Saturday, June 7, 2014

Book Review: Work 2.0

Work 2.0: Nowhere to Hide by Sergiusz Prokurat, is a breathless account of the new world of work. He recounts in great detail how jobs have changed as a result of the digital revolution, specifically the web. His book contains a huge amount of data, lots of graphs (many of which are hard to see in the Kindle edition), and cites innumerable references. This is the work of a scholar, and as such it isn't an easy read.

I will find the book a very useful source for my own opus Your Future Job: How to Build a Career in the New Normal (draft excerpt here). Rather than scholars, my audience is different--I'm writing for 18-year-olds and their parents. That means a lot of the data and nuance has to disappear, to be replaced by the Big Idea, or at least the Simple Model. Or, the critic might argue, the Oversimplified Model.

And that's where I take issue with Mr. Prokurat's book. It's hard to see the big picture through all his data. It's information overload, and somehow the connecting links are missing. I'll give two examples.

First, he rightly considers globalization and outsourcing as a major driver of change. Lots of manufacturing jobs have been exported to China, with America's rust belt being hollowed out. "The 21st century will belong to Asia, as was the case always, except for the last 500 years. Asian workers are working very hard to make this happen while we consume as never before."

But this isn't true today. Automation is bringing manufacturing back to the United States in a big way, drawn by cheap electricity, good infrastructure, and proximity to markets. Wages are no longer a significant factor. It's China that is being hollowed out. A few pages later Mr. Prokurat admits as much. "The problem with this model [outsourcing for low labor costs] became evident with the opening of Asian labour markets--the model had simply been exhausted. We [countries like Poland and China] have reached a stage of development where we either enhance our economy's competitiveness, or we stop in our development tracks."

Later in the book he describes today's labor market for Generations Y and Z (i.e., my children and students). Today's workers, he claims, demand eight qualities from their employer: freedom; adjusting work to their needs; careful observation; credibility; cooperation; entertainment; a fast-paced environment; and innovativeness. Failure to offer these perks will cost the company its talented workforce. And then comes the bottom line: "What also matters is the possibility of rapid promotions and climbing the wage ladder."

Really? Maybe that's true for graduates from MIT or Stanford (though I doubt even for them), but it certainly isn't true for the students I talk to every day. I teach at a second-tier public university, and my students will be lucky to find any professional work. That they can lay eight conditions on their terms of employment is a pipe dream.

And sure enough, a few pages later Mr. Prokurat comes back down to earth. He admits to the shamefully high youth unemployment in Europe. And concedes that many if not most college graduates will struggle to find jobs. As to "rapid promotions and climbing the wage ladder," that simply won't happen for the majority of today's young people. That's one reason why I call them the screwed generation.

It's not that I disagree with Mr. Prokurat. Every one of his statements is true within some context. The problem is the book doesn't really explain that context--there is no story line. Thus we're presented with seeming contradictions within a few pages. He's missing the Big Idea.

There is one theme in the book that I do disagree with. Mr. Prokurat implies that the Web has somehow changed human nature. For example, he writes "Our physical presence will be supplemented by digital beings (e.g., our avatars developed in MMORGs, our presence in the world of Second Life, our interactions on our favourite forums) which represent us in cyberspace." Similarly, I think he exaggerates the effect of Facebook and Twitter.

This is the first I've heard of Second Life in several years. It used to be a big thing--indeed, my university hired a faculty member whose research was centered around that software. I thought that was silly then, and it's obviously nonsensical today. Second Life has fallen off the radar screen. Virtual reality is the domain of low-status males who retreat to that because they have so few opportunities in the real world. It is a sad place, not a happy one. I think that's true of Second Life, on-line porn, and probably most video games.

My knowledge of Facebook comes from seeing how my wife and daughter use it. For them it is a technology that allows them to keep up with friends and relatives. It replaces the telephone and the greeting card. It is precisely not a way to meet strangers or to expand one's social circle. Friends are still made the old-fashioned way--at school or work, at a church picnic, or in a bar. Human nature has not changed.

I'm distressed by Mr. Prokurat's account about how employers are searching employee's social media presence. This portends a 1984-like world, where political correctness is rigidly enforced. If any regulation of social media is warranted, it would be to limit this behavior. There has to be a realm where people can interact with their friends privately.

So Work 2.0 is a good book. I read the whole thing, and I will probably read it again as I write my own book. There's a lot of information there. And that Mr. Prokurat doesn't provide us with the Big Idea is probably a good thing--the reader can make their own interpretation.

All in all, it's a pretty depressing picture. I'm glad I'm nearing retirement.

Further Reading:

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