The Future: One day I will not live in a house. I will live in a 500 square foot (or less) apartment. I will live in enough space to accommodate cooking, sleep, and bathing. My office will occupy the space of a small desk, but it will be entirely portable. I will be able to take my business in my briefcase to anywhere. If the briefcase is lost, I will be able to replace it for a few hundred dollars without my business missing a beat. I will be able to operate from any nation. I will not own a car. I will live, usually, in a large city where all of this is not only possible but easy. I will have no garage, no carport, no lawn, and no utility room. My home will be a garage, where we park for a while, but it will not be the sum of my life, or its meaning. Work, on the other hand, will be just that. In other words, what was once the end will be a means, and what was once a means will be an end.
Rule: Imagine where and how you would live, if your work mattered the most.
The Recent Past: Much of the cubicle nation is working in a 21st century world on 20th century technology with a 19th century work model. People in the average office still use paper to store information. They still share it with paper-based machines – copiers and fax. Their phones are still connected to cables. The still physically attend meetings, often by plane. They still install software to hard drives. They still say that this or that technology or telecommuting will never take off. Most of the buildings are garages for two things: people (who could be working off site) and paper (which could be stored online – or warehoused off site for government agencies that haven’t caught up yet). Some of them think that all their people gathering like eggs in a crate is part of a culture of “being personal”, but what of the personal cost? Or else it’s accountability – but that’s an issue for employees – if they hired contractors and subjected the accountability to the open marketplace, or implemented a results-only workforce, they could monitor results instead of activity. This lagging behind is not disconnected from a general failure, and not just in traditional behemoth companies, to catch up to the culture of work that is emerging. It is a culture that is highly mobile, transitional, project-based, or performance-driven, and often inherently and universally outsourced. And yet, the tremors that signal the tsunami coming over the horizon, are thought to be only the momentary fluctuations of a stable market.
The Distant Past: Our grandparents encouraged us to start out at the bottom in some apparently rock solid company, work up from there, obtain more responsibility, buy that house, save money until retirement, and pass on the remainder to children. Their children encouraged us to go to college or technical school and start in the middle (as the middle got bigger) – the future was Enron. Both encouragements were a description of a world that had changed by the time they told us about it. This time the change is comprehensive – an overhaul, not an adjustment.
The Beginning: The post-WWII generation embraced and inculcated into their children a lifelong quest for acquisition – acquisition of specific things. Some cultures even refer to them as the keys to success: university degree, respectable job, respectable house, reliable car, supportive spouse. Increasingly, though, these either matter less, don’t matter, or are being reconsidered and redefined.
It’s Over: There’s a film depicting Bobby Fischer, child chess prodigy, holding out his hand and offering his chess opponent a draw. The opponent says, “The game’s not over yet.” Bobby replies, “It’s over. You don’t realize that it’s over. Twelve moves, or you can take the draw.” The world has changed like that.
The House: Location matters far less in a global economy, so owning a house isn’t carrying with it the esteem it once did. It isn’t the sign of wealth and accomplishment that it was after WWII – it may actually be a sign of being behind the curve, if you’re tied to it, and it represents the sum of accomplishment. The mortgage crisis underlined this: a house is a balance sheet item. If that $500K would earn more in another investment, when you subtract the cost of renting, then it’s bad business.
The Car: Cars are losing their romance. Places in the world that depend on cars as the primary transportation infrastructure may eventually seem like they still drive covered wagons. What about going to work? Perhaps fewer of us will be doing that. “It’ll never change. There will always be cars on the road.” You can just hear the reassurances of the status quo. We also heard, “There will always be fax machines. Cell phones will never replace landlines. I’ll never use e-mail.” Before that, our recent ancestors heard, “Air transportation has no commercial future.” and “These horseless carriages will never replace a good mule.” Etc. The recent crunch has slowed car sales, and fuel use, indicating that we can indeed do with less. We won’t, collectively at least, forget this.
University Education: Education is now just socialization and information. The age of transforming individuals into great thinkers went the way of traditional universities, following the mediaeval model (one I happen to like). What’s left is accessible online, and often for free. Even the Ivy League can be had just as easily in Dubai as the US. Great thinkers are not those who excel at going down the well-beaten path of tradition, but will be found among those who turn tradition on its head.
Retirement: Retirement made sense when labor was back-breaking, physical, non-automated, dangerous, dirty work that took a heavy toll on the body, and eventually broke it. Now the worst thing for your body is sitting in an office eating candy and lunching on fast food. In the emerging economy, we’re not breaking our backs from labor, we’re straining them from getting fat. Retirement hasn’t made practical sense in some time. It doesn’t make vocational sense, either. With this much ubiquitous opportunity, why would anyone spend 60 years doing something they don’t particularly like, in order to spend their twilight years (the age which begins at the exact statistical point that a large number of us begin to die) doing what they want. In an age of continual access to information, opportunity, and every imaginable experience, why defer the life you want? Besides, work, not some far off cessation of work, is supposed to be the primary vehicle of meaning in our lives. Instead of postponing our lives while we work, we have immense opportunities to do the work we want, or at least use reasonably delightful work that can subsidize lengthy stretches of even more meaningful activity. It’s not really that hard to spend a month in Korea. The culture of new technologies and economies encourages pulling life back off of the shelf and putting it into play now. We were once told we were being responsible by deferring life – now, perhaps, we’re just being dull.
Marriage: The initial stigma associated with getting a date online is gone, except among those who just can’t absorb the implications and benefits of technology fast enough. Eharmony made it mainstream. Marriages that were once arranged at grange dances among partners no more than 50-miles from their birthplaces, are now frequent among those 5000 miles apart. The jury is still out on the results, but one thing is certain, the search is easier, and the implication is that marriage can’t easily retain its status as a major meritorious accomplishment.
In Sum: Knowledge is no longer unavailable to the “slow students”; epistemological speed is often measured in how fast and effectively you can Google something. Being clever is generating more value than having a degree – which may represent your creativity, or may just as easily represent your ability to get a guaranteed loan and follow general instructions that are repeated over and over. It’s now possible to conduct a serious business out of a backpack while living in a hostel. Getting around is easier than ever – the car you own, depending on where you live, may be the last car you ever need to own. Ubiquitous WiFi and cellular has made social networking the basis not only of romance, but of business. In other words, the old system – degree, job, house, car, wife – is being met with the extended hand of a cultural Bobby Fisher, and the tremors of change are being felt and mistaken for a momentary financial setback or two. Where it isn’t dead, it’s being redefined. Where it isn’t useful, it’s going the way of the dinosaur.
Life Modification: One of the key results of ubiquitous internet and global placement of fiber, is the personalization of individual existence and subsistence. Life modification is now the rule. The idea that we all follow a herd-like model is replaced by a culture steeped in continual self-expression (e.g. blogging) and pervasive communication (e.g. Skype). The new entrepreneurs who thrive in this environment will break the rules – they will be, inherently, heretics to the old way. Most will keep it for themselves, perhaps, but the social entrepreneurs will even make the world better, and perhaps help to save it. Work is too interesting now to be just a way to get useless stuff. Besides, stuff has to be stored – more bloat, less mobility, less flexibility, less adaptability, less stuff. Smart life-modders will go lean and live strong.
The Heels of Culture: The .com bubble demonstrated that a technology update waits for a cultural update. Technology itself doesn’t increase productivity, expand options, or empower individuals. Technology requires a commensurate culture shift, and you can’t learn that from a degree-granting institution, because the world is changing far faster than they can catch up. For the “freaks and geeks” from two decades ago, this is a very good thing. “Success” is not only no longer measured the old way, it’s not dispensed the old way, and its economic and social meaning is radically altered.