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What does it mean for humans to thrive in the age of the machine? This is the issue that London Business School professors Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton are wrestling with in their second major exploration project.
The groundbreaking previous collaboration between psychologist Gratton and economist Scott resulted in the 2016 international bestseller The 100-Year Life. It has been translated into 14 languages (15 if you count the pictorial manga version available in Japan) – and corporates as well as governments are paying attention. The book is credited with jolting the Japanese Government, which Gratton now advises, into taking steps to address the issues thrown up by its ageing society – also the aim of the charity The Longevity Forum, which Scott has established.
In September the pair were awarded the MIT Sloan Management Review’s 2018 Richard Beckhard Memorial Award for their article ‘The Corporate Implications of Longer Lives’, based on their research for the book. Taking a 100-year view of human life opens up its totality to scrutiny, not just the working segment. “We’ve talked to hundreds of people since the book came out and one of the things they ask is: what about technology and how does that impact on longevity? They’re beginning to realise how interconnected things are,” observes Scott.
The next step was to broaden the focus to include the rapid advance of technology and the wider social changes that are happening in consequence and independently – a massive agenda. But although, as they stress, it is still a work in progress, Scott and Gratton cautiously believe they are on the way to cracking it. Two things, at least, are already clear. The first is that the main story is not the machine – it’s people. Most of those writing about the fourth (or sometimes fifth) industrial revolution assume that it’s essentially a hardware story in which ever more perfected technology eats up the world, leaving less and less space for weak, fickle, messy humans.
This has prompted many – including luminaries such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking – to warn of a turning point when humanity risks losing control of the technology it has created, generating problems rather than solutions, and a longer life leading to years of impoverishment and misery rather than fulfilment and opportunity. While taking these dangers seriously – “we’re not Pollyannas” – Scott and Gratton are convinced that this is the wrong way round. The real agenda, they argue, is about being human and what that means.
What do we need to live as long, humanly and healthily as possible, and in a way that is as fulfilling, meaningful and economically secure as possible? How can we change our social and economic practices so as to benefit from the gifts of better technology and longer lives?
So, the second starting point for this new research is that, as humans, we have agency, even in the face of giant abstract forces such as increasing life expectancy and technological advances. This is controversial and was criticised in some quarters in relation to The 100-Year Life. But the pair are unrepentant. “It’s complicated,” admits Scott. “Will it be easy? No. Will everyone prosper? No. But, given our new endowments of extraordinary technology and longer life, the starting point that everything is terrible can’t be right. The question is, how can we leverage these things to live a better and more human life?”
After all, identifying and investing in opportunities, and solving problems, is what humans do, as Gratton points out. (As Warren Bennis once remarked, “Problem-solving is the task we evolved for – it gives us as much pleasure as sex.”) She notes that, apart from asides about jobs, contemporary accounts of technology and ageing treat them as inscrutable external forces, a bit like tectonic plates shifting, rather than factors directly engaging with personal lives. Most people are uneasily aware of the landscape changing shape around them and some are curious about what they see, but many “are struggling to build a narrative about what these developments mean for them and for their futures,” Gratton says.
Creating a narrative that makes sense of the big sweep of change in terms of personal lives is the first step towards human agency. And, as Gratton and Scott insist, it’s urgent. First, because today’s familiar social and economic frameworks are coming apart at disconcerting speed. Second, sculpting the new endowments of time and technology into human benefit will require individuals to be curious about the future and be prepared to invest in order to take charge of their lives in ways that would have been unthinkable in the recent past. For roughly a century, life in the advanced economies has followed a standard predefined pattern: a linear, three-stage progression from education to work to retirement.
‘We have agency even in the face of giant abstract forces such as increasing life expectancy and technological advances’
It was a process both passive and paternalistic/patriarchal: education built around conformity and rote learning suited to subsequent full-time employment in hierarchically organised mass-production units. A regular pay packet enabled workers to consume goods and services from other manufacturers. Other institutions, such as education, health services, social security, housing and retirement arrangements were bit by bit put in place to support what became a stable techno-economic model. Management and trade unions grew up alongside.
This is the model, together with supporting norms and regulations, that is now collapsing as fast as you can say “internet”. The sedate life story with its predictable beginning, middle and end is going the way of the Victorian novel, replaced by a jagged post-modern mosaic of contrasting gigs, time-outs, reframings, relearnings and full and part-time employment as technology rudely unbundles and reassembles our ways of relating to loved ones, colleagues and paid work.
A benefit of living longer is that, with more productive years, individual range of choice is extended, making the options more valuable. It also makes some choices more critical. The obvious one is ensuring adequate material resources to support a long and active old age. Less obviously, it also puts an unexpected premium on intangible assets such as networks of family and friends.
When everything else is in flux, notes Gratton, it becomes doubly important to have a trusted circle of people to rely on for advice and support. Investing extra time – now a crucial resource – in such intangible assets will be vital. You may have enough cash to buy a retirement property but, while technology enables new kinds of relationships – your 360 friends on Facebook, for example – creating the real mates who will make the world a rewarding place to live when you stop being mobile doesn’t happen overnight, or on a web page.
Of course, individuals have always been proactive within the three-stage framing of most lives. But it hasn’t been an imperative, as it is in the context of a multi-stage life – it hasn’t needed to be. “Society has norms and rules because it is sometimes pretty hard on your own to work out how to live your life,” says Scott. “When the world changes you can’t rely on them any more and you have to be proactive to discover the new ones that we need to create – you need to be a social pioneer and be prepared to experiment.”
This is particularly important in a transitional phase like now. It’s daunting, yes; yet inventing, experimenting, planning, imagining and choosing between different scenarios could also be described as asserting agency, and thus humanity in its largest sense.
Crucially, being proactive, Scott and Gratton stress, isn’t being forced to reinvent everything from scratch. But it is saying, yes, we’re humans, we have human insight that enables us to build an agenda and act on it. We don’t have to accept what happens to us as destiny – we can shape it.
“Of course, we have to know what we want to do individually; but also what we need to demand from the institutions of civil society and change that, as we have done in the past, sometimes slowly and painfully, as after the original Industrial Revolution,” says Gratton.
That is, we need to invent our own story, both macro and micro. The current framing is so strong that it’s hard to look beyond today’s institutions, such as the full-time job and the paycheck – “but maybe in time we can come up with something better than that,” Scott muses.
Much will depend on the interplay between today’s dominant civil institutions – in particular, education, government and business and corporations – and their responses to change. Some of these are already under way. In education, technology is already placing extraordinary learning resources online, much of it free. In the next few years, Gratton and Scott see the education sector “exploding”’ to meet new kinds of demand, moving from part-life to all-life, and from mostly degrees to other kinds of credentials, intensive upskilling, gap-filling and managing transitions.
Other configurations may take longer to settle into shape. For example, the current generation of managers will have to grapple with a very different agenda from the one they were brought up on. Will they enthusiastically embrace the twin human challenges of technology and longer life, or will they have to be pressured into it?
That means reimagining working patterns, making significant investments in learning, acknowledging those on the periphery of the corporation, not simply those on the full-time payroll.
As educators, Gratton and Scott are optimistic about the future. They cite the impact of The 100-Year Life to justify their confidence that informed debate on the biggest questions can spur reasoned collective action, and they think they can do it again. If this isn’t what business schools – communities of researchers focused on harnessing collective action for the common good – are for, then what is it?
Yet it is optimism of a rather special and conditional kind.
Ultimately, human beings have to live up to their essential, irrepressible, questing humanity: inventing new narratives, exploring new worlds, building new relationships. But none of these things will happen unless we will them. As Gratton puts it, “You can’t expect to do nothing and just hope things will work out for you. If you want to flourish, you have to be curious about your world, be prepared to experiment, and to make some crucial investments, take action. Being human, we do have a choice. It’s up to us to assert it.”