Eliminating Future Shock – The changing world of work and the organization

Eliminating Future Shock – The changing world of work and the organization

By Sohail Inayatullah, September 12, 2006


It was many years ago in 1974 when I watched a film written by Alvin Toffler. The last scene of the film had a couple romantically wandering in a beautiful forest. From the back, we could see them holding hands; serene music accompanied their movement. The world was calm, soft, ever so predictable. And then the camera panned to their faces, and suddenly, in horror, we saw that it was not humans who had found Eden, but two robots.

It was this disruption of the natural world that Toffler accurately forecast. Changes in the nature of nature (genetics), in reality (artificial intelligence), in society (postcolonialism, post-national-state, post-everything), in truth (postmodernism) and sovereignty (globalization) have deeply challenged our world. And we are living through this rupture.

“We are unable to decipher what trends are taking us into the future, and what trends are fighting with glory to take us back to a different era.”

For Toffler, there were three historical eras – the agricultural (feudal, the strong male, closeness to nature, living within one’s means), the industrial (the standardization of everything, the democratization of everything) and now the post-industrial. As we are living through this era, caught in this transition, we cannot see it quite clearly. Fish do no know they swim in water, and we remain unaware of the era we have landed ourselves in. We are unable to decipher what trends are taking us into the future, and what trends are fighting with glory to take us back to a different era.

Thus not only is the present murky but certainly so is the mid and long term future.

I hope that some tools from the Futures field can make this transition more understandable if not manageable.

First, and this is crucial, Toffler, misunderstood a crucial point, something that is biting the entire western world. History is not merely linear, it can be cyclical, move like and pendulum. Globalization is not merely a linear simple process – as Michio Kaku writes – Just get on the train, the single track. Rather it is a complex adaptive pattern.

What this means is that humans can learn about history and thus make choices. These choices are not just individual but collective. What is new about this type of globalization is that there is collective reflection on this process – we are reflecting on our own evolution, indeed, intervening in human evolution, particularly the speed of evolution.

Forecasting in an environment where the future “out there” is changing because of the future in here (both how we think and how our bodies contextualize, limit, define what we can think) is fraught with challenges.

Moreover, the act of forecasting changes the forecast. The universe is thus not static not disconnected from who we are. It is not empty, but already filled with our images and desires.

The shape of the future is thus not merely a linear upward rise of more science, more technology and more modernity – ie the end of history, of religion, of tradition. Indeed, individuals and communities throughout the world have seen the linear future and said, No, we don’t like it.

This attack on the future has come from many sides: the nation, the city, science and religion.

In Australia, it has been One Nation, challenging economic globalization and multiculturalism with the mantra of One God, One Nation and One Economy. While the economic continues, multiculturalism certainly is under threat. Prime Minister Howard continues to dream of the white picket fence, when life was stable and aliens were rare.

The challenge as well comes form other sites – health professionals have shown that city design impacts our health, our life years (i). Suburbs rob us of our health by destroying community and taking away walking possibilities.

Spiritual approaches to science and society call for a re-enchantment of the world. Focusing on spirituality and health, evidence for meditation, yoga and alternative medicine continues to mount (ii). Organizationally, there have been calls for spirituality as the fourth bottom line. Certainly, as individuals desire more of their employer than merely providing employment. Identity has become as important.

Religion as well is challenging the linear assault, imagining a future from the past. Whether this is Bush’s theological utopia linked to empire or Bin Laden fascist Islamic khalifate or BJp’s Hindutatva. Each uses religion and the utopia of history to imagine a different world from the linear ascent of science and technology.

Eco-green visions are similar. Using the deep myth of Eden with the Western archetype of Arcadia, they imagine a world where humans live with nature. It is cooperative communities that they envision. Greed is challenged and humans live within their means.

All these grand perspectives re-think the nature of work. The linear ascent asserts that work will increasingly become de-linked from survival once the waves of globalization have created a true world economy. Each locale will do what it does best and trade with others. Generally, advanced nations will focus on finance and technology, with manufacturing being done by poorer nations, and manual labour by the poorest. Agriculture, of course, is the one variable, which remains protected, since food relates to survival and it is heartland of each country, which ensure that the theo-globalists stay in power.

Eventually, manual labour will disappear in the factory (iii) and in the home – a world of robots is our future. We will be designers, engaged in serving others – the tourism industry – and in the finance industry (not to mention the big growth – the conflict industry). Union power will also continue to decline (iv). Jobs in manufacturing continue to go down as well, having peaked in the USA in the 1920s (Agricultural in the 1880s).

Figure 1 Beyond the Third Wave – the nine eras of economic sector dominance (click to see full size).

In contrast is the Eco-green, where work is linked to the good life, to the dignity of expression, to being. i.e., either through state intervention, cooperative or retraining, work is crucial to dignity.

“The religious right too shares this future – hard work leads to just rewards and the state needs to ensure that all have a chance to sweat.”

The religious right too shares this future – hard work leads to just rewards and the state needs to ensure that all have a chance to sweat.

What this all points to is that the future shock is not from the increasing rate of change, but about heterogeneous change, i.e., we appear to live in the same world but we do not.

Our images of the future, of work, of how the world should be, all differ. We live in different times in history, some in agricultural, some in industrial, some in postindustrial and some already in the emerging dream cultural economy.

We time the world differently.


It is not just the nature of change or heterogeneity, but that change is complex – a change in one part of the world influences the next, i.e., changing weather patterns and famine in Africa, dietary habits in China and Vietnam and Sars/bird flu. Each change sets of first, second and third order impacts.

Third, it is loss of agency that creates the new future shock. Loss of agency is the capacity to influence the world, the sense that it is has all become too overwhelming – time, finance, marriage (the job/family balance) all conspire to remove the possibility of agency on the world.

One response, and the right is the best at this, is: conspiracy theories. These are based on fear – some group is taking away our jobs, usually, foreigners and the CIA.

For individuals, it is often suicide – the impact of change (the future is bleak, there is nothing I can do about it). Males have been most sensitive to this recently, young and old.

Succeeding in a world where the ego can no longer will to success is one problem. A world where there are conflicting messages for men is another. Having no space, no understanding of alternative futures – once the tragedies begin – is a third.

Erasing or adapting to future shock means:

  1. Understanding that there is more than one pattern to history and to the future: for example, lLinear, cyclical, bifurcation, the pendulum and evolution adaptive (the spiral) approaches.
  2. Understanding that individuals and communities not only live in different types of space (geography) but different types of time (temporality) but also different ways of knowing (epistemology). We may be on the same planet but we live in different worlds.
  3. Understanding that we cannot bracket, closet, fortress ourselves off from other parts of the world. Energy, climate, viruses, stock prices should not be seen in local terms but in gaian planetary terms – karmic biteback, blowback are all real. Real solutions must be global in scope and local in participation and regional/national in implementation.
  4. Wherever we can, we need to find agency. In our personal life, in our organizations, in our local communities agency is crucial for personal and collective health. Without a sense of being able to influence the world, we will curl up and die. Finding one’s zone of influence is crucial.
  5. Work and organizations thus become not only places where we earn money, make friends but they are crucial sites for making purpose, meaning, and most importantly, for finding agency. Being put down, feeling powerless, whether by changes in federal regulation or the local office boss are not just minor issues for one’s health but central to avoiding, indeed, eliminating future shock.

This is even more important as we consider that the future, most likely, will not remain the same. Toffler may have had some of it wrong as have most other forecasters i.e., that technology would reduce work or the paperless office, or, again, this is because their context is linear, is predictive, forgets that we live in adaptive complex worlds. Technology does make our life easier and simpler, but as we live in a competitive progress based world, we use the time opened up to increase productivity, to search for the next deal. As well, we are programmed for novelty – we search for new ways to produce, to play, to love. It is novelty that keeps us healthy, argue those in the happiness field (v).

But the novelty and innovation does not come from above – the Great Leader hypothesis. Rather the purpose of the leader is to create capacity of those in the business to innovate, for themselves to create, so they do not feel created upon. This is changing the system so that agency is possible.

The mistake again made earlier was thinking merely in terms of the new technology as creating innovation, instead of the system, worldview and story of the future that technology is nested within.

Certainly, the futures field has moved from single point forecasting (precise accurate forecast) to scenarios (a range of alternative futures) to depth (the nested layered analysis) and finally, to becoming an adaptive visionary organization. It is those organizations who have had a clear visions and embraced ideas on the edge that have done the best the last 100-150 years, they have survived and thrived.


Now, returning to issues of the futures of work and the futures of organization, what are some major challenges in front of us.

  1. Outsources of services -This is the continued process of outsourcing not just manufactured goods, but outsourcing services (the call centre being the most obvious example, but as well basic science, basic research, data entry, data analysi and eventually accounting, law, risk management, life sciences.

    The outcomes of this could be
    • Innovation, moving up the ranks to finance/knowledge industry. The goal is to outsource as much as possible and focus one’s competitive edge on what cannot be outsourced, that is, Innovate or Die.
    • Breakdown in the capitalist system as workers join with professionals to challenge the globalization model. “Made in Australia” becomes not just a cry for labour but a cry for professionals. Who is the future Dick Smith? Will Globalization end once professionals are hit with job loss?
    • Working with those areas that are getting the oursourced work and partnering with them, that is, seeing them as current and future partners in the shifts in the capitalist system. As they rise, they come to you for new deals, new cycles of innovation.
    • The last outcome is a world system shift with India and China reinvesting in OECD, ie fairer globalized world

    Outsourcing plus AI systems spell an end to work as we know it. Add the fact that 2 billion new workers in about a dozen developing countries have joined or will soon be joining the global workforce and the world in a decade plus will look quite different to today (vi).

  2. Aging – The choices are obvious. With an Aging Australia and Oecd, productivity has to increase. The median age is moving upwards, toward 40 – the worker to retiree ratio is changing (3 to 1 to 1.5 to 1) – all point to deep problems (vii). The choices
    1. Increase migration – the problem of this is the ecological footprint of Australia and other high energy intensive nations will increase – water is already a problem. In Australia, cultural issues with the new migrants, will they be anglo, or at least Mediterranean? Generally, there is less enthusiasm for migrants since the “war on terror.” But it is not just the demand for Australia that is an issue. Demand for highly skilled professional who speak English will be global – other aging nations will want them. As well, other cities in Australia will compete for the same young people.
    2. Raise the age of retirement, so individuals work longer.
    3. End retirement as argues Ken Dychtwald: He argues that retirement is an outdated concept and far more flexible approaches are needed. These approaches need to meet the changing needs of employer and employee. These include: 1. the creation of a culture that honors lifelong learning, ie experience, 2. ending mandatory retirement, 3. flexible work and of course flexible retirement. (viii)
    4. Use AI and other systems to increase productivity – aging is tempered with productivity from new technologies.
    5. Genetic engineering, ie designer babies, state-led or sponsored population measures.
    6. Rethinking of society so that work/organization are far more female/family friendly. Real daycares, permanent part time positions, parental leave – essentially delinking biology from society.
    7. Change the foundational template of the life cycle,ie from birth-student-work-retirement to life long learning or other efforts to remove work as foundational in male identity formation. What this means is that a new inner template of our collective work lifecycle must be invented.
    8. For organizations, a new template means developing aging policy that sensitive to various age-cohorts (matures, baby boomers, gen x, dot.com and later double helix children). Each group has a different view of aging and its resources consequences (competition for work and marriage).
  3. Continued automation and rethinking employment and unemployment in all areas but specifically focused on smart systems – avatar angels, for example. In the extreme, this leads to full unemployment as the worthy goal, but generally the scenarios are 30% permanently not working, 30% part time and 30% as elite system designers. Alternatively, depending on the efficacy of ai systems, this could move to 90% not working with 10% working. This last scenarios assumes a tearing down of the fake jobs, commonly known as feather bedding – work not really needed (the military?) but kept to ensure social un wrest is low.

    There may be wise ways to do this, i.e., if one nation reduces work hours, this makes them far less competitive, but simultaneous reduction across OECD nations would work.

  4. The mapping of the genome cannot be underestimated. With individual maps soon available, tailored medicine, tailored insurance is just around the corner. At birth, we will get a cdrom with our life chances outlined – the tendencies towards certain diseases, the recommended behavior (gene intervention, diet, exercise) to deal with these tendencies. Certainly insurance companies will develop far more tailored products. Applying for work will as well be accompanied with a gene card. While there may be initial resistance, a genetic diagnostic will be one among many tools companies use to hire.

    And it would be foolish to assume that government will not step in to legislate against the unequal treatment of those with certain genetic disorders.

    On another level, we should expect that the slippery slope from gene prevention to gene enhancement to germ line intervention will be quick. Preventing diseases, early detection, even termination, will be easier to accept. However, once initiated then enhancement will follow soon, with parents, companies (certainly the military) seeking to advantage itself. Germ line intervention will be far more difficult as this means not only therapy and enhancement for this generation but for subsequent generations.

  5. The demographic environment as well continues to shift. The nearly 50%-50% division of traditional (values, male dominance, followers of the book, small government) and modernists (technology, gender equality though not equity, followers of science, large government, international balance) is being challenged by the new group of cultural creatives. Argue Ray and Anderson (ix), this group consisting of less than 5% of the population in OECD nations (certainly the usa) 30 or so years ago, has now moved to 25%. They focus on change in consciousness, gender partnership, followers of the inner self, appropriate governance with an emphasis on town hall meetings, e-democracy, global governance and sustainability.

    Work is suddenly not just a job, but about creating a better world. The company must represent deeper values – purpose, at the very least the triple bottom line, perhaps the quadruple (with spirituality, or personal health, or future generations as the fourth). Companies that do not, do not attract the best, those on a mission, the self-actualizers.

    Organizations must create opportunities to express their impulses – agency, foresight, ideals are crucial. Merely doing things because that is how they have always been done (tradition or modernity) does not suffice.

    It is important to note that this new demographic group does not translate into a political movements, for either labour or liberal or even green, but rather they seek a different ethics.

  6. This emerging demographic group as well challenges traditional notions of leadership and the nature of the organization. Among the two great uncertainties are (x): 1. will future organizations be still run by the classical strong male leader (authoritative, sometimes authoritarian – my way is the only way, I am the hero) versus the facilitated situational leadership feminine (partnership, providing vision and direction, listening, bringing out the hero in others) and 2. will the future organization be the traditional industrial (hierarchy, 9/5 time, salary based on distance from manual labour, salary based on length of time, feudal, top heavy in terms of salary) or the learning/healing, the postindustrial model).

In this framework, four futures are possible.
Figure 2 Four Possible Futures (click to see full sized image)

The challenge for Australian organizations is to move from the current tensions to the aspirational. This is far easier said than done. Ie while there are many individuals who are experimenting with new types of leadership (the dot.com model, for example) the structure of the industrial, time-controlled, strict hierarchy models remains. Thus, ideals and idealism fall aside when confronted with the old structure. Labour of course is caught, unions have stayed with the same power structure they were fighting againt, ie strong hierarchy, tough politics, and has a far harder time adjusting to the deep changes the world is going through.

At a broader macro-economic level, Asian nations are faced with a different problem. They seek to move from the agricultural (who knows who, the village elder, the community model) to the industrial (strategic planning, clear standards, merit based). Those who have done that – the East Asian nations – have done well economically. But OECD nations who seek to enter a knowledge economy have a different challenge. For them it is the move from an industrial to a knowledge economy.

The tension here is that flexible, responsive, accountable, swift labour markets and organizations are needed. However, the memory of the loss of rights, of dignity, of large capital using arguments of flexibility (for the greater good, for the nation) for their own purposes. The challenge thus is two fold and certainly paradoxical. This is both giving security – perhaps in the form of part time permanent positions or in the form of basic rights for all (housing, food, clothes, education and health) in exchange for flexibility. And there may be a range of alternative options (guaranteed stock shares given at birth) or cooperatives where all share in the management, ending the classic labour/management contradiction. This is especially possible in the more knowledge intensive industries. But this is far from certain. For example, the university, amongst the most knowledge-based sectors, remains entirely feudal. Both sides of the argument are stuck – markets asking academics to be more market sensitive and academics wanting protection from the evil of greed.

Returning to the four patterns – scenarios – it is important to note that the aspirational does need to be always networked, partnership based. Indeed, while this could be the dominant pattern, in times of crisis the culture could transform to the feudal-military mode (strong leadership, full and non-questioning adherence to orders and command). Or other alternative configurations can be found.

Certainly the main point is that an industrial organization with patriarchal leadership does not appear to be desired by many Australians.


What then will the future look like?

At the very least there are four possibilities, at least in the mid-term, 5-15 years.

First, Business as usual. This is the continued pendulum of labour versus capital, employee versus management and man versus nature. This is back and forth between liberal and labour – should Australia be more globalized or more of a social welfare state. In each model, how can basic needs to be balanced with the incentive. As well, this is a continued pendulum between being UK-directed, Asia-directed and US-directed. This is the back and forth debate between uni and multiculturalism. Who is the real Australian? I consider this the most unlikely future ie aging, outsourcing, digitalization, geneticization, all challenge the status-quo.

Second, Social and innovative transformation. This is the move from single bottom line to a triple bottom line: Profit with environment with social justice. And the fourth, that of meaning and spirituality. This is the new Well-being movement launched in Australia (xi). This means organizations that are fluid, responsible to owners, managers and employees – multiple stakeholders and leadership that is seeks to listen deeply. They are far flatter then current vertical structures.This is moving from Gross national product to Gross National Happiness. As well, this is the move from multiculturalism to transculturalism (agreement on gaian ethics).

Third, is the continued Gut Wrenching Globalization, with an outsourcing of everything. While officially the discussion may be only buy “Made in Australia,” it will be far less clear what this means. Nations will continue to have a harder time controlling goods, services, and information. This may lead to more prosperity. The Business council of Australia quite rightly calls for a clear vision and full effort in reaching 4% annual growth. However, what is not explored are other aspects of growth – the work/family balance, for one. Finally, in a few decades, Australia for all practical purposes may not exist per se (of course the passport office and security will remain), becoming even more linked with global economies and certainly the Chinese economy. Whether the nation will be merely an outpost of Shanghai remains to be seen. It may be that the best of Australia goes overseas – values of the fair go, gender partnership, action learning, efficiency with a human touch, for example.

Fourth, is of course, the Unknown World. We cannot reasonable predict how revolutions in genetics, nanotechnology, digitalization and the brain-mind spiritual transformation will unfold. Identity may become far more individualized. It is likely to be a truly globalized world, where there is global governance and local governance. Home will be anywhere. Work as we have historically known it will end, given that poverty will be once and for technologically eliminated. In a world of abundance, what will the issues be. Certainly, it will be personal emotional psychic issues – meaning, the search for bliss, maps of the inner world, and ventures into deep space, deep oceans that will be the big issues. But how this plays out is too soon to tell. Will 10% design while the rest enjoy future incarnations of Big Brother (but now in holodeck format)? Or will there be endless e-referendums, chaos beyond what we could have ever imagined?

In the meantime, at least one country, in the short term has seen the consequences of this. Korea has already bet on this, and is now moving toward the Gross National Cool – focusing their GNP not just on goods and services but on culture industries. They are funding these, and developing capacity around gaming, film, all the social dimensions of the new technologies (xii).

Clearly for labour, merely responding to the changing future will be disaster. However, for government and the corporate world, not including labour as it creates new futures is also a mistake. As they will resist the changes to the end.

In times of dramatic change, it is not just enough to look at the data, but ask how ways of thinking, our stories, will change.

But survival is an issue – the question to ask is: what work that I currently do can be outsources and taken over by a clever AI system?

If we are all in this position, shouldn’t we start to think about a new politics and culture of work and the organization?

Or do we think business as usual will continue?


I would like to see far flatter organizations, far more globalization (for labour, culture and capital), far more support for family friendly work/culture, and a use of technologies globally to move from fake work, to work that fits into deeper purposes – this is sustainability (the triple bottom line) plus transformation (moving to a global ethics) and creating the legal framework for far more authentic global and local governance.

Whether this is a possible is a far different story.

Selected References

Economist Global Agenda, “Disorganized Labour,” The Economist (July 26, 2005)

Richard Ernsberger, “The Big Squeeze,” Newsweek (May 30), 40-44.

Ken Dychtwald, Tamara Erickson, and Bob Morison, “It’s Time to Retire Retirement,” Harvard Business Review, March 2004, 48-57.

Lynn A. Karoly and Constantijn W.A. Panis (RAND Labor and Population). The 21st Century at Work: Forces Shaping the Future Workforce and Workplace in the United States. Prepared for the US Dept of Labor. Santa Monica CA: RAND, March 2004.

Sohail Inayatullah, Questening the Future: Methods and Tools for Organizational and Societal Transformation. (Tamsui, Tamkang University, 2005).
Sohail Inayatullah, “From Organizational to Institutional Change,” On the Horizon (Vol. 13, No. 2, 2005), 46-53.

Sohail Inayatullah, “Spirituality and the future bottom line?,” Futures (Vol. 27, 2005), 573-579.

Sohail Inayatullah, “Aging: Alternative Futures and Policy Choices,” Foresight (Vo. 5, No. 6, December 2003), 8-17.

Sohail Inayatullah, “The Rights of Robots: Cases, Courts and Unexpected Futures,” Australiasian Science (November, 2001).
Sohail Inayatullah, “Your computer, your conscience,” The Age (August 26, 2000), 6.
Michio Kaku, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century and Beyond. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Graham Molitor, The Power to Change the World: The Art of Forecasting. Bethesda, MD, Public Policy Forecasting, 2003.
Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. NY: Tarcher/Putnam, Jan 1995.


(i) Reid Ewing et al, “Relationship between Urban Sprawl and Physical Activity, Obesity and Morbidity,” The Science of Health Promotion, Vol, 18, No. 1, 2003.

(ii) Joel Stein, “Just say Om,” Time, 4 August 2003, 5. Marie V. Pirotta, March M Cohen, Vicki Kotsirilos and Stephen J Farish, “Complementary therapies: have they become accepted in general practic”? MJA 2000; 172: 105-109. See www.tm.org

(iii) In the USA, in the 1960s, one-third of the workforce as on the factory floor, now less than17%. By 2020, write Rifkin, we will see in OECD nations the virtual elimination of the blue-collar factory worker. However, while this may be the case in the oecd it is not true globally, and we think globally now. Some nations are eliminated farming and agricultural labour, others are not.

(iv) The proportion of unionised workers in private firms has slipped below 8%, its lowest since the 1920s. In the total labour force, only 12.5% of workers are in a union, down from about a third in the 1950s.

(v) Michael Bond, “The pursuit of happiness,” New Scientist (4 october 2003), 40.

(vi) Richard Ernsberger, “The Big Squeeze,” Newsweek (May 30), 40-44.

(vii) Paul Wallace, Agequake, Riding the Demographic Rollercoaster Shaking Business, Finance and Our World. London, Nicholas Brealey, 1999. For more on this, see Sohail Inayatullah, “Ageing Futures: From Overpopulation to World Underpopulation,” The Australian Business Network Report (Vol. 7, No. 8, 1999), 6-10. Also see, Peter Peterson, Gray Dawn. New York, Random House, 1999. Also see: http://webhome.idirect.com/~carcare/thoughts/aging.htm.

(viii) Ken Dychtwald, Tamara Erickson and Robert Morison, Retire Retirement, Rekindle Careers and Retain Talent: Making the Most of Demographic Changes in the Workforce Cambridge, Harvard Business School Press, 2005. Direct quote from Future Survey, www.wfs.org.

(ix) www.culturalcreatives.org

(x) This is based on dozens of futures workshops in Australia and the broader Asia-Pacific region.

(xi) http://www.wellbeingmanifesto.net/

(xii) Jim Dator and Yongseok Seo, “Korea as the Wave of a Future:The Emerging Dream Society of Icons and Aesthetic Experience, Journal of Futures Studies (Vol. 9, No. 1, 2004).