“Your new office is actually you,” Douglas Coupland has always been one of the sharpest critics of the modern workplace. His first novel, the 1991 international bestseller Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, popularized terms such as "McJob" and "Generation X".
The Guardian interviewed the Canadian author after a keynote in Berlin about the future of work. Coupland himself left full-time employment years ago and can relate to those who make the brave step to do their own thing.
“I haven’t been employed since 1988. I’m still trying to recover from the trauma. Sometimes I wake up and think: ‘Oh my God, I don’t have a job’,” he says. “My life is a vocation; I can’t imagine doing anything else. I have the freedom to explore whatever idea I want, take really random gigs and projects which change my life in some way.”
Job for life idea disintegrated
Generation X, and later ones think very differently about work than those born earlier. “Younger generations don’t perceive [a job] as being a guarantee of long-term security – that’s the profound difference, he says. “There was a point when the idea of the job for life disintegrated. Now no one has any expectation of lifetime employment.”
Work as we know it is coming to an end, he told the audience in Berlin, as cloud-based technologies and ever-faster download speeds are making the office obsolete. Our working days are becoming interspersed with leisure and home activities. We will need to learn to adapt to a freeform schedule, which will present a psychological challenge to those who crave structure. But Coupland believes we should not mourn the loss of the traditional office routine.
One day we will look back at nine-to-five employment in a similar way to how we see child labour in the 19th century
“The nine to five is barbaric. I really believe that. I think one day we will look back at nine-to-five employment in a similar way to how we see child labour in the 19th century,” he says. “The future will not have the nine till five. Instead, the whole day will be interspersed with other parts of your life. Scheduling will become freeform.”
In the same way the industrial revolution led to the creation of the weekend as a break from work, the cloud is altering our work schedule, Coupland says. He points to developments in Silicon Valley, where companies such as Facebook encourage staff to work from home on Wednesdays.
Coupland explains that avoiding the San Francisco Bay area commute was part of the reason for this, but getting away from meetings and office politics is the most popular aspect of it with staff. “In the future, every day of the week is going to be a Wednesday. There will be no more weekends, it’ll be one smooth flow. I wish I could say that in the future there will be no meetings, but there will always be meetings.”
Why bother to remember anything?
The demise of jobs will be unsettling for people both staff and employers, Coupland notes. No one really wants to be trapped in a job, but people still crave structure, he says. “Do people want to be in a job-job? God, no! But while most people like the notion of free time, actually having to deal with it is horrible. It’s a deal with the devil. At least when they’re employed they don’t have to do deal with the freefall; the nothingness of free time.”
There is much discussion about how employers should deal with millennials, this new breed of worker who grew up with the internet and has never know life without it. But Coupland theorises that constant connectivity via smartphones has altered the way we all think – millennials are not so different to the rest of us.
“We no longer need to remember long strings of phone numbers or directions from the airport. Why bother to remember anything? Our brains are liberated from these things. I think it’s one of the most profound neurological changes in human history,” he says. “We’ve all turned into millennials.”
Death of the middle classes
A common theme in Coupland’s thinking is the idea of an internet brain – we think differently now to how we did just a few decades ago. Smartphones were the tipping point, he believes, as they altered problem solving, but also mean we are bombarded with so much information. This constant influx of news and data means we’ve come to perceive time differently. The future used to be a far-off thing, but now we experience it at the same time as the present, he contends. “We have the present and the future all at the same time,” he says. “I think it’s one of the most profound neurological changes in human history.”
According to Coupland, people with internet brains are capable of doing huge amounts of work, quickly and from anywhere. This is making, and will continue to make, existing roles obsolete, as automation and AI take over. Coupland predicts the death of the middle classes and the creation of a huge new “global mobile class”, powered by massive broadband access. Increased efficiency will mean people will work less and more flexibly. Indeed, the very idea of a full-time job is up for debate.
The winners in this labour force will be the people who have an actual skill
“My suspicion is that long distance wifi in an information rich environment means that people will be quite willing to stay in jobs that don’t seem like full-time jobs to us here in 2017. We are coming towards a labour reality where there are more people who have fewer things to do. Maybe that’s a good thing,” he adds.
In such a rapidly evolving society, possessing actual skills – including those which have nothing to do with the internet – is vital, says Coupland. “The winners in this labour force will be the people who have an actual skill,” he says. “Always have an actual skill as a back-up, that’s very good advice.”
Coupland says that the people behind the world’s technology are unconcerned by the disruption they have created.
“Most people who work in tech – 99% – don’t want to look at the implications of what they are doing. They just want to hit their milestones and that’s it.”
But there’s no turning back. The internet is here to stay and will continue to profoundly change societies and the workplace. “If the internet stopped one day, can you imagine the chaos? What would we call that scenario? It’s called 1995 – that’s how far we’ve come.”