Work needed: human required

By James Arroyo OBE

As we resume Ditchley’s Autumn programme then we have been reviewing what we learnt from the intensive series of discussions held during the Ditchley Summer Project. One standout lesson is the need to prepare for disruption and change ahead, especially in the field of work. The pandemic has massively accelerated pre-existing trends and we are likely to see some big years ahead of expectation. 

To continue this line of discussion and to help the Ditchley community think through the implications, we will be producing a series of pieces reflecting on the changing demand for education and its likely changing nature. The first of these looks at the concept of the work that only humans can do and how we need to prepare for it – as explored by Ditchley participant Jamie Merisotis, CEO of the Lumina Foundation, in his latest book, Human Work.

The changing world of work has been a topic of considerable debate over recent years, with many predicting job losses due to automation and artificial intelligence, and some even predicting the end of work, with basic income provided by the state and time spent, as has been imagined before, purely on social relationships, the Arts, entertainment and leisure. The ‘future of work’ became an oft-repeated phrase by work experts. But in the last months, the coronavirus pandemic has reconfirmed for many just how significant work is in our lives and our fundamental need for it, not just for income but as a source of identity, meaning and dignity.

We know that as short-term furlough schemes and direct state aid wind down then hundreds of thousands of people will find themselves thrown out of work for no fault of their own. How to help them is a complex challenge, with systemic as well as an individual implications, impacting not only our economic outlook but also our political systems. How can we support people in learning new skills and new knowledge for new forms of work? How can we enable people to find dignity and meaning as well as basic remuneration as potentially whole areas of the economy, for example hospitality and travel, become unviable and have to be reimagined or, at the most extreme end of the spectrum, abandoned and replaced?

In his book Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines, Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis brings his experience in higher education and public policy to the current crisis, advocating for the radical change needed to adapt our learning systems to the needs of the future. Rather than attempt to predict the future of work, Merisotis asks readers to focus on the work of the future, where job change and displacement will be the norm given that ‘everyone will see jobs changed in some way by technology and will need additional learning to take advantage of the opportunities for work that inevitably will be created.’ The pandemic is just one example of such change, and increasingly technology will force all people to ‘focus on what it means to be human and to do human work.’

Human work is work where individuals are ‘actively engaged and responding to their environments’ and that is ultimately focused on the ‘highly developed talent of individuals for the betterment of society.’ This will be work that places the individual and their talents at the centre – where critical thinking, nuance and relations with others will be prized, as well as a service mindset toward others and surrounding communities. Critical thinking is necessary for example in a world where misinformation and disinformation abound and where virtual work and life forces us to deal with abstract concepts and relationships.

The hybrid world of joint virtual and face-to-face in person work means that we need to think about human connection more than ever. (This belief in connection is central to our work at Ditchley and it is core to our approach to our conference programme and in our broader thinking on impact.) The industries expected to grow over the next years – the green economy, cyber and digital – will require specialised knowledge and skills – but Merisotis notes that we will also face the challenge of determining what is human in these emerging forms of work.

Merisotis suggests that when thinking about the work of the future, we should ask ‘What are we preparing them [learners] for?’ He argues that a long view of the future is needed and that foundations are well positioned to engage the wide range of actors needed to answer this question. A very wide reach across networks will be necessary if we are to answer this question effectively, incorporating the views of not only government and education but also technology, business, non-profit and local community leaders.

One of the challenges that Ditchley was created to address is creating time for self-reflection and bridging across divides. It is hard to ask amid our busyness, interruptions and desire for short-term wins, what we are preparing for. This requires ‘the painful necessity of thought,’ as Bertrand Russell termed it, but modern politics and business are not well suited for this. Without answering this question though, we cannot adapt our learning systems and therefore we cannot prepare democracies for the challenges of the world emerging in front of us.

What kinds of new learning systems should we move toward then? Merisotis says that we must work toward a system that engages a far greater number of people than is currently the case: ‘Far more people need the higher-level learning required by human work than our systems are equipped to serve, and people need this learning throughout their lives.’ We need learning systems that complementpaid work and run concurrently with it, in order to develop the skills necessary for human work such as empathy. People should be able to win credentials learning as they work and learn – rather than alternating between periods of learning and work.

Merisotis rejects the term ‘lifelong learning,’ judging it too closely associated with sporadic rather than fully integrated learning. He proposes the idea of ‘wide learning’ which emphasises that worker-learners need to come from all parts of society and that acquiring new knowledge, skills and abilities must be a continuous process. Going further he suggests that a service-oriented mindset should be integrated in all work and learning, the ethos ‘learn, earn, serve’ informing how individuals approach their own work, and perhaps more importantly, how employers approach their work practices – engaging more closely with the communities around them.

One of our main goals at Ditchley is to reach widely across both sides of the Atlantic and across different parts of society within the UK, the US, Canada and elsewhere in order to answer the question of what exactly should learning be preparing people for. We must engage across shades of political opinion and crucially across regions if we are to answer this question in a way that benefits democratic systems as a whole. Increased learning across society in a continual fashion is also a way to address its inequities and inequality.

Merisotis writes in the conclusion to Human Workthat ‘Our great challenge is to give all people – and I do mean all people – the chance to do human work, including preparing for it by developing their unique abilities.’ The Second World War led to the rise of public primary and secondary education in many parts of the world. This should give us more than enough reason and hope that similar radical change in education of new worker-learners across all of society is possible; and can be done continuously in ways that bolster individual talents and promote active and thoughtful citizenship in our democracies. We might not know which jobs will exist in the future but we can know that the learning we undertake should prepare us to do work that more fully realises our potential as human beings. 

Human Work in the Age of Smart Machinesis published on 6 October 2020.