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Welcome to the Brave New World of Work! Where the likes of Elon Musk “order” staff back to the office, leaving them with little choice, and where Millennials quit their jobs en masse, in what has been dubbed as The Great Resignation, a trend that leaves business honchos alarmed and employers worried. On the one hand, you have Millions of jobs unfilled. On the other, there is a recession brewing. It does not end here; women, especially in India, are dropping out of the workforce in a desi style mimicking the aforementioned attrition in the US. No wonder the Atlantic Magazine finds the present economy “weird” for lack of better explanations on where the world of work is headed.
Is this because of the pandemic? Or are there other factors at work? For instance, some experts believe that the world of work was being transformed much before the pandemic, as automation made even qualified professionals redundant, leave alone the masses of industrial workers “done in” by outsourcing and a shift to technology. Moreover, the rise of the Gig Economy predated the pandemic, and data shows that there has been a considerable shift toward freelance and gig work in the last decade itself. Of course, the pandemic made the changes “permanent” because workforce trends built up for the better part of a decade solidified with the “shock” of lockdowns and other restrictions.
Are we seeing the sunset of the Smokestack era, aka the Industrial Age? Perhaps so, as almost the entire ecosystem built around the manufacturing paradigm seems to be melting away. Take the 9 to 5 workday, the core around which everything, from daycare, school hours, mass transport, and even restaurants and supermarkets, was functional. The 9 to 5 workday was on its’ way out, what with Wall Street and Silicon Valley “redefining” what a workday was. With its WFH or Work From Home arrangements, the pandemic was the last nail for the 9 to 5 workday. Now, with “hybrid” work models, we might see the beginnings of a new paradigm for the emerging Digital Age, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as Klaus Schwab of Davos puts it.
Of course, the “birthing” of the Brave New World of Work is not painless. As record numbers of Millennials and, for that matter, 18 to 25-year-olds burn out and quit or are otherwise stressed out, the way we define work and address mental health challenges at the workplace is sure leaving many frazzled and overwhelmed. While employee wellbeing was certainly a priority in the Industrial firms as well, the humungous attention this issue is receiving now sure indicates some sort of envisioning of a Post Industrial Workplace. When celebs like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles complain of stress and pressure and take time out, perhaps we should look at what workplaces mean for health and wellness. By the way, May has been declared Mental Health Awareness Month, another acknowledgement of why this topic is no longer taboo.
The pandemic accelerated the “transition” to the Digital Age and deepened our dependence on technology. Indeed, for many, technology was the only “bridge” to the wider world when lockdowns and quarantines made physical travel or, for that matter, even Face to Face contact impossible. No wonder data reveals the booming market for Apps and other tech-driven solutions to pandemic-induced loneliness and isolation. The flip side is that technology comes with a price, monetarily and emotionally, wherein the former deepened the Digital Divide, and the latter led to neurosis and an excessive addiction-like condition, perhaps exacerbating the mental health crisis. There is a catch here, and that is that one cannot live with or without technology. Hopefully, we will find the “balance” pretty soon, one more homework for our elites, especially the Davos-type crowd, many of whom have long “cheered” tech as the answer to the world’s problems.
Some would say that this is “late capitalism” at its worst, or best, depending on how you make your money. Or, Neoliberal failure to account for the “human” factor. Cut it anyway, and we must admit that the Brave New World of Work beckons, and we have to adjust or adapt, lest we collapse (literally, in some cases) the existing work models without a clue on what comes next. This is the central challenge of our times. The way we define work and frame the rules for this new world of work is not only essential but critical as we navigate the post-pandemic landscape. We would surely need a new “social contract” from what the Industrial Revolution did to worker protections, unions, minimum wages, work conditions, and safety and compensation for accidents.
So, there we are! Most of you will read this as you head into the weekend. Some advice is to ponder over the new European Union rules on preventing employers from contacting their employees during weekends or, for that matter, even after office hours. Chew on that, and you will understand how we are amid a “paradigm shift” as we embrace the Brave New World of Work.
Enjoy your weekend!
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