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Brainstorm: The age for reimagining work

The world has, in effect, given corporations the middle finger.

By Johan Steyn, March 2022

The silent film Modern Times was made in 1936 by genius filmmaker Charlie Chaplin. The world of Little Tramp – the film’s emblematic character – is a satirical and comic depiction of the Great Depression's bleak employment and financial situation. Because of industrialisation and efficiency gained by mechanising human jobs, Chaplin saw his age as a product of technological menace (a foreboding of a future he could not imagine).

Workers were rendered unnecessary, and the foremen, managers, and department heads with authority over them grew in stature and influence as a result. Modern Times may be more relevant now than it has ever been. In the battle to avoid alienation and preserve humanity in a modern, automated world, the film reflects powerfully on difficulties facing our current day.

In many organisations, these ‘command-and-control’ ways of working are still the established order of the day. Individualisation is buried for the sake of blind performance in job roles that fail to allow the best ideas and talent to flourish.

The world of working is facing a momentous shift, where the status quo is undergoing an irreverent but much-needed change. Three factors, in particular, are influencing the rearrangement of modern work; namely generational and technological shifts, and the impact of the pandemic.

The majority of the global workforce is made up of people born between 1981 and 1996. Known as the ‘millennial generation’, they will soon account for 75% of workers worldwide. This first generation of digital natives has grown up in the internet era, carrying all the knowledge ever produced by mankind in the smartphones in their pockets.

The least engaged generation in the job market, they have a sense of entitlement, seek independence and flourish when moving between jobs. With easy access to information and ‘forever online’, they abhor control and limitations.

Tech-driven disruption

In the smart technology era, the impact of artificial intelligence, hyper-automation and digital assistants is a growing reality. We are introduced to software robots that interact with us as equal colleagues, that relieve us from monotonous tasks and the work we despise.

Whereas automation is a real and present danger to the employment of the future workforce, it will also set us free from the ‘robots in flesh’ status forced on us by industrialisation.

Working in one place at a time, often for many years, doing the same job, is a thing of the past. Technology allows us to work when we want, the hours we want, and for whom we want. Short-term, freelance work on our terms is making the gig economy the way to work now and into the future.

The pandemic shift

Millions of people lost loved ones and often couldn't be with them in their dying moments or at their funerals. Working from home, balancing the demands of children and finding new ways to structure our work routines, the pandemic lockdowns forced us to rethink the nature and value of work.

Over the last months, we witnessed the ‘great resignation’, where millions of people decided they don’t want to be slaves to the ghastly daily commute, to the restrictions of office hours or the abuse of corporate culture. The world has, in effect, given corporations the middle finger.

We have entered an age where we need a contemporary vision for the very nature of work. A new generation, an explosion of technological enablement and a pandemic that made us rethink our humanness will forever change our ideas on labour, wealth and a life filled with meaning.

Writing in his personal capacity, Johan Steyn is a smart automation and AI thought leader and management consultant, working at PwC, and is chair of the IITPSA’s Special Interest Group on AI and Robotics.


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