Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Back to the Future: Not Looking into the Future but at Futures

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Back to the Future: Not Looking into the Future but at Futures

Article excerpt

Key note at the 7th Nordic Working Life Conference, Threats and Possibilities Facing Nordic Working Life in Gothenburg, Sweden, June 11-13, 2014

This speech is about the trickiness of the future. Thus, I will share my thoughts about why I think it is important for researchers interested in work-life matters to engage in a discussion about the future. I would like to stress the importance of engaging in discussions about the future, since the purpose of my talk is not to encourage work-life researchers to collectively convert into oracles, prophets, or fortune-tellers.

In this way, this talk is a sort of reasoning out loud about the future, or futures. However, I will not look into the future, making claims such as whether we will experience an increased formalization of work, the formalization thesis, or, instead, if there is an informalization of work and welfare to expect (Beck 1992, Gorz 1999, Handy 1984, Rifkin 1995). I will not argue that the future will take place according to the growth of capitalism and commodification thesis, or if it is de-commodification of employment and work that increases (i.e., post-capitalist or non-capitalist visions of work). Similarly, I will not reveal whether it is the globalization thesis, emphasizing an open global deregulated market, or the localization of work and welfare thesis that we will experience in the future.

Besides these claims, there are a number of questions that I will not answer. For example: Is Rifkin right about a third industrial revolution? Will the boundaries between work, leisure, and family be diminished? Will the work force be feminized? Will Fordism continue to exist? Will there be more control in tomorrow's working life, or less? Will the computers that recently have fooled experts that they are human be a part of future management?

Instead of looking into the future I will look at the future; that is, the phenomenon (Adam and Groves 2007). I also want to mention that the perspectives that I will use, and my own standpoint in this talk, is as a social scientist and is ethnocentric in a global perspective.

My talk has the following structure: I will start by arguing why I believe the future is important. I will then continue with a note on the absence of futures studies in working life-related journals, and the absence of work-life matters in future studies. I will describe some of the ways in which research has formulated knowledge about the future. The talk will be finished by returning to why I think working life research needs to engage in the future.

Why is the future important?

Why do I think the future is important? Well, because, as Barbara Adams and Chris Groves put it, quite succinctly: It matters! The future is not only imagined (Adam and Groves 2007: xiii); it is also made and created all the time, everywhere. This is done in our everyday practice at work and elsewhere, through policies and politics, through technology and medicine, and through education and science-such as in science related to work life.

One of the most famous futurists, Wendell Bell (2003), argues that we are all time travelers, holding a one-way ticket to the future since there is no ticket going back. This might sound like something from a science fiction movie and rather fatalistic, but the important point is that we are agents creating the future and that we, including us researchers, are therefore morally responsible for the "not yet" (Adam 2008: 111-112).

In order to understand agency, one can distinguish between two orientations in relation to the future. One is being oriented toward the future; that is from the present and forward. The other is guided by the future; that is, its time orientation is the opposite, backward from the future toward the present (Adam and Groves 2007). No one can put themselves outside this time orientation. These thoughts are not new; in Philosophy of the present, for example, Herbert Mead ([1932] 2002) stated that all our actions are a result of the past, the present, and the future and that actions are future-oriented. …

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