Sunday, October 27, 2013

Reading :: The Fifth Age of Work

The Fifth Age of Work: How Companies Can Redesign Work to Become More Innovative in a Cloud Economy
By Andrew M. Jones

Drew Jones was one of the first people I met when I began investigating the coworking scene in Austin in 2008. An anthropologist by training, Drew began looking into coworking in 2007 and cowrote one of the first books (perhaps the first?) on coworking: I'm Outta Here. But Drew's focus was always broader than coworking: he was interested in how work would change in the near future due to a number of factors, such as millenials entering the workforce; the information revolution, which has obviated copresence in a lot of work; the question of how to nurture and sustain innovation in companies; the environmental and financial impacts of moving people back and forth; and the sheer waste of office buildings that are empty two-thirds of the time. Drew outlined many of these themes in forums such as the Future of Work salon and SXSW 2010, as well as his book on innovation. And now he's developed them in this book, which comes out in November. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy.

The Fifth Age of Work examines coworking and other work trends against this backdrop. This book, aimed at popular audiences, lucidly and engagingly discusses the challenges that organizations face as we move toward "the fifth age of work":
The Fifth Age of Work is an emerging world of work broadly defined by the rise of cloud-based technology such as remote computing, file storage and retrieval (e.g., Evernote, Dropbox), and communication channels (e.g., Skype, Google Hangout), as well as the decentralization and de-localization of work characterized by distributed teams, remote work, flex work and telecommuting, contract and project-based work, and the rapid growth of the coworking movement. But the Fifth Age is also much more than this.  These myriad arrangements are manifestations of more fundamental, evolutionary changes in our economy. The Great Recession in 2008, in fact, was an inflection point that marked the arrival of this new epoch, where we are now witnessing culture and technology colliding to disrupt and redefine the what, when, where, how, and even the why of work. (p. 10).

Jones contrasts the Fifth Age with the previous four:

  • First: hunting and gathering
  • Second: agriculture 
  • Third: merchantilism
  • Fourth: the Information Revolution (pp.11-12)
He sees the Fifth Age as the occasion for a new social contract, one that addresses workers' need for "more independence, trust, and honesty in their working lives" (p.15). 

Based on this vision, Jones discusses coworking, work innovation, corporate culture shifts, workplace design, and other aspects of work that are changing or under pressure. He concludes that in the Fifth Age of Work, leadership must look different—perhaps "anthropological." And he includes a workbook near the end of the book to help leaders think through experiments and innovations in their own workplaces.

Personally, I enjoyed the broad sweep and the way Jones connected different trends in this short but thought-provoking book. If you're interested in the future of work, coworking, or similar aspects, take a look. 

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