What can the past of work teach us about the future?

They say we tend to overestimate progress in the future, and underestimate it in the past.

So looking back might tell us something about the future of work.

Here are some things that stand out for me:

  • we had a bar in the Town Hall for several years after I started at the council. And in other councils people were still referred to formally as ‘Mr Taylor’, ‘Mrs Smith’ etc. A graduate in my year got sent home from his job in a partnership firm for wearing a *blue shirt*.
  • racism and sexism were rampant, and as for LGBTQ rights! People were still telling Irish jokes — and people were still worried about ‘political correctness gone mad’ 
  • we used ping-pong memos until the advent of email — yes it’s in my lifetime, and while I might be older than I look, that’s recent. No wonder we haven’t adapted

Inside the ping-pong memo, you used carbon copy memo sheets. That’s what Cc means!

Stationery was a lot more important in those days — a source of power and pride.

  • I started programme in Compiled Visual Basic. And we still had infinitely extensible database fields and auto-generated sophisticated graphing.
  • when I started doing some web development (html!) and IT support for a small business, swapping out the backup taps was an important task
  • my first ‘online’ experiences were using a KERMIT modem to send back canvassing results (in an election swayed by allegations of Militant infiltrating the Labour Party), then of testing pings and ACKS and NACKS for the database company
  • but very early on as they developed internet browsers and web pages, we had IRL and ICQ and the like — categorised instant messaging fairly hard to distinguish from Slack and Discord
  • pagers were a major innovation before mobile phones — and we got very creative with the codes. In the early days of mobile phones, there were dodgy freephone services you could call to make cheaper phone calls
  • similarly, before photocopiers and scanners, we used messy mimeograph machines (and I had a mimeographed school ‘zine confiscated by the head teacher!)
  • when the mainframe computer got replaced, we got *internet-enabled* emails — just think of it! A thing like that!

(And I crashed both systems by setting up an infinite forwarding loop between internet email and mainframe email — whoops)

  • my first BlackBerry — with the excellent click wheel — nearly gave me a breakdown with All! The! Notifications! Switch off your notifications, folks.

When you think about it, I’ve seen a lot of change — mostly driven by technology.

So much of the core of motivation, role and task clarity, the ability to have honest conversations and to hold to account hasn’t changed — at all. I think that’s why I moved away from technical work (and the riches that would have followed, alas!) into work with humans.

What do you remember from your own past at #work?

What does it tell you about the future?

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