Ways of working change shape over time

NAVEL gazing, unlike the military pastime of naval gazing, can be a very productive use of leisure time.

Freed from the tyranny of the diary, we can reflect on the years past and the future present.

Glancing over the big picture past allows us a glimpse of the big picture future.

Who will do what is changing rapidly; we are not preparing ourselves for what is to come.

Human history shows the evolution of four distinct economies defined by the way humans have done their work: hunter-gatherer, agrarian, manufacturing and the post-industrial service society.

While these still co-exist in our allsorts world, the developed nations – some would include Australia – have “progressed” from hunter-gatherer through agriculture to manufacturing and then into the modern post-ind.

A potted glimpse of the way we worked rings a warning bell for approaching disaster.

Hunter-gatherer peoples were almost all involved in the business of finding food.

The females did the bulk collecting while the males did the sporadic hunting.

The talents and abilities of the many were employed to sustain the society – geometrically, a wide flat box. This is about 50,000 years ago.

The Agrarian society evolved when people had wiped out most of the slow-moving game (will we NEVER learn) and had to grow stuff to eat.

Staying in one place meant settlements and abundance, which led to the storage of grains, the creation of metal products such as coinage, more sophisticated trade and the accumulation and succession of wealth.

Bingo, we have wealth-based hierarchical dynasties with a growing number of sweating peasant have-nots, conditioned by elite civil and religious authorities to not develop their inborn talents – geometrically a pyramid.

Tensions between the distribution of abilities and the nature of work began about 5000 BC and remain today in agricultural societies.

The Industrial Revolution, circa 1750, pushed the peasants off the land and into centralised factories.

City states developed skills specialisations and higher demands for professional and academic workers.

Huge opportunities existed for enterprising individuals: the entrepreneur-class was born.

The overall relation of people to jobs looked more diamond-shaped, with the ubiquitous normal-curve of a few at the top and bottom and most in the middle.

Those at the top are usually at the top of their own corporate pyramids.

Since the 1950s, the nature of our industries has changed from labour-intensive with many workers of average ability to smart industries needing fewer workers but all of them highly skilled.

With information technology, many traditional service jobs are growing but dumbing down.

Our current post-industrial service society has more highly skilled jobs and more dumbed-down jobs – an hourglass – the opposite of the diamond. We still operate like a diamond.

There is a galloping gap between the haves and have-nots.

Time for the navel gazing to better match people, abilities and the work to be done.

• Ann Macbeth is a futurist and principal of Annimac Consultants.

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