Thursday, July 7, 2022

Sometimes the future is what it used to be.

Back in 2017, we had a thread discussing a series of predictions Arthur C. Clarke made in 1964 about life in the year 2000, in particular, the suggestion that what we would now call telecommuting or "work from home" would make cities obsolete. The creative class/utopian urbanists' school was even stronger five years ago than it is today, so the standard take on why Clarke got this wrong was that he underestimated the vitality and appeal of cities.

I offered an alternate theory.

But I think a third factor may well have been bigger than either of those two. The early 60s was an anxious but optimistic time. The sense was that if we didn't destroy ourselves, we were on the verge of great things. The 60s was also the last time that there was anything approaching a balance of power between workers and employers.

This was particularly true with mental work. At least in part because of the space race, companies like Texas Instruments were eager to find smart capable people. As a result, employers were extremely flexible about qualifications (a humanities PhD could actually get you a job) and they were willing to make concessions to attract and keep talented workers.

Telecommuting (as compared to off shoring, a distinction will need to get into in a later post) offers almost all of its advantages to the worker. The only benefit to the employer is the ability to land an otherwise unavailable prospect. From the perspective of 1964, that would have seemed like a good trade, but those days are long past.

For the past 40 or so years, employers have worked under (and now completely internalized) the assumption that they could pick and choose. When most companies post jobs, they are looking for someone who either has the exact academic background required, or preferably, someone who is currently doing almost the same job for a completely satisfied employer and yet is willing to leave for roughly the same pay.

When you hear complaints about "not being able to find qualified workers," it is essential to keep in mind this modern standard for "qualified." 50 or 60 years ago it meant someone who was capable of doing the work with a bit of training. Now it means someone who can walk in the door, sit down at the desk, and immediately start working. (Not to say that new employees will actually be doing productive work from day one. They'll be sitting in their cubicles trying to look busy for the first two or three weeks while IT and HR get things set up, but that's another story.)

Arthur C Clarke was writing in an optimistic age where workers were on an almost equal footing with management. If the year 2000 had looked like the year 1964, he just might have gotten this one right. 

Obviously, we have since had a chance to try out some of these ideas. We've had a huge disruption of the office model at a time when demand for skilled workers is comparable to conditions when Clarke was making his predictions. 

Businesses are currently trying to decide what the new standard will be. At the moment, the hybrid model seems to be winning but what calls there are for a return to completely office based work seem to be coming from management,

It's possible that workers will come around and we'll see a return to the old model though things seem to be moving the other way as lots of companies are starting to downsize their office space and saving a tremendous amount of money in the process.  

Perhaps Clarke wasn't so wrong after all.

1 comment:

  1. Life in Boston in 1964 was real nice. Almost no cars. By 1970 or 72 it was already getting ugly. When I went to work in 1981 (programmer in the R&D department of a fairly major database company in Tech Square), the company was on "flex time"; you could come in any time you wanted as long as you got your work done. So we meandered into the office at 10:00, had donuts and BS, then lunch and more coffee and more BS. It's now 3:00 pm and not a one of us has done an iota's worth of work. Except for Susan (not her real name; her MS in Comp. Sci. was real). She'd come in at 8:00 am, an hour earlier than anyone else in the company, and get a day's worth of work done by the time the donuts and BS arrived. Susan could get a day's work done in 2 hours. She was _good_. Susan later managed, for several years, a software project that you use every day . She was good.

    So I see offices as having the major downside of gobs of unproductive human interaction (very nice for the humans at the time thereof, but when they start realizing how much time they're wasting by being in the office. they get irritated.)

    I figured this out early, but Covid has forced this realization on a lot more folks. I think this is a good thing.