Man at His Best

Opinion: The future of work

Hee En Hua wants you to take a cold hard look at that job of yours.

BY HEE EN HUA | Jan 21, 2016 | Money & Career

Illustration from The British Library, Flickr Commons

Everybody hates their job. No really, I’ve thought about it. I’m quite sure that everybody hates their job. Somebody is probably reading this to find brief respite from the dull and cruel reality of his or her job right now.

That person could be reading this from a smartphone or a magazine while commuting to work or during office hours. The details don’t matter because the story remains the same. That person hates his or her job, and that person is not alone.

How do I know? According to a worldwide employee engagement poll conducted by Gallup where respondents agreed or disagreed to statements like “I have opportunities at work to learn and to grow”, only 13 percent of workers are actively engaged in their workplace. Bitter workers constitute almost twice that amount.

Still not convinced? According to the eggheads at the McKinsey Global Institute, better labour matching platforms like LinkedIn will increase worldwide labour productivity by USD2.7 trillion by 2025. What this means is that there are currently so many people hating or bumming about in their jobs right now that collectively, we are missing out on trillions of dollars of income.

Technologies like Linkedin could save us all by matching us with jobs we could be happier in, but we all know that won’t happen because LinkedIn résumés are full of lies and serve only to make your ex-boyfriend jealous of your career achievements when they google you in the middle of the night. (I’m looking at you, Shalene.)

It is precisely because of the large scale of human misery involved in the workplace that we need to consider the future of the workplace, and we can forecast the trajectory by observing the current trends. Listed below are scenarios and likely possibilities, and what you can do about them to survive:

Do a job to serve our robot overlords.
Given the trajectory of Moore’s law where computing power increases exponentially, this scenario is practically inevitable.

Its opponents often cite the fact that human capital is not as easy to substitute due to the generalist nature of human labour. They claim humans can adapt, learn and be placed in many different areas of the production chain, while robots are good at only specific and programmable tasks.

Remember the time when you suggested a solution to a co-worker or manager, and that person rejected it outright due to prejudice or an inability to adapt?

Remember also the time when you faced off against the shifting tactics of a sublime computer AI in Starcraft that outsmarted you at every turn? Yeap. The robots are definitely coming and we will be tasked with cleaning their leaky and oily waste disposal tubes. (I wonder if they’ll make a robot that looks like Shalene.)

Apply for a job that doesn’t exist. Yet.
The jobs of the future will likely be jumbled up combinations of old jobs from unlikely places. This is in part because disruptive technologies tend to organise existing production chains in surprising ways.

Alibaba holds no inventory; Uber doesn’t own the taxis; and Airbnb doesn’t possess any hotels.

One new startup that is turning (also chop-ing) heads and disrupting traditional landscapes is the terrorist organisation, Islamic State (ISIS). Recently, terrorist investigators discovered that ISIS has a 24/7 call centre to help jihadists troubleshoot their terrorist attempts. I can just imagine the conversations:

“Thank you for calling the ISIS hotline. Our operators are busy assisting other agents of terror. Please hold and continue the struggle. Your jihad is important to us.”

“Press one for suicide bombings. Press two for beheadings”.

"Have you tried turning the bomb vest on and off?"

Accept the fact that your job will continue to suck and work to escape it.

Maybe the trick is not to obsess over the future, but accept the damnable reality of the present. There are signs that human society is heading in a direction where being happy in your job is near impossible because of larger systemic reasons.

An experiment conducted by ethologist and part-time mad scientist John B Calhoun shows exactly the sort of mess we’re all hurtling towards.

To study the effects of overcrowding on rats, Calhoun allowed overcrowding to occur in an enclosed cell codenamed Universe 25. What resulted was both prophetic and horrific. In what was described as a “behavioural sink”, female rats cast aside their reproductive roles by either abandoning their offspring or refusing to mate altogether (just like Shalene) with other rats exhibiting increasingly aggressive behaviour.

The subsequent generations of rats born into Universe 25 were so diminished by the world around them that they spent their time obsessively grooming, sleeping and eating, but never choosing to reproduce.

It doesn’t take a genius to see these signs in our current society. A growing population, a rise in aggressive behaviour, a falling birth rate and materialistic young people who refuse to start families sound all-too familiar.

That angry bloke you saw on YouTube who was offended by that T-shirt in a crowded MRT wasn’t reacting to the shirt; he was reacting to the crowded MRT. Mind. Blown.

We may not even have a choice about this. Given that cities like Singapore have no option but to grow their economies and expand their populations, overcrowding is practically inevitable.

Trying to find happy employment in an overcrowded city is like trying to be a happy rat in Universe 25. Just like me trying to patch things up with Shalene: it is possible but not particularly smart or realistic.

If the overcrowding is inevitable, the ideal job is the job that would get you out of your job the fastest. The best job is plainly one where you earn a lot, just so you can run off somewhere where there are wide-open spaces and fresh, clean country air for the rest of your miserable life.

So suck it up, do what you have to, and may the best of us buy that country home in Melbourne.

First published in Esquire Singapore's January 2016 issue. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Esquire Singapore, Mongoose Publishing, its affiliates or its employees.