The Future of Work: A Vision for 2023 (and Beyond)

Work was in the news this year.

Whether it was labor organizing at Starbucks and Amazon, layoffs at tech companies, the eyeroll-inducing “quiet quitting” trend, or the absolutely bonkers “productivity paranoia” scare, people who make the future of work their work have had quite a bit to talk about.

We got Nell McShane Wulfhart’s book, The Great Stewardess Rebellion, Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel’s Out of Office, and labor reporter Kim Kelly’s history of the labor movement, Fight Like Hell

There’s been plenty of talk about work and neurodivergence. I contributed to that myself at Fast Company and The Muse.

I’ve received pitch after pitch for the podcast from executives who want to talk about the future of work. They want to promote how they’re reengaging employees, improving company culture , or maximizing productivity without inducing burnout.

Elon Musk insists that he’ll only employ workers “hardcore” enough to sleep at the office. Meta laid off 11,000 workers they were essentially keeping in “reserve” so that other tech companies couldn’t hire them. While over at Google and Apple, workers are starting to organize and unionize.

Speaking of organizing… adjunct instructors at The New School and low-wage academic workers in the University of California system went on strike to secure higher wages.

The future of work is here—now.

Over the last three years, Americans have seen a tidal shift in how we think about work. School and daycare closures highlighted how precarious women’s employment continues to be. The rise of grocery delivery and DoorDash exposed how likely we are to accept the externalities of our choices. We’re happy to erase the labor (and risk) of others in the name of going “contactless.” And talk about student loan debt called attention to how lenders exploit fear of downward mobility to sell college degrees as “job training.” 

If 2020 was the year people asked, “Can we really work from home?” and 2021 was the year people asked, “How might we return to the office?”, then 2022 was the year people started asking, “Why do we put up with this crap?

The future of work transcends worker categories.

If, like me, you’ve been working from home for many years, maybe this shift in discourse felt irrelevant. You’ve got your own gig; you make your own rules; you create your own working conditions. But I believe this larger shift transcends the divisions created by our tax codes—contractor, employee, sole proprietor, member of an LLC, and even employer. Whether we have obligations to an employer or rely on some of the world’s largest corporations for “free access” to the software products they create to harvest our personal data, we are workers.

And the way we think about work and workers is changing because work changed and is still changing.

Whereas at one time, it made sense to talk about work-life balance, it longer does. How do you balance two things that take up the same space, the same time? At one time, it made sense to talk about productivity at work. But productivity is a superficial at best, harmful at worst measure when we’re talking about that is increasingly care-based, creative, and unpredictable. At one time, it made sense to talk about career paths and opportunities for advancement. But today, the short-term profit incentive means it’s just as likely a worker will be made contingent—erasing their employer-provided benefits—as promoted with a meager pay increase.

The current state of work might be bleak—but the future of work is cause for hope.

I’m uncomfortably aware that my analysis of work, the economy, and our culture can lean toward the bleak. Part of my analysis will always be to uncover the context and systems that operate beneath the current conditions on the ground. And a critical element of progressive analysis is understanding that the context and systems we operate are flawed, often deeply so. 

But another critical element of progressive analysis is holding on to the potential for change. This is the wellspring of hope. Work is changing and has the potential to change even more dramatically. It’s not too late to imagine a world where what we do 20, 30, or 40 hours per week is detached from how our needs are met. It’s not too late to ascribe new values to work—values that create a more dynamic and imaginative economy than productivity or profit. It’s not too late to envision your own work differently.

“Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed.” 

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

I first started writing about the maker movement and online business 14 years ago now. Back then, I was alive with the potential for independent work and novel ways of earning a living. At that time, the possibilities felt outrageous and extreme from where I was sitting. Today, I realize that my imagination was still trapped in economic and cultural programming that prevented me from seeing how my values and excitement could be realized in even more outrageous ways. 

My vision for the future of work today is extreme. Another 10 or 14 years from now, I might look back on it and think, “oh, wasn’t that cute!” But such is the nature of progressivism.

In short, here is my vision for the future of work:

  1. We recognize the inherent overlap between waged work, life work, and living—and use that overlap to build new frameworks that solve for care, collaboration, and creativity.
  2. We stop trying, as David Graeber put it, to “quantify the unquantifiable.” Instead, workers and managers collaborate to make meaning through the process of work.
  3. We eliminate economic and social structures that rely on the moral virtuousness of hard work—and replace those structures with policy that leads to human thriving.
  4. We create work spaces—physical, virtual, social,  intellectual, and emotional—that are accessible to everyone who wants to access them so we can benefit from diverse ideas and perspectives.
  5. We value workers as humans, not machines.
  6. We organize value production and exchange in ways that benefit humans rather than capital. 
  7. We build structures for work relations that allow greater autonomy, more trust, and closer connections to the product of work.
  8. We see every worker and non-worker as an integral part of society.

It’s important to note that these are not superficial changes.

They cannot be subsumed into existing capitalist structures of work. We’ll be told that they can be. Organizations are already advertising their focus on worker well-being in an effort to respond to demands. But with few exceptions, this just isn’t true.

And lest you think that you’re immune because you set your own hours or determine your own pay, sorry. Independent workers need to will need to rethink the way they work from the ground-up, too. They need to recalibrate their relationships with other workers and organizations. They must set new targets and operationalize new ways of doing business outside of existing incentive structures.

This is an exciting time to be a worker. Things are changing. Rapidly. Whether in small and personal ways or large and structural ways, this is our opportunity to get creative. We can practice a new way of working, living, and being—individually and cooperatively.

And how we do that is exactly the question I want to ask in 2023. I hope you’ll ask it, too.

If you’re ready to create your own reinterpretation of work, I have two recommendations.

The first is my new book, What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change the Way We Approach Goal-Setting. It’s a fundamental rethinking of why we choose our goals, why we always strive for more, and how we might create systems that don’t revolve around achievement or relentless growth. It’s a perfect way to start the new year. And, it’s a great gift for friends and colleagues who want to do things differently.

And the second is a brand-new workshop that I’m teaching January 10, 17, and 24th called Work In Practice. This 3-part workshop builds on the themes of the book and applies them to our daily work. On January 10, we’ll tackle job crafting so we can do better work with less stress. On January 17, we’ll embrace our limits so we can make reasonable and sustainable plans for the year ahead. And on January 24, we’ll creates systems of care for ourselves and others to increase our access to resources, as well as increase what we have available to give and share. Learn more.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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