Who Owns Work, and Its Future?

An essay in the Working Futures series on the present and future of work

Today, at the outset of writing an on-going series of essays on the future of work, called Working Futures, I want to frame the discussion around work in an uncommon way. Specifically, I won't be advancing an argument about some list of hifalutin principles or aspirational goals, which, if adopted universally would miraculously resolve any and all friction or dissatisfaction at work, make us more productive, and end gender, racial, and age bias across the board.

Neither will I pull out of my hat a tightly-crafted metaphor that miraculously provides deep and useful insight into the knotted difficulties that unite and divide the worker, the workforce, and the company: the organization as a city, for example, or the workforce as an orchestra. Metaphors can sometimes help, but they are slippery and rely on magical thinking, and for once I will try to put conjuring to one side.

Instead, I will take a different tack and consider work and its future as a large-scale social problem, something like poverty, illegal immigration, or global climate change¹. We don't usually think of it that way, but perhaps we should. And like other problems, it's reasonable to ask 'who owns it?'

We have become inured to a world dominated by work, but as with homelessness, poverty, and injustice, we have learned to look away. In the case of work, however, we are looking away from ourselves.

For the individual, work is at best an accommodation to the pressing need to provide for ourselves, and that can provide the wherewithal to pursue happiness. At the worst, it is a global system that requires the majority of adults worldwide to dedicate a large chunk of their waking hours to demanding bosses, harrowing commutes, stressful and dangerous work places, and often tedious, repetitive and unrelenting labor.

We have become inured to a world dominated by work, but as with homelessness, poverty, and injustice, we have learned to look away. In the case of work, however, we are looking away from ourselves.

Wicked Problems

Just as with those other social ills, I believe work falls into the category of 'wicked problems', a term introduced in by C. West Churchman, Horst Wittel, and Melvin Webber various articles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

John Camillus contrasted wicked problems from 'tame' ones:

A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn't have a right answer.

I'll expand on the idea of work as a wicked problem in the next section.

By work I intend the full gamut of meanings and their interrelation:

  • a person's job or occupation (My work involves a lot of long nights, generally on the docks.)
  • the place where we apply our labor (She's not home yet, she's finishing a report at work.)
  • the shared effort of a group to achieve a result (This project won't complete itself. Let's get to work.)
  • the result of labor, the product or end state (The pre-industrial clothing industry relied on piecework, rather than mass production.)

I positioned my essay as being about the ownership of work, and its future. By that I mean who gets to steer the discussion, who decides who gets to speak, and who decides what is within the bounds of legitimate discourse about work. Let's examine some of those closest to the issue to see if we can determine who among them has a claim to owning work:

  • Is work principally an attribute of the individual, the person that commutes to work (the place), works all day (the job), works closely with their team (the collective), in order to get the work out the door (the product)?
  • Or is work defined, shaped, and by extension, owned by by the business owner that employs people and controls the 'means of production'?
  • Is work alternatively a negotiated or emergent property of the team, the workforce, or the network of networks that animate a corporation?
  • Or is work actually just a means to an end, energy expended to get a product to the marketplace, where its meaning and value are defined, controlled, and therefore owned by the market, the eventual customers of the products and services provided?

In a sense, all of these alternatives are possibly right, at least from the perspective and interests of the various actors mentioned: the individual worker, the business owner, the workforce, or the market. And we shouldn't ignore the larger realm of actors like governments at various levels and in various forms, institutions like unions, and even the treaties and trade agreements between nations, like NAFTA and the European Union. All of these actors play a part in the messy world of work, today, and in the future. They play together or in opposition and at times, both. And all have some obvious claims of what the courts call 'standing', meaning they are legitimately involved in the problem area since they can be harmed by actions taken by others.

How can we balance the needs, wants, and perquisites of these various players, which are simultaneously pursuing their own interests, while interrelated by convention, law, contracts, and both common and cross purposes? Are there some overarching principles or even a means of understanding this mess, which in general forms the unexamined foundation of our thinking and talking about work? Perhaps.