future of work, automation and 50somethings


“Technology is not nature, but humanity. It is not about tools; it is about how people work. It is equally about how they live and how they think.”

Peter Drucker, the essential Drucker (from analysis to perception)


“When you improve the performance of a part of a system taken separately, you can destroy the system.”

Russell Ackoff


“… in the basement of your organization is a diesel-powered database that has a geological strata of decades old data.”

Jarred McGinnis



This is about the effect automation will have on jobs, employment and, specifically, on 50something employment.

With all the talk about how automation will replace jobs I’d like to take a moment and say that dwelling somewhere within the basement of your organization is a nuclear-powered database with the half-life of decades old data, it is called institutional knowledge and it resides in 50somethings (or people with significant industry and business knowledge & experience). And its about them I speak of today. Business is being transformed, but not by technology or automation. These things are simply liberators of time and mind of, well, people.

So. While this is about the role of 50somethings in the future of work I will begin with the effect automation will have on the future of work. Yes. They are related.


Increased automation

In 1999 The Cluetrain Manifesto laid out the automation issue for us albeit they did so in speaking about the Web (or technology):

Because the Internet is so technically efficient, it has also been adopted by companies seeking to become more productive. They too are hungry for knowledge, for the intellectual capital that has become more valuable than bricks and mortar or any tangible asset. What they didn’t count on were the other effects of Web technology. Hypertext is inherently nonhierarchical and antibureaucratic. It does not reinforce loyalty and obedience; it encourages idle speculation and loose talk. It encourages stories.


Of course, a percentage of jobs will, be replaced by automation. It would be absurd to not acknowledge that factories, and some businesses, will go running to automation in their attempt to efficiently, consistently, produce things 24/7. Entire industries will stare at balance sheets trying to assess what is the automation efficacy bottom line for manufacturing and doing business. A select few of idiots in the service industry will also do the same. I will not put a number on that and regardless of the number the people affected are harmed financially. But I believe the larger number effected will actually be within the 4 walls of businesses themselves. It was Mike Walsh who first made me think of it this way, but let’s assume 80% of a large segment of workers will have automation assume 20% of their current responsibilities. Now. Of course, business will immediately seek to consolidate employees, based on ‘hours worked’ to attempt to lower people costs and efficiently get an ROI from a traditional 40-hour week. Far too many will do this and while in the short term (maybe even a generation) they will do fine because once again they squeezed out costs and squeezed output from ‘less.’ It is a race to the efficacy bottom and simply squeezes out whatever paste is left in the tube rather than seeing if they can redesign the tube to hold more paste.

** note: this is reductionism at its worst. I will state the obvious; the danger of reductionism is it rarely tells us about construction. And businesses, while they may not word it this way, view automation as a way to ‘reduce’ – people, unevenness, human error, costs. The future of business will not be found in reductionism, but rather construction.


“I don’t think our goal should be to create conscious intelligent machines. Everything that makes a machine useful are generally the things that are not human, why do we need to create an emotional, unpredictable, volatile, machine and put it in charge of something mission critical. The whole point of machines is to do they can do the things we don’t trust humans to do consistently.”

Mike Walsh


Which leads me to construction.

The active energy in any business is not technology, its people. Technology can activate energy, or amplify, energy, but generally speaking, at best it is passive energy if not just sustaining energy (when designed well). But my point with automation is that there is an opportunity for it to activate energy (freeing up people) and amplifying energy (maximizing the people energy being generated from automation).


Which leads me to freedom.

Freedom (extra time to do things)

While I believe it would be helpful for business to think about how automation will free up people to use their energy to think conceptually and envision ideas, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out we may actually be circling back to a way of doing business.

Me, being me, tend to think of business issues cyclically and that the tools we develop and design simply solve one problem only to have us circle back only to find that the problem we solved only created maybe an even worse problem (so we go back to original work style). This has to do with machines beginning to do what people don’t need to do so they CAN do what they should do. In the way back business machine we had administrative staff. What they did was the stuff so that the thinkers/guiders/knowledge people could be ahead of the business and seeking out emergent possibilities (and problems/complications to solve). Then technology came along with tools which suggested anyone could do all the administrative things. All of a sudden, those ‘guides’ were being asked to build power points, craft correspondence, type correspondence, schedule meetings, etc. Business, seeking efficiency, actually de-optimized effectiveness. But with automation arising it would appear we would be going back to the old model where knowledge worker ‘guides’ could do what they were supposed to do (create and expand value offered by the business) while technology/machines created the infrastructure to permit them to do so. It seems like business is circling back to a better way of doing things simply by adopting new technology. That was a simplistic overview and I am also relatively confident business will want its cake and eat it too (take the automation AND still demand knowledge workers to do their own doing).

Just to provide some clarification on my thoughts:

As a generalization I have split the work force into three groups: guides, makers, support.

  • Guides were the senior-ish people who could think conceptually, perceptually envision emergent opportunities as well as situational problems/challenges. The bulk of their time was in thinking and their doing was more as a facilitator rather than in making.
  • Makers were the ones who made the things happen. They analyzed, built, facilitated and, in general, made projects happen on time, on budget and on strategy/mission.
  • Support were mainly administrative people. They mainly handled the logistics of business and made sure the right materials were done right, put into the right hands at the right time (and made sure the guides & makers didn’t look stupid).


How those groups have evolved in the business environment.

  • Pre-technology

One of the few positive things of the old hierarchy was the really good ‘guides’ had a boatload of people reporting to them. They didn’t really do ‘command & control’ they were actually more like a “queen bee” where everyone in their hive stopped by on occasion to get some guidance, check in on what they may be missing and get some good guidance to avoid obstacles, stem problems and gain some new insights (transferal of learning also occurred). This happened because makers made and support supported and guides guided. It wasn’t a flawless system, but the good guides were invaluable. They thought conceptually, saw systems where connections made things complex, but navigable, and tended to balance progress versus specific goals well. This may have seemed like a bloated system, but in general it optimized thinking & doing and pragmatism & possibilities.

  • Technology

We often think of technology in terms of software, but we should also discuss it in terms of tools. Powerpoint, email, Microsoft office forever changed how business was conducted. But more importantly business itself, ever in pursuit of cutting costs and efficiency and profits, saw them as ways to become ‘leaner.’ These tools reshaped how business was conducted and how organizations started believing business should be conducted. In a way that the current ‘push decisions to the edges’ advocates now discuss, business started encouraging ‘support work’ be pushed out to the edges to those actually involved.

Some of the tools business embraced suggested some administrative tasks could become not only ubiquitous, but also be more efficient. I mean, who better to build a presentation than the one actually giving it? Who better to scheduled a meeting than the one who know s who should be in it and the topic? Who better to craft the correspondence than the one who is actually writing it? There was a sense that quality would improve (hiding the real desire for efficiency) if the person responsible did it all. This also bled out into meetings. All of a sudden, the presenter of the ideas was responsible for the set up & crafting of the presentation itself. The unintended consequences are obvious. All of a sudden, the ones who you truly desired to be thinking were actually having to not only learn how to do, but become masters of doing. Philosophically there was nothing wrong with this, but practically speaking business was trying to commoditize everyone on the wrong features.

My point is guides were no longer guides, but also makers and supporters. Makers lost invaluable experience interacting with guides and, well, business just lost support (who offered an important safety net).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that technology can never replace people, just compliment or supplement – business forgot that. Business emphasized pragmatism over possibilities.

  • Automation/technology

Automation, while we often speak of it in efficiency terms, will also offer a business what is called “effective stationarity”. This is the importance of slowness (Jessica Flack, Santa Fe institute). We often talk about movement and adaptability, but every business and organization have some components of effective stationarity. Automation, in many of its forms, will offer a business some structural stationarity.

Now. That said. The opportunity for automation in busines is regaining what I believe was lost, in other words, something that ‘effective stationarity’ offers a business – time to think.

Reflecting on what I just said about original technology eliminating administrative level and responsibilities/doing shifting up versus handing some ‘making things’ off to other people, the consequence was “think time space” was lost. In the future I wonder if machines will simply fill up empty time (encouraged by business leaders who see time as money) or rather because of machines maybe it gives us back some of the reflective time we lost. If I am honest, my business correspondence improved by handing a draft to someone, doing something else, and then reviewing before it went out. My presentations were better when I handed them to someone, did something else, then reviewed it again. You get my point.

To conclude this thought.

All that said, the future resides in the businesses who maximize the new freedom and figure out how to maximize, specifically, the freed up 20%. Which permits me to circle back to Cluetrain Manifesto again. Business is never defined by technology; it is always, defined, and even redesigned, by people. Automation actually helps people navigate around existing obstacles. The obstacles do not get removed, just now mappable and navigated. People, unencumbered by these old obstacles, gain new freedom to craft news ways of doing things and even seeing things – conceptually and perceptually. In my opinion, the future of work, automation or not, will demand both conceptual and perceptual thinking, and ideas, and the environments in which those ideas can thrive (I call this the Conceptual Age Organization).

Which leads me to the fact we have some of these people sitting around right now – 50somethings+.

The experienced conceptual thinkers – the 50somethings+

Ok. 50somethings. Many of these experienced business people were extremely successful in a hierarchy, albeit chafing within the system, but have deconstructed their faith in hierarchy system without losing their faith in the business of doing business. If that sounds religious it is. I stole that idea from Ann Helen Peterson’s newsletter about “the anti-church of Glennon Doyle.” The point is that you can believe in capitalism, have faith in its potential goodness, and yet still have learned that the system itself is constructed on the wrong things to optimize your faith. These 50somethings may have lived within that system, but all the while, maybe in some small ways and some big ways, were attempting to deconstruct the system to show everyone a new way to live their faith. Automation is releasing many of the binds on the existing system and it is these experienced people who can guide people with their new freedom so that the business itself remains productive and doesn’t fall in on itself finding a new way of doing things.

This is not to suggest business shouldn’t be wary of 50somethings because not all 50somethings are created equal and new systems create new ways to access power (kind of like the televangelist version in business).

** note: I could write an entire book on why I think the business world is breeding crappier managers. In today’s business world when becoming a manager your only management thinking, or how to manage people protocol, is to encourage output, direct others to create output and crap on those who don’t generate output. All I can say is ‘garbage in, garbage out.’

To be clear. There is a relatively small percentage of 50somethings who have the ability to straddle generations <attitudinally> and have the ability to insert themselves into the younger generation’s minds and desires to strengthen the engine of progress rather than stall the engine.


“Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.”

Arthur Schopenhauer


Not all 50somethings+ are created equal. Yeah. I am not suggesting all 50+ people are the same. And this generalization may be translatable to other age groups, but let me suggest there are three groups:

  • Over 50 and all they know and believe in is what they were taught when they were in their 20’s.
  • Over 50 and they have all the knowledge they need to be on their own and like being on their own (I call these builders)
  • Over 50 and have accumulated iterative learning over the years and have a unique combination of old and new (and like renovating)

** note: Builders versus Renovators 

The first group is lost in the past. They will struggle because their thinking and ideas and even their vocabulary can be out of date. They will suck at transformation or renovation. Their hope is finding someone who needs to work on their internal construct of how to get shit done. But mostly these are the people when we were young, we thought were ‘out-of-touch’ from the real world (or chuckled to ourselves because they would throw out up to date buzzwords acting like they knew what was going on).

The second group has accumulated enough knowledge and expertise and confidence where mentally they have flipped from ‘working for someone’ to ‘working for myself.’ They have recognized their ability to build. And they like building (which is different than transforming). They would suck at transforming because they want to run the place and not simply be an enabler for the organization to shift. They could possibly be out of touch or they could be leading edge entrepreneurs. But it doesn’t matter because they are now going forward as their own boss.

The third group are the renovators. Companies should be fighting over these people. They are old but not old. They are experienced but still learning. They have a solid thinking construct but flexible in application. They may have their quirks (because I believe all of us older people start feeling more comfortable in our own skin and therefore are a little less worried about ‘fitting in’) but also tend to be more interested in the result than worrying about step by step how they get there. They can actually make the current buzzword understandable by using past functional learnings to explain them.

** note: When I say “fighting for these people” I don’t mean to suggest that companies should be stockpiling these people at the expense of young energetic fresh thinkers and doers. I am simply suggesting that companies need a good tier of these types to transform themselves when, frankly, a lot of companies need to be ‘transforming’ into a conceptual thinking learning organization. I am also not suggesting there should be a direct correlation between % of 50somethings in population and % of 50somethings in the makeup of business organizations. That would seem kind of silly to me.  But the numbers are pretty compelling that organizations should seek that third group of over 50ers. In 2009 The PEW Center had a study outlining the current generation gap is the largest in the almost 50 year history of the study. In that study an astounding 79% of Americans believe that there is a generation gap in the ways young and old think and believe. Truly the only way to bridge that gap within an organization and eliminate generational divisiveness is to have older experienced people who can effectively communicate with all age groups AND think conceptually.


50somethings can be the biggest enhancer of progress. Experienced business people do have some idea of what’s going to happen and this, in turn, affects what they do in the present. This is imperfect foresight, but foresight nonetheless which leads to probability management rather than predictability management (which is critical to conceptual thinking and systems thinking management). A polymath-like experience offers a quasi-rationality to form useful models the organization can work within effectively and efficiently. These experienced guides create the vague outlines within the abstract and make them concrete enough to enable progress.

** note: I am not suggesting these 50somethings have to be as good as the young at technology or whatever new innovative techniques out there yet to be discovered, in fact, it may benefit them to not be or even try. Their value is in their heads and experience and the nudging of ‘what can be’ using selected knowledge from ‘what was’ grounded in principled thinking. In fact. Let’s call it ‘selective principles learnings’ that can be effectively articulated.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

L.P. Hartley


Which leads to me how effective guides guide.

Manage and navigate, not command and control.

While I will begin by pointing out this small cadre of experienced 50somethings have deconstructed the command and control and have embraced managing freedom and navigating emergent concepts & thinking and have a unique ability to manage and navigate, a guide (regardless of age) will have an ability to lead messes.  Paradoxically, automation, intended to help better put pieces of the business together better, actually makes things messier. That’s the unintended consequence of automation just as technology or the Web did originally to business. let me explain (this is a derivative of an idea the Cluetrain Manifesto offered us in 1999). Automation is simply an extension of the deconstruction of hierarchy and command & control technology began. This may come as a surprise to the business leaders grasping for straws to hold together that thing they love called ‘control’. Automation will actually further deconstruct control which is actually a good thing because the future of business resides in lack of control, asymmetry and messiness. Automation further bulldozes the organization charts and exponentially enhances the potentiality of conversations, thinking, ideas and conceptual problem solving & opportunistic adaptation. Despite the automation, the business will have little symmetry, just some pockets of traction & consistency, and plans based on the automation are basically a fool’s errand or simply an acceptance of some basic acceptable mediocrity. True future of work automation businesses will be, well, messy. And they will demand a tier of experienced mess managers. Maybe they become ‘freedom navigators and guides.’

** note:  I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that, freedom given does not mean that it is freedom well used (I imagine a number of democratized organization or decentralized organizational theory advocates would agree with me). After residing within a command & control industrial system since birth (school sealed that deal) people need to be taught how to optimize their new freedom.

Why? The business who gives the freedom without some guidance (effective Guides) will begin looking at that freedom as ‘bad ROI’ or some failed experiment or some short-termerism viewed poor decision.

In conclusion.

The future of automation depends on the future of people in business. Social behavior and human imagination are inescapable. You either ignore the importance of human connectivity or optimize the interactions people do have. And while business is only becoming more complex and dynamic, I would argue this is where simplicity plays a role because human interactions are actually the simplest relationship within complex systems. Yes. It is a causal, linear, issue in business (and linear moments are gold mines for a business).

The future of business is found within a contradiction – automated and asymmetrical conceptual and perceptual. Pragmatism and possibilities. It will be, simultaneously, the maximization of automation and the unautomated human curiosity to explore. This continuous learning and curiosity is important because complexity, and complex dynamic systems, always have an inherent degree of randomness tied to those who use or interact with the systems (everything is connected with everything and, people, in general, create randomness). Automation, in the end, is about freedom and the future of work will not be defined by those who optimize automation but rather by those who optimize freedom the people in the organization have gained (assuming the business doesn’t use automation as an excuse to “downsize”, i.e., embrace reductionism).


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Written by Bruce