The eminent futurist, Alvin Toffler, in his bestselling book, Future Shock, predicted that the end of the Industrial Age would bring in changes that would “shock” everybody and disorient them. Toffler characterized the Industrial Age as the Smokestack Era, a metaphor for the factories with their smokestacks and which he claimed was now giving way to a future of digital and technological age. In recent years, another futurist and a leading expert on tech predicted that the Present Shock wrought by technology is similarly leaving us frazzled and unable to comprehend the dizzying changes that we see around us.
This article is an attempt to decode these futurists with my analysis of how the pandemic has accelerated the onset of the Digital Age and how it is changing the worlds of work and life. Indeed, my guess is that the last two years have been as disruptive and as disorienting as the times of the Industrial Revolution. For instance, with WFH or Work From Home becoming the norm, there is a need to rethink our “9 to 5” world, wherein the traditional workday as envisaged during the Industrial Era is now being replaced by Anywhere, Anytime, and Everywhere work models. The emergence of “hybrid” working models where onsite and WFH coexist is yet another change that corporates and professionals need to get used to.
We have ordered our lives around the 9 to 5 and the 5 Day Week working arrangements. Right from schools and daycare that have been structured in such a way that parents can drop their children on the way to work and pick them up at the end of the workday to the opening and closing times of commercial establishments to even the division of work and leisure into “neat” five day and weekend slots, there are many such ways in which our entire lives rotate around this now outdated model. As the Digital Age with its virtual working and 24/7 availability is now the norm, we need to reorder and redistribute our lives accordingly.
If the above changes are part of the future shock, the present shock is where technology has become ubiquitous to our lives to the point where we have become its slaves instead of mastering them. Some of the AI powered systems now resemble an All Seeing Eye that control and order our lives. Moreover, the acceleration due to Moore’s Law means that we are powerless in the face of breathless speeds with which our lives and our working arrangements are now run by such technologies. Add 24/7 news media to the mix and what we have is an always on, never ceasing and an incessant struggle to just keep up that is leading to burnout and stress, especially among the Millennial and Gen Z generations, already distressed by entering or settling into their careers during the pandemic years.
This is giving rise to trends such as The Great Resignation, which is a manifestation of the act now, think later culture of the present that is as viral as the coronavirus. With large numbers of the 18 to 25 year olds burning out and even celebrities such as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles struggling to keep up with the pressures of the present shock, we do have enough on our plates to deal with. In addition, the pandemic has exacerbated the Digital Divide and has resulted in a lost generation of learners, especially from the underprivileged classes, who cannot afford the means of online learning. Moreover, there is a sense of being overwhelmed by the present shock that is leaving us with little time to plan for the future or even engage in longer term thinking.
While those with savings and stable incomes think years ahead, the common person feels screwed despite the booming stock markets as real wages fall and the economy works for a few instead of the many. With entire economies ravaged by the pandemic induced lockdowns, these precariat classes have been the worst hit, a double whammy of lost lives and livelihoods. Worse, as the rich becoming richer and the poor become poorer, as a result of record numbers of the latter simply “exiting the workforce” due to disillusionment at not finding jobs and not motivated to even try. While some of them get by with Gig work, the fact that the Gig Economy has turned into the same profit driven Minotaur that it was supposed to replace and change, one can imagine the desperation and despondency due to the collision of the future and the present, each disrupting lives in “out of control” ways.
I hope you get the drift of what I am saying about how the last two years have been troubling to all. As some hope appears about the virus becoming endemic as the common cold or the flu, and as “green shoots” appear in the economy, it is my earnest wish that all thinkers, business leaders, and visionaries, along with other intellectuals brainstorm and strategize on how we can collectively deal with these concerns. This year’s Davos gathering is expected to be one such conclave where a “meeting of minds” happens and hopefully, we would get some guidance from the “powers that be” about managing the disruptions from these future and present shocks.