What will the worker, workplace and work itself look like in the future?

Avik Chanda and Siddhartha Bandhopadhyay’s new book Work 3.0 tackles this and some of the other most pressing and complex questions about modern-day “work”. The authors employ rigorous research supplemented with industry reports, business case studies, expert interviews, anecdotes, their personal expertise and insights, to present a rich multi-disciplinary brew that spans economics, statistics, public policy, history, sociology, psychology, law, political science, literature and philosophy.

At the launch of the book, Chanda spoke to writer Krishnan Srinivasan and academician Tirthankar Roy about co-writing the book, whether AI and automation will render more young people unemployed, the necessity of “emotional enablement” in workers, and more. Excerpts from the conversation:

Tirthankar Roy (TR): Let me start with a teacher-like question. What are the salient features of your book and what is in it, that is new or different?
What we’ve attempted to do in Work 3.0 is to look at the problems through multiple prisms, instead of effecting a deep laser-focus along only one dimension. To explain, we felt that to be truly fruitful, the examination of each key problem would need to be across the dimensions of work, worker, and the workplace not any one of these in isolation. Another thing the book does is to look at things holistically, across the economy, or multiple economies, and then hone in on specific sectors, such as healthcare, IT professional services, banking and insurance, and the social economy. The third thing we’ve done is not to base our narrative entirely on lines of technological disruption and advancement.

Instead, following some of the latest reports published by international think-tanks, we’ve repeatedly underscored the fact that success in the emergent workplace requires a dual specialism of attributes – technological and domain skills, of course, but also a range of evolved behavioural competencies that are essentially human-centric. Each of these components is necessary but not sufficient by itself to lead to success. Much of the book focuses on this latter category of skills, to serve as a counterpoint to what we feel is the over-emphasis on technology in discussions on the future of work. I wasn’t really prepared to deliver an elevator pitch right off the bat, but I hope this gives a general idea of the goals we had set for ourselves.

Krishnan Srinivasan (KS): Your book has an interesting title – Work 3.0. This presupposes that there were earlier versions of work before this, and also implies that there will likely be later ones. Would you wish to explain differentiates Work 3.0 from previous versions?
Any categorisation of historical timeframes contains within itself an inherent degree of arbitrariness. For instance, this is quite apparent in Hobsbawm’s books: The Age of Revolution (1789–1848), The Age of Capital (1848–1875), The Age of Empire (1875–914), and The Age of Extremes (1914–1994), the last in the series of books, marking what he called The Short 20th Century. Unlike the neat demarcations here, major historical movements rarely exist in siloed compartments, one ending just as the other commences – there are overlaps and highly complex interplays between the constituent forces.

Admittedly, our timelines are far more restricted than Hobsbawm’s. The end of the Second World War changed the world order and everything needed a fresh start. This timeline, we argue, could therefore legitimately be considered as ground zero. And so, the period beginning with 1945 for the West and 1947 for India, when we became independent – could be considered as marking the beginning of Work 1.0.

Similarly, the 1990-91 phase marked the beginning of the global IT and technology revolution. Through a novel policy of economic liberalisation, India opened up its economy in 1991, and over successive governments, we haven’t changed our approach since then. So, we could call this period of 1990-91 the timeframe for the advent of Work 2.0.

The new disruptive wave witnessed since 2020 is Work 3.0 – a timeline we suppose few would argue with. While from a health and mortality standpoint, the world seems to have put the worst experiences of Covid-19 behind itself, deep scars remain, and new problems in its wake. The changing nature of work, workers, and the workplace offers both challenges and opportunities. How to overcome the challenges and make use of the opportunities are what this book deals with.

TR: As regards the education system, you and your co-author have argued for a schema that you call ESTEEM instead of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). It would be interesting to her more about ESTEEM, its significance, and why you feel it might be more beneficial in the evolving workplace. At the same time, your book speaks to inequality in several ways. For instance, there is the inequality that is associated with innovation – meaning that a greater degree of it would by itself give rise to a certain level of inequality. But there are also other modes of inequality, for instance inequality in skills as a result of differentiated access to education – which you’ve discussed in the book. Could you elaborate?
Many people pose the question – what do we need in the education system, if not STEM? I feel that this question needs to be reframed, to ask what we need in addition to it. STEM, borrowed from the US at the beginning of the IT revolution, has served India well for well over two decades. It has helped prepare hundreds of thousands of young students for careers in IT, BPO, KPO and on the whole established India as the global hub for back-end operations and outsourcing of professional services. But now, tying this back to the dual specialism of new skills that are going to be in demand, we see that this is no longer sufficient. ESTEEM is a term I coined in a previous book published in 2017, and reintroduced in Work 3.0.

Here, we have retained the constituent elements of STEM but introduced EE – standing for Emotional Enablement. What would training on Emotional Enablement mean in practical terms? A working knowledge of the advances and applications in the social sciences, especially the behavioural sciences, would perhaps be a good place to start, supplemented by courses in the arts and humanities.

Coming to inequality, in our book we have stated that in the short term at least, the effect of the pandemic has been to deepen the inequalities existing in society. One big reason is what has been termed the Digital Divide. Continuing with the example of education, with the pedagogy going online during the pandemic, especially he extended periods of lockdown meant that only students with sufficient technology and infrastructural resources at home could take full advantage of the online classes. As a result, millions of students in Tier II and III towns, as well as in more rural areas, with inadequate access to smart phones, computers and internet connectivity, were left out.

For these young people, the growing inequality extended to an even more elemental level. In the pre-pandemic scenario, many of these students would get a good meal at school, perhaps the best in their day. During the pandemic period, this too came to an abrupt halt, with schools closing down.

KS: Let me take you back to technological advancement, in particular AI and automation. There is growing concern that these rapid advancements will eat away at jobs, specially in a populous country like India, where new jobs are hard to come by, I worry about this future predicament.
There is indeed cause for worry – and this takes me back to the dual specialism and the skills deficit that we touched upon earlier. It is my view that higher educational institutes – not just premiere engineering colleges such as IITs, but even second tier colleges – do an adequate job at equipping students along the technological dimension of skills. However, we are still woefully inadequate when it comes to inculcating behavioural or human-centric skills, and our formal curricula in schools and colleges are yet to embed this into the rubric of teaching. This naturally means that students and young professionals miss out on one-half of what is important in the emergent workplace, and this missing component assumes increasingly greater importance as one attempts to grow in one’s career.

Also, we have to consider the innate ability of humans and the limits of reskilling or upskilling, which are commonly advocated. Let’s take a simple example. Walk into any major airport in India and you’ll find that for all big airlines, there are eight or nine counters for checking in. But at almost no point in time are all of them fully manned. They no longer need to be – due to web check-in facilities and the option to collect boarding passes at airport kiosks. This example can easily be extended to similar jobs performed in banks, malls, and restaurants. When such an individual loses their job, we can’t expect them to transform themselves into a big data analyst or land a job in the green economy.

Bottomline: To me, the bigger challenge isn’t that many jobs are being replaced by automation – but that we are not equipping young people with the evolved skills that are required to do the new jobs coming up in the evolving ecosystem.

TR: Something I noticed is that you seem to have a grasp of a wide literature across many subjects, which you have used as sources for your book. Not only that, you have connected the dots between then, across disciplines that are usually not studied together.
I’m so happy to hear you say that. This has in fact been one of our primary ambitions throughout the making of the book: to provide a truly multi-disciplinary understanding of the problems, and, likewise, as widely inclusive and holistic a set of solutions and recommendations as was possible. Here, what helped us immensely is that Siddhartha and I have both always been interested in multiple subjects. Siddhartha was trained as an economist but he works with colleagues across law, political science, medicine and psychology, and publishes extensively in top journals across these subjects.

As for me, I purported to study Economics for five years, when in fact, I read extensively, and across a wide range of subjects, such as history, philosophy, literature, sociology, psychology, anthropology, art history – anything other than Economics, really. This habit of reading eclectically has remained with me through life, and it served us well in this project, enabling us to dip into a substantial trove of multi-disciplinary source material and thus offer a breadth of allusions not typically seen in books on business and economics.

TR: The book was written during the pandemic, with you in India, and your co-author in the UK. Tell us about the process of collaboration and how the book came into being. What were some challenges you faced along the way?
Siddhartha and I go back a very long way. We met when we were both 19, in our first year at Presidency. Over the last 31 years, our friendship has sustained and deepened. And the fact that we built careers in very different domains meant that there was never the slightest sense of professional tension or competition between us. We had written a few articles together, earlier, and by the time we began the book, we had both become quite comfortable with the idea of hours of video calls, several times a week. So that part worked out fine as well.

The challenge came from a quarter I didn’t quite expect. You see, because there had been several professors in my mother’s side of the family, as well as many friends who are full-time academicians, I was quite confident that in general I understood academics well, how to work with them, and in particular – Siddhartha. But it was only once we started writing the full chapters that we differed in pretty much everything – our approach to writing, as well as the way and pace of working. Siddhartha put a huge emphasis on “deep thinking” – which he’d do only at night. So if something – or someone – demanded that special time, we’d have to wait for the next night for him to get into the proper mood.

In contrast, mine was an completely corporate, spreadsheet-driven, business-like approach of “getting on with the job” – at times, it seemed to him, at the expense of thinking! So yes, there have certainly been some moments of heightened emotion. But very exciting, on the whole.

TR: Sounds like this is not the last book that you and Siddhartha will write together.
I for one would love to write the next book with him – but I think we’ll need to wait and see how well and swiftly Siddhartha recovers from the experience of working with me almost three years at a stretch! But jokes apart, there is a particular aspect that is of great interest to me.

Right at the end of the book, we arrive at the conclusion that the global forces of markets and technological and economic disruption, if left to their own devices, will in most likelihood not create a world – and workplace – that is human-centric or people-friendly. This is a bold and worrying assertion that we have made. What I would be keen to do is to begin at this final point of the present book, and then try to answer the question: If this prognosis is indeed true, what are the possible solutions? I think this is an important question that needs to be answered.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Indian Foreign Secretary, author, columnist and an expert on
foreign policy. Tirthankar Roy is Professor of Economic History, at the London School of Economics, and the author of over 25 books. His most recent book is
Monsoon Economies, published
by the MIT Press.