The Starbucks Paradox

The future of work.  Increasingly written about, talked about, tweeted and infographiced. The bandwagon effect is in full flow.  The early adopters have come and spoken at conferences and gone.  The laggards are quickly catching up.

There are plenty of clichés about the future of work, but one thing is certain: a change is coming.

I’ve heard it called the hollowing out of the labour market.

I’ve heard it called the hourglass effect.

I’ve heard it described as a void between the people who matter and the people who don’t.

Well paid highly specialised knowledge work at the top.  Low paid low value work at the bottom.  And nothing much else in between.

So goes the theory.

But like the saying goes, the future is already here, it is just evenly distributed*.  Zero hours contracts, low paid work, reducing employment rights, high youth unemployment.  These problems are already very much in evidence.

There are huge implications for HR and for people management in this definitely maybe future labour market.  We might just find ourselves with a strange tension.  The manager of the knowledge worker versus the manager of the traditional worker, living in a parallel universe, opposite extremes.  A completely new management gap.  If the predictions hold true, we are left with more unknowns than knowns.  A whole host of implications not just for managers and leaders, but the methods, processes and HR practices that support them.

Can all people managers and all employees embrace the potential of the future of work, or just a lucky few?  Will others be left behind, repeating the management models and methods of the past?  A Coffice for some and Taylorism for everyone else?  Will it ever be possible to switch from working or managing at the bottom of the gap to the top?  What will this mean for the skills and jobs mismatch, and the (sorry) so called war for talent?

Are we ready?  Are we heck.

There is a future of work, coffee shop paradox.

If you are a knowledge worker at the top of this future labour market, you can work in a Starbucks**.  Pitch up anywhere with a Wifi connection and a power source for your tablet.  Work is a thing that you do not a place that you go. Just saying no to the 9-5 thing, sitting in an office thing.  Coffee and cake. The crowd and the cloud.

And if you find yourself at the bottom of the hourglass shaped labour market, you too can work in a Starbucks.

Only you will be the one serving the skinny lattes.



*William Gibson said it first. Although Peter Cheese is fond of saying it too. 
**Or any other coffee shop chain. Take your pick. Personally I prefer Costa. 
 Additional note – after I published this post I found out that the title has already been used by David D’Souza.  Which means I have probably committed subconscious plagiarism.  Sorry David.

7 thoughts on “The Starbucks Paradox

  1. Perhaps I’m an idealist but I do think this whole future of work concept can be applied to knowledge workers as well as service and factory workers. Knowledge workers can theoretically work from anywhere, service & factory cannot. But the underlying principles of empowerment, ownership of work and pride can still be there – autonomy, mastery and purpose – who said that? It’s the difference between pride in the building you designed or the coffee you made and the smile you put on the face of your customer. On that note, I’ve seen factory workers get joy and satisfaction out of cleaning their machines to perfection because their manager gave them the freedom to decide the best cleaning method and time of day to do it, because they understood the bigger picture, because they saw themselves as part of a team trying to achieve something. That is the now and future world of work and it’s not isolated to knowledge and service workers.

    I think the hour glass distinction will be between those sufficient level of education to communicate effectively (written and oral), understand business metrics (basic maths) and creatively problem solve and those that do not.

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  3. I think you’ll find the William Gibson quote is ” NOT evenly distributed”, which changes your meaning, but not the thrust of your argument. The Inequality Gap (see recent OECD report), Occupy Movement’s 1%, whatever you want to call it, is exploding across the world. Wherever you have people privatising profits and socialising losses we will proliferate inequality and yes some will be selling the lattes with no tenure of employment and no worker rights, and others will be using the WIFI to finish the report that advises the business how to rip them off and shoulder more of the risk.

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