The end of the job

Let’s start with Texting:
When mobile phones first appeared, adults used them as telephones. It never occurred to us that they had any other function. Telephones were familiar and the new mobile technology allowed us to do a familiar thing better.

Teenagers, on the other hand discovered texting. In hindsight it was obvious. Mobile phones are computers so they can transmit letters as well as numbers. It’s a sort of automatic extra that was just there and didn’t seem to have any purpose. 

But as soon as teenagers began to own mobile phones, they discovered texting and it came as a surprise even to BT, as Chris Winter, advisor to BT in 1997, explained at the NAACE conference in February of that year.

BT, the global telecommunications giant, is perhaps one company you would expect to be able to spot future trends. Yet texting took them completely by surprise.

We’d had 100 years of using telephones and we knew what they were for - you dialled numbers to make voice calls to other telephones and they were tied by copper wires to buildings. The great leap forward that mobile phones brought was freedom from wires. This meant that you could now telephone a person rather than a building.

It was new. It was breathtaking. It was exciting. We loved it and it never occurred to us to think they might do something else.

Young people are always less blinkered by tradition and habit. They tend to look at any new technology to see what it will do - and one of the things mobile phones could do was send text to another mobile phone.

At that conference, all the parents of teenagers knew about texting. To everyone else it was completely new.

Now, in 2015, everyone texts. In fact a whole world of social networking has taken us beyond simple texting in ways we could never have imagined. But back then, it was the forefront of innovation.

Social Networking
Despite coming as a surprise, texting wasn’t an ‘Unexpected Consequence’ of mobile technology. It was, however, the beginning of a communications revolution that no-one saw coming - and that did lead to unexpected consequences.

As the technology evolved, several developments happened:

  • Mobile phones evolved into smartphones and were joined by tablets and wearables (such as the Apple Watch) to become mobile technology.
  • Carrier technology evolved into 3G and 4G data networks. It all seems to familiar now but back in the late 1990s, the idea of superfast data networks was beyond anyone’s best guess.
  • Fast data networks allowed social networking to happen. MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) allow communication on a global scale, way beyond one person speaking to another on the phone. 
  • They have also meant that developing countries are leapfrogging the Industrial Revolution, omitting copper wires completely. People in Africa have gone from no telephone network at all to global voice and data networks over 4G and young men and women are starting successful Internet businesses.

In the late 1990s we couldn’t have imagined these developments.

But are they just the technology evolving and maturing or are they unexpected consequences? I honesty don’t know - what do you think?

One thing is certain - the unexpected consequences have not fully unfolded yet. It seems pretty certain that there is much to come that we can’t imagine. In the meantime, here are two examples of actual consequences, rather than technological developments.

- The first - the Arab Spring - has happened.
- The second - the End of the Job - may be coming:

The Arab Spring
In 2010, the ability to communicate many-to-many facilitated a massive uprising as discontented youth co-ordinated protests across the Arab world. The consequences are still unfolding.

The End of the Job
As long ago as 1994, William Bridges wrote in Fortune Magazine:
“The world is on the verge of another leap in creativity and productivity - but the ‘job’ is not going to be part of tomorrow's economic reality.
“In its place is an emerging enterprise where workers will become more responsible for managing their own lives and will sell their skills to employers or customers across a globally connected market.”

Now, in 2016, the new world he foresaw is unfolding around us. Millions of factory jobs have already gone, together with many other traditional jobs, and although new jobs have been created there are significant differences. Zero hour contracts are becoming more common and although there’s a lot of protest about them, what else are they but opportunities to work when a task needs doing and not when it doesn’t? The entrepreneurial worker will not bemoan the lack of steady 9 to 5 employment with tea and lunch breaks but will offer their labour, locally or on the Internet, seeking the best paid opportunities and building up a reputation that employers and/or customers will seek out.

This idea of the entrepreneurial youngster was mooted by Alan November at the Naace conference in 1999. He stated that children of all abilities would need entrepreneurial skills in the future. 

His audience was sceptical. How could the waiters serving coffee at the conference be entrepreneurial? Surely these were just ‘jobs’? But as he rightly pointed out, during the holiday and conference seasons, hotels need many waiting staff when they’re busy but very few when little is happening. Young people should develop their public facing and catering skills and build their reputations so that they are sought out by the hotels whenever a conference is booked.

He compared the future with the past, pointing out that until the industrial revolution people generally worked as and when the work needed doing. In the future they may do so again - building, making, serving - in response to the market around them and not to the dictates of a nine-to-five job.

(Work in progress)

but our education system is still preparing children for the old world. The current school structure is a legacy of the past, designed for an industrial society. The problem is that we don't live in an industrial society any more. It has already changed and Government preoccupation with five GCSEs at grades A to C is simply part of this legacy. GCSEs are based mainly on memory skills so only about 50 percent of the total population will ever reach the target. The rest will leave school having failed to reach expectations. Is this really best for Britain in the twenty-first century?

Interestingly, as soon as people caught on to the fact that teenagers were texting each other, they immediately thought that they should not text each other in school. “They should be doing their lessons", they said - and missed the point completely.

You see, we still tend to think that teenagers should absorb facts and then use them to pass exams and get a good job with prospects and a pension - like we had to. In reality the world has changed and the number of such jobs is diminishing rapidly. 


Which brings us back to the teenagers with their mobile phones in class. They could be sending text messages across the world seeking answers to their questions. They don't, of course - they're asking each other about football and boyfriends. But they could be and that is the important thing - they could be using the technology to manage their lives, accessing information and people on a day-to-day basis. We should be encouraging this, rather than banning mobile phones in schools and waiting for someone to give them a job.

Entrepreneurial youngsters are the ones who will succeed in the modern world, not those who can just regurgitate facts and get good GCSEs. You'll find these young entrepreneurs tapping text into their mobile phones right now. Don't ban them. Guide them. They are Britain's brightest future.

Next: What Creates Wealth?

Aside: How do mobile phones send texts?

© Brian Smith 2015