How local communities can protect against the crisis of a global work drought

Photo credit: Adam Levey / The Atlantic

In the cover story of the July/August 2015 issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson charts out some perspectives around the future of work or, in the eyes of some, the future of there being no more work. He concludes:

Is (the end of work as we know it) certain—or certainly imminent? No. The signs so far are murky and suggestive… but the possibility seems significant enough—and the consequences disruptive enough—that we owe it to ourselves to start thinking about what society could look like without universal work, in an effort to begin nudging it toward the better outcomes and away from the worse ones.

I see the coworking and maker space movements as being critical foundational building blocks to nudging society toward those better outcomes. It’s this sort of perspective I would love to see every coworking space owner have in mind when they develop their communities.

Local communities of interdependent, empowered individuals help create a framework for viewing work in new, more future-friendly ways. In a world where traditional employment may be going away, new paradigms of value must be investigated. Investing in the development of stronger local communities of practice is just such a thing. In particular:

1. Local communities offer a sense of belonging.

When you work for a company, you belong to something bigger than yourself. This entity is something with stated goals to which you contribute your effort. You may not love your employer or the work it produces, but you nevertheless are able to have a sense that you belong to a group of people who are all united in their efforts toward a common goal.

When you don’t have an employer, you are responsible for finding this kind of connection, but where? A local community of like-minded people provides a suitable replacement. Everyone can feel a sense of allegiance to their home town, or their coworking space. It’s perhaps even easier, because those entities don’t get quite as gummed up in the whole “maximize profit” thing that can sour relationships between corporations and their employees.

If you picture the typical 20th century worker, you picture someone who might proudly wear a shirt with the logo of their employer. For the typical 21st century worker, perhaps that shirt’s logo is the logo of one’s township or one’s coworking community, or even one’s team of people who develop an identity of their own within a larger community.

If jobs and work aren’t being distributed in the same way from global corporations, then perhaps it is an opportunity to turn our attention to our neighbors. We’re all in this together, after all, so there will never be a shortage of need for citizens of a municipality to help each other.

2. Local communities offer accountability.

When it comes to the entire span of all human activity that could possibly be undertaken, there’s no shortage of value-creating work to be done. As a race, we have huge problems to solve, huge questions to answer, and deeper levels to go with what we already know.

The difference in this new mode of working is that there may not be the same kind of intermediary entities handing out this work in the tidy form of traditional jobs.

To that end, a lot of the work opportunities out there may only be able to be realized by way of people actually going out and finding them. This requires a degree of initiative that many people might not yet be used to.

Local communities can help shift this. If someone understands that they need to develop the kind of motivation that will help them find or create the work they want, they can join or form a local group of people who commit to helping each other stay on task.

This is even more critical to those who are experiencing the effects of unemployment. Thompson writes:

By and large, the jobless don’t spend their downtime socializing with friends or taking up new hobbies. Instead, they watch TV or sleep… The unemployed theoretically have the most time to socialize, and yet studies have shown that they feel the most social isolation; it is surprisingly hard to replace the camaraderie of the water cooler.

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot… Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury. The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed.

Considering how digital distractions are getting better and better at sapping up our attention with every passing moment, and the depression and utter structurelessness of jobless life can be all but paralyzing, we’re going to need all the help we can get to develop and maintain enough discipline to stay focused on doing what’s valuable to us instead of what’s just stimulating to us.

Coworking communities, and in particular shared accountability groups within coworking communities, address this need naturally. They can go a lot further to becoming institutionalized things people count on to support them.

3. Local communities act as a beacon.

When you’re on your own, especially when you’re just getting started… and extra especially if you didn’t even choose to be on your own, you can easily feel like you have to figure out everything for yourself.

When you’re getting started, there are so many basics to cover: to incorporate, or not? How to do that? How to do taxes? How to get health care? How to get customers? How to develop products and services? Add to that a healthy dollop of need for training in basic computer and internet skills. It’s a lot, and not everyone is going to be so cut out for figuring all of it out themselves. In Thompson’s estimation:

In the near term, local governments might do well to create more and more-ambitious community centers or other public spaces where residents can meet, learn skills, bond around sports or crafts, and socialize. Two of the most common side effects of unemployment are loneliness, on the individual level, and the hollowing-out of community pride. A national policy that directed money toward centers in distressed areas might remedy the maladies of idleness, and form the beginnings of a long-term experiment on how to reengage people in their neighborhoods in the absence of full employment.

The reality, of course, is that these community centers are already well under development. Coworking spaces are the de facto local community centers, and considering they weren’t designed to play that role, they do a pretty good job.

That being said, managers of coworking spaces would do well to consider how they could take their spaces and go further to make them “more-ambitious community centers”

Government support, if not in the form of money then at least in the form of vigorous cheerleading, could help connect existing spaces to people who need to know that these places exist.

It’s this sort of thing I want more of us to be talking about.

Work is changing in some serious ways. What we do, right now, will affect the extent to which this shift is a healthy and positive one for the countless millions it will affect.

We can’t know for sure a lot about how it will go, but I do know this: people self-organizing on the local level will help, a lot.


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Resolving the battle of work vs. life

From Christopher Alexander’s landmark book, A Pattern Language:

“If you spend eight hours of your day at work, and eight hours at home, there is no reason why your workplace should be any less of a community than your home.”

When someone tells you where he “lives,” he is always talking about his house or the neighborhood his house is in. It sounds harmelss enough. But think what it really means. Why should the people of our culture choose to use the word “live,” which, on the face of it, applies to every moment of our waking lives, and apply it to only a special portion of our lives– that part associated with our families and houses. The implication is straightforward. The people of our culture believe that they are less alive when they are working than when they are at home; and we make this distinction dubtly clear, by choosing to keep the word “live” only for those places in our lives where we are not working. Anyone who uses the phrase “where do you live” in its everyday sense, accepts as his own the widespread cultural awareness of the fact that no one really “lives” at his place of work– there is no song or music there, no love, no food– that he is not alive while working, not living, only toiling away, and being dead.

As soon as we understand this situation it leads at once to outrage. Why should we accept a world in which eight hours of the day are “dead”; why shall we not create a world in which our work is as much a part of life, as much alive, as anything we do at home with our family and with our friends?

… If a person spends eight hours a day working in a certain area, and the nature of his work, its social character, and its location, are all chosen to make sure that he is living, not merely earning money, then it is certainly essential that the area immediately around his place of work be a community, just like a neighborhood but oriented to the pace and rhythms of work, instead of the rhythms of the family.

I wonder what Christopher Alexander would think of coworking communities.

Did you grow up thinking this way? That living was something you did outside of work? Note the way Alexander casts this not as a reality but as a cultural perception. Work isn’t categorically an undesirable drudgery, it’s more about how we treat it.

But it’s changing. The notion of where you “live” and where you work is breaking down. As our cultures reevaluate our relationships with our work once again, we have an opportunity to alter this perception. If we find ways to think of work not as a something that takes us away from our “lives,” but an integral and healthy part of what makes us complete people, we’ll set up future generations to think of work differently.

Incidentally, you see this phenomenon in startup culture too. Hustle hard and make sacrifices to build a startup that gets successful enough to sell for big bucks. But where in that process does one develop a healthy relationship with their work? If you’re lucky enough to make it to the other side, and get rich, to what end and at what price has that status gotten you?

It’s a path that’s certainly appropriate for some, but I fear more people are chasing that than there should be. This balance, what Alexander describes, is more in line with what many people should be aspiring towards- one that emphasizes finding and doing work you believe in as an integral part of your healthy life.

As he suggests, that becomes possible when we build communities around our work like we do around the rest of our lives.

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