Discussing the Future of Work With the Royal Society of Arts

European Straits #87

Dear all,

I’ve decided to change the format of this newsletter a bit. As I’m now contributing to Forbes, I want to try and share essays on that platform and focus the newsletter on my activities (people I meet, articles I read, things I talk about), notably regarding my book Hedge and how my firm The Family is expanding in Europe. Of course, I’ll still be including thoughts and links to let you easily dig into a particular subject.

Discussing the future of work with the RSA

Today I participated in a panel on the future of work, thanks to a kind invitation by Taylor Wessing, a London-based law firm, and the Royal Society of Arts. Taylor Wessing recently became a major sponsor of the RSA’s new Future of Work Centre.

Benedict Dellot, a researcher at the RSA, shared insights on how they’re approaching this difficult subject. My role was to provide a complementary perspective, which I structured along the following lines:

  • At any given time, the good jobs in the private sector are those that fit the techno-economic paradigm of the day. In the 20th century, the way to create the most value was via (i) large pyramidal organizations (ii) serving mass consumer markets (iii) with standardized products (iv) under the principles of scientific management. If you had a job in a firm matching all those criteria, your labor productivity was high and your employer could afford to reward you with a high wage, lots of benefits, and overall economic security.

  • The good jobs of yesterday were pre-automated by standardization and scientific management, which is why they’re the first to be replaced by robots and software. There are many jobs being created in sectors such as construction, hospitality, healthcare, and urban logistics. But there aren’t many left in the sectors that used to be the best employers in the 20th century, because those housed the most routine and standardized jobs. This gives us the overall impression that all jobs are disappearing.

  • Meanwhile, work (as an experience, an ethic, and an institution) has not been redesigned to fit the new techno-economic paradigm. As the Fordist economy is in agony, now the optimal way to create value is via (i) a flatter, more platform-friendly kind of large organization, (ii) serving active, networked individuals (the multitude) rather than masses of passive consumers, (iii) with products that can be customized at scale, (iv) under the principles of continuous innovation and constantly switching business models. This calls for skills, tasks and conditions that have little to do with what work was about in the 20th century.

  • One day we’ll have good jobs again, but we need to do two things. First, changes in laws and regulations will make it possible for work to fit the new paradigm and will eventually result in more value—and more wealth! Second, we need to provide workers with a Great Safety Net 2.0 so that they benefit from that surplus of value and can bargain with firms (as well as with shareholders and with customers) to get their fair share.

Obviously this is a specific version of the argument that I develop in Hedge, of which you should get a copy if you don’t already have it! Simply click on the relevant Amazon link depending on where you are: 🇺🇸US, 🇬🇧UK, 🇫🇷FR, 🇩🇪DE, 🇮🇹IT, 🇪🇸ES.

Off to Switzerland

I’ve been talking quite a lot about Hedge in recent weeks: I did a talk at Stripe in London 10 days ago, a Q&A session with Wemind’s Hind Elidrissi in Paris last week, a lengthy interview with journalists from Le Monde, and two lessons on Hedge for Sciences Po students.

This morning I’m headed out on the first stop of the Hedge ‘European tour’, Switzerland 🇨🇭, where I’ve been invited by our good friends at Temenos Marketplace. If you’re nearby, here are the details about the events that you can attend (to register: contact Ben Robinson):

  • Today (Sept. 19) at 7pm in Geneva: A talk at Spaces, followed by a panel discussion with Dave Galbraith, a partner at Anthemis Capital, Amanda Byrde, founder of Impact Hub Geneva and Michael Kleiner, Economic Development Officer for the State of Geneva.

  • Tomorrow (Sept. 20) at 9:30am in Geneva: a coffee and cake presentation of Hedge at Fongit, a Geneva-based innovation incubator.

  • Tomorrow (Sept. 20) at 6pm in Zurich: Talk at F10 Incubator & Accelerator followed by a panel discussion with Nina Reinhart (entrepreneur and investor), and Garett Cassidy, CEO of Trezeo.

You can also learn more about my hosts by following these links:

Forbes contributions

Finally, I’ve published two articles in Forbes since the last issue of this newsletter:

  • We’ve heard too many politicians telling workers that they should get more training to develop a higher level of skills. Yet the reality of future work is not that we’ll all become engineers, developers, and designers. Instead, most people will join what I call 'proximity services'. Making that switch isn’t necessarily easy, but lifelong education is only a very small part of redeploying the workforce toward those sectors. And so it’s time to embrace a new approach to so-called low-skilled jobs. Read more here: What Everyone Is Getting Wrong About Low-Skilled Jobs.

  • I oppose the new EU Copyright Directive, not because I always defend tech companies against legacy industries, but because I think it will make life more difficult for European startups. Basically, the new rules will make it easier for right holders to shake down tech companies whose platforms are used to share copyrighted content. But those right holders will behave very differently depending on who’s sitting on the other side of the table. If it’s Google or Facebook, they’ll make deals and get their share of the profits. If it’s a startup that’s still in the process of discovering its business model, they’ll simply erect barriers and prevent it from growing. Obviously it’s a major problem for European entrepreneurs. Read more here: The EU Copyright Directive Won't Kill The Internet But It Will Kill Startups.

Two more essential readings on tech and copyright

Let me know what you think of the new format!

Warm regards (from London, UK),

Nicolas