect a pay check, ‘clock out,’ and go home.

A review of reports published over 2021 on attitudes to work indicate that large numbers of workers are expressing deep disillusionment with careers they had diligently and successfully practised for many years. Millions of workers are using phrases such as ‘toxic’, ‘being trapped and exploited’, ‘exhausted’ and ‘stressed’, to describe their experience of work. This has led to a massive and unprecedented employee turnover which management specialists describe as “the great resignation”, “the big quit” and “turnover tsunami”.

During the lockdowns people have had the opportunity to introspect about how the way they work affects their lives. In fact, we could say that The Great Resignation has been brought about by the opportunity for a “Great Rethink”. A common thread running through these pandemic epiphanies seems to suggest that we don’t actually like our jobs. How did this happen? Are these viscerally negative sentiments linked to specific jobs or toward work itself? Does this have something to do with the manner in which work, and career, have evolved?

Global Trends in the History of Work

The tendency to work has characterised human existence ever since the hands of our ancient forefathers grasped a chunk of stone and transformed it into a tool. Over thousands of years, human being’s highly developed capability to intentionally and intelligently apply effort and energy to reach a goal and solve a problem, gave birth to a foundational human institution: the occupation. History shows us that while the emergence of occupations is a universal phenomenon, the practice of occupations differentiated into the livelihood and careerist modes of engagement. It was perhaps during the first industrial revolution that the notion of a personal “career” originated. This new form of practicing an occupation called for fitting into predefined institutional structures and following prescribed rules, while competing constantly to excel against others. The careerist places him/herself between the traces of a career and willingly meets its demands because it is believed that this investment of effort yields substantial personal gain. But, since the last century of its existence, has the careerist approach to the practice of occupation lived up to these expectations?

Mechanisation and automation brought about by the first and second Industrial Revolutions, perhaps triggered the first departure from livelihood orientations. Work shifted from the “handmade” to the “machine made”. The Protestant Reformation provided moral sanction to embed individualistic materialism into the motivation for work. The third Industrial Revolution, undergirded by the computer/digital revolution caused the next big shift. Here again we saw and continue to see a further distancing between work and the human worker. And today it is said that the fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is upon us. The technological advances introduced by these revolutions are leading not merely to automation but to the autonomisation of work tools and processes (e.g., driverless cars) leading in turn to a further devalorisation of human effort. Such shifts in human engagement with work could possibly explain the theme underlying the narratives of those who are disillusioned with their careers:  a loss of connection, depletion of meaning and purpose in relation to their work tasks.

The question now is whether this phenomenon has been caused by the pandemic. Will these deep frustrations with work abate as the effects of the pandemic decline? A closer look indicates that while the pandemic might have been a trigger, unhappiness with work, not just the conditions of work, runs deeper. It is possible that the pandemic has unmasked not just an immediate, but a chronic unhappiness with careerist orientations to work.

People are leaving their careers with the intention of re-training for other jobs. Many are preparing for new careers. But would fatigue and frustration be re-experienced once the honeymoon with their new career has passed? Is a more fundamental, attitudinal shift required of the careerist?

Is it time for a Fifth Industrial Revolution?

Stress and fatigue could underlie both livelihood and careerist orientations. It seems however that a deep sense of disequilibrium and loss of wellbeing is reported more frequently amongst careerists. The common attitude toward livelihood is that it meets subsistence needs and is practiced by humbler (usually rural) folk such as farmers, artisans and skilled workers. However, an interesting trend is seen in surveys conducted by the author: careerists who have made shifts to a more livelihood-oriented practice of occupation demonstrate greater contentment with their new work orientations. A computer scientist who shifted to a much more manual engagement revealingly said: “It was all very exciting at first… pushing buttons to get machines to do things. But over time, I felt I was not using any actual skills. The algorithm was doing it. I’ve left all that now… some friends and I have gotten together to start a haberdashery! I’m happily sewing and selling buttons now… not tapping them!”

Against this background, could a fifth industrial revolution consider bidirectional collaborations between careerist orientations and “livelihood thinking”.  With this as a guiding principle, could we begin to describe a new world of work that:

  • re-examines the dynamics of competition versus collaboration, independence versus interdependence, and duty to the in-group versus personal rights as factors that influence engagement with work.
  • considers the Gandhian philosophy of Nai Talim (New Education) based upon the principle that pedagogy could be located around work.
  • acknowledges the cultural reality that children are a part of the fabric of the family’s ethos of work.
  • considers how pedagogical systems might use livelihood thinking as an instrument for education such that future generations engage with work with perspicacity and discernment.
  • explores what manual work could mean in an increasingly digitalized and virtualized world. Indeed, there are sound work principles to be learned from the craftsperson and artisan who even before the industrial revolution, working by hand, used simple tools with highly developed skill, to weave cloth, construct furniture, build pyramids, temples, cathedrals and ships!

Today human work occurs in the interface between financial capitalism and an amoral technological evolution on the one hand and the forced abdication of human cognitive and cultural engagement with work on the other. The pandemic has instigated dramatic changes in attitudes toward work.  Going forward, the challenge before us as educationists, career counsellors, HR Managers and all those who work for human development, is to acknowledge that an interplay can be fostered between the preindustrial, the industrial and post-industrial, between the personal and the shared, the handcrafted and the machine-made. The time is well-nigh for us all to contribute to rehumanising work to herald a fifth revolution, a revolution that valorises human effort.

(The writer is Clinical Psychologist and Director, The Promise Foundation. email: [email protected])

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