Class is back in session, and educators at every level are struggling with how best to position students for future success in a rapidly changing world. That’s a big task, especially given developments in artificial intelligence and the automation it will bring. According to experts, most jobs in manufacturing, construction, finance, tech, and professional services aren’t going away — but they will change immeasurably, and AI will transform them, allowing people to do things faster, more efficiently, and at higher levels, leaving more room for strategy, creativity, and well, thinking.
So will we use that extra time intentionally, to think more about how to make a living and also how to make a life? We should. And for the sake of this next and newest generation of workers, we can — with few new insightful books.
To be sure, even without the press of AI, the best companies now are focusing on providing more dignity and meaning to the daily grind of work. That’s essential for building a sustainable competitive advantage, retaining employees and enhancing the bottom line, according to MIT Professor Zeynep Ton. In her thoughtful book The Case For Good Jobs, Zeynep details how an all-too-familiar, relentless focus on cost-cutting and profits has led to a culture of low pay, high turnover, and low expectations at many companies, public and private. Zeynep persuasively argues that managers need to move beyond the shallow “no one wants to work anymore” lament, examine the specific “whys,” and adopt a “good jobs strategy” built on the expectation that motivating and paying employees to help clients and customers will lead to greater satisfaction, deeper meaning, and ultimately more robust profits. Her examples of the good jobs strategy in action at Costco, Trader Joe’s, and QuikTrip are well worth reviewing.
An entrepreneurial approach to career and life
Of course, these days, thinking about AI also is causing considerable anxiety for important stakeholders adjacent to the workforce, namely, parents. Planning is what we do, and from early on, we want our kids to engage in useful learning, explore their unique passions, and otherwise be well prepared to take on a productive and rewarding career that offers financial independence and stability. The challenge is that while we are planning, the world is changing. The days of starting and ending a career with the same employer are just about over. For that reason, today’s generation of workers will be best served by acknowledging their time, talents, and passions as a portfolio of interests to be balanced and rebalanced to serve different objectives throughout their working lives, according to HBS Professor Christina Wallace. In this smart and practical book The Portfolio Life, Wallace, who graduated college with two majors, three minors, and 50 extra credits, recommends that today’s grads take an entrepreneurial approach to career and life planning based on diversification, connection, and lifelong learning. Will the portfolio life become the new normal? It’s an intriguing read.
Indeed, a “portfolio” development process probably needs to start even earlier, and in middle school, according to educator and non-profit CEO Jeany Eddy in her forthcoming must-read book: Crisis-Proofing Today’s Learners Given the increasingly uncertain return on investment for a four year college degree, most kids would benefit from exploring a variety of pathways to a good job and stable future, whether through trade schools, apprenticeships, or specialized training in coding, alternative energy, and infrastructure and transportation, and sooner rather than later. Eddy, the CEO of American Student Assistance (whose Board I chair), urges early contemplation of Ikigai, the Japanese life harmony concept centered on basic questions: what do you love, what are you good at, what does the world need, and what can you get paid to do.
Mark Erlich, fellow at Harvard’s Center for Labor and a Just Economy, reinforces that message in his book: The Way We Build: Restoring Dignity to Construction Work. Erlich maps out the history of the building trades in the twentieth century and the continuing role of unions in negotiating for the improved wages, conditions, and benefits enjoyed by many industries today. These are good solid jobs. Moreover, building things provides meaning. Even with AI, infrastructure spending will continue to provide substantial opportunities for young people interested in obtaining specialized skills in industries on which we all depend.
The world of work is changing faster than ever before, thanks in part to AI. Now is the time for leaders, policymakers, and most especially parents, to embrace the future and restart a conversation about the dignity and purpose of work.
Read in the Boston Business Journal
Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival. Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.