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Future of Work Part 2: Dignity of Work

Jan. 19, 2022

CREDIT: Thank you to Roy Bahat, Head of Bloomberg Beta, on his thoughts and input into this piece!

What is dignity?

Intuitively, dignity is self-worth, a sense of innate human value. However, we acknowledge that dignity – especially when it relates to work – is frustratingly (but understandably) an amorphous and intangible concept that differs vastly from person to person. For example, some people associate dignity with economic security and stability. In a New America x Bloomberg report and survey, workers earning between $50,000 – $75,000 noted that having a secure, stable income was their top priority. Indeed, many policy proposals today, such as universal basic income, are designed to provide the whole of society with these needs. However, other facets of dignity go beyond security and stability. In Daniel Pink’s Drive 2.0, he discusses the importance of autonomy, mastery, and purpose in helping individuals find fulfillment in their work. We ultimately believe that dignity – however you define it, pursue it, and experience it – is a goal shared by all of humanity.

Another problem is that dignity is an elusive goal, and society seems to suffer from a modern malaise that has robbed us of the self-worth and self-respect we get from work. From Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 speech “All Labor Has Dignity” about the dignity of all workers regardless of what they do, to the current New York Times opinion piece about trade, automation, and COVID, the loss of dignity from work is an ever-constant and pressing issue.

We believe that the relationship between humans and work can explain the loss of dignity. Do humans exist to work, or does work exist to elevate humans? If the former, then dignity comes from doing any work, doing a lot of it, and doing it well. If the latter, then the dignity of work comes from performing a job that contributes positively to oneself and others.

We believe that humanity must exert primacy over work: Dignity is derived from the worker, not from the work. In other words, we all have inherent worth, and our dignity comes from being human. No matter your life circumstances, occupation, friends, or family, all humans have dignity.

Nonetheless, work does impact dignity, even if it is only one factor among many. Indeed, we spend about one-third of our lives and about one-half of our waking hours at work — our experience at work therefore fundamentally shapes how we see and value ourselves. Work that positively contributes to the worker and society positively impacts dignity. However, loss of dignity from work arises when the relationship between humans and work is inverted; when humans become the subject of work.

Dignity in motion

Dignity changes over time (what we call “dignity in motion“) in two ways. First, we believe that dignity from work fluctuates around a baseline. This baseline is a step-wise function that is influenced by two primary factors:

  1. Intrinsic alignment: Work provides dignity when it serves the worker’s intrinsic needs and desires: Am I growing on the job? Am I doing something I love? Can my work provide for me? Am I part of a work community? The more intrinsically aligned we are with our jobs, the more dignity we derive. However, we reiterate that the way we prioritize our intrinsic needs and desires differ from person to person.
  2. Value generation: Work also provides dignity when it serves society. That is, a sense that you are generating and contributing value to society raises your dignity. We acknowledge, however, that different people will define “value generation” differently. For example, suppose the pinnacle of value generation for Person A is saving lives; being a healthcare worker may therefore be a high-dignity job for that individual. But Person B may believe that value generation is the creation of economic value; being a mergers and acquisitions lawyer may be a higher-dignity job. However, regardless of how people define value generation, we believe that one’s sense of impact influences dignity. All else equal, someone engaged in a job that she believes provides little value to society will feel less dignity than someone engaged in a job that she believes provides much value to society.

Second, dignity from work fluctuates around the baseline. These fluctuations are influenced by two factors:

  1. Internal self-perception from work. It is natural and human for our innate sense of dignity to fluctuate based on our day-to-day experience on the job. However, for some, work exerts more influence on self-perception than others. When work becomes too dominant of a variable in our dignity equation, the vagaries of the day-to-day on the job begin to have a disproportionate effect on how we see ourselves. In an extreme case, work becomes the entirety of our identity, inverting the relationship between work and humans. In such a case, no longer would work exist to serve us, but we would exist to do work. The fluctuations of self-perception would be large, unstable, and battered by daily work circumstances.
  2. Extrinsic factors: Extrinsic factors are rewards or punishments that exist outside the responsibilities of the job (e.g., money or status). Extrinsic factors also magnify those waves. While extrinsic factors can be effective motivators in the short-run, over-indexing on such factors can create negative consequences in the long-run. For example, someone who is obsessed with money may feel happy about his first bonus, but over time, he becomes de-sensitized to his current level of wealth and continually needs to earn more and more each year to the same levels of happiness. Psychologists have coined this phenomenon the “hedonic treadmill:” After multiple iterations of reaping extrinsic rewards and becoming de-sensitized to those rewards, we’re eventually running as fast as we can on the treadmill, we’re tired, and we risk losing our dignity from one misstep. In short, an over-emphasis on extrinsic factors creates volatility in dignity.

These fluctuations in dignity can be represented as follows:

While self-perception will inevitably and naturally fluctuate, we believe that that minimizing these fluctuations is an end in and of itself. Indeed, there certainly is a sort of danger zone when dignity strays too far from the baseline: People who have an inflated sense of self are prideful, and people whose dignity dips too low from their baseline suffer mentally, emotionally, and physically. Ideally, our self-perception would align completely with the dignity afforded by our work – i.e., our internal self-perception baseline would be the same as our Dignity (D) baseline. Our self-perception would be stable, unaffected by the ups and downs of work, and we would simply work on increasing our Dignity baseline from D to D’.

How, then, can we move forward in the future of work, adopting passion while limiting volatility? What positive role can technology play in creating more dignity in work?

Looking forward: How might technology increase the dignity of work?

Today, the dominant narrative around technology’s impact on work has been one of alarm. However, amidst the justified fear of automation and poor treatment of workers, we’d like to offer another perspective, one that emphasizes the promise that technology holds in enhancing our dignity.

Three broad technological attributes are catalyzing positive change:

  1. Access. Technology democratizes access to previously scarce goods. In the past, only financially and relationally well-connected people could make certain amounts of impact, meet certain people, or learn certain skills. Today, technology increasingly democratizes access beyond certain gatekeepers (although the digital divide still exists).

  2. Atomization. Technology digitizes increasingly large swaths of the world. Technology can then reduce these digital elements into bits and reconfigure them in new ways.

  3. Leverage. Technology enables people to make more impact with the same (or even less) amount of work. Individuals can impact everyone with an internet connection and people can leverage technology to increase their impact on society. In addition, technology magnifies an individual’s output, whether in terms of reach (e.g., infrastructure platforms) or physical capability (e.g., assistive robots).

By applying these three technological attributes – access, atomization, leverage – to work, we believe that technology enhances the dignity of work primarily by raising the dignity baseline (i.e., by increasing intrinsic alignment and increasing value generation in Figure 1). We provide a few examples below.

Technology increases intrinsic work alignment in several ways. For instance, technology helps people determine what they like to do and what they’re good at. Historically, to figure these things out, only the most-connected students had access to internships and short-term work. Now, companies such as Riipen and Parker Dewey give anyone access to internships and capstone projects so that students can experiment with jobs they normally would not have access to. By providing a low-friction way to “try out” different jobs, people can find careers that align well with them.  

Technology also increases intrinsic work alignment by breaking down and unbundling monolithic concepts of work. In the past, individuals were funneled into cookie-cutter roles, but today, there is no one-size-fits-all. People’s desires are unique, and they can craft the work experience they are most intrinsically aligned with. By atomizing job functions within an organization, technology is enabling employees to move swiftly and fluidly around different jobs within a company, thereby helping employees find the right job with the most intrinsic alignment. Gloat, for example, gives employees the opportunity to work on projects from other teams to assess fit and interest in new roles.

Technology increases intrinsic work alignment in magnifying an individual’s work by removing geographical barriers. Freelance marketplaces such as UpWork enable people to work multiple jobs unconstrained by location, giving them freedom to do what they want, when they want to. By adding technology’s atomizing capabilities, companies such as Catalant can better match individuals to multiple jobs that in totality enable them to exercise all their skills. Finally, by democratizing access to other people, creator economy companies are enabling people to independently earn a living doing what they love. Substack has done this in journalism, Kickstarter in entrepreneurship, Patreon in arts, and Maven in teaching.

Of course, technology also can raise the dignity baseline by increasing value generation. Indeed, given technology’s leverage, the impact that any given individual can have on the world today is higher than at any other point in history.

In conclusion, technology plays a key role in shaping the dignity of work. While we acknowledge the debates around technology detracting from dignity, we also believe in a future where technology enables everyone to find deep, sustainable dignity in their work. However, technology is only one part of the equation and cannot do the job alone. While we believe technology holds the potential to increase our baseline dignity from work, it may not be as good at smoothing out fluctuations in self-perception or responding to individuals that cross the danger thresholds for dignity. We therefore believe that technology will need to work alongside other solution vectors such as policy and media to usher in the future of work, one that enables human dignity to thrive, and affirms our passion and dignity in work.

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