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16 May

What does it mean to be human?

By Sam Whittaker, Head of Strategy Development, CIPD.

The tide of automation

There is much talk in the media about how technology is bringing profound and unstoppable change to the world of work.  In 2013, researchers Frey and Osborne predicted that 47% of US jobs were susceptible to automation by 2050.  More recently, Deloitte has claimed that automation, though a net benefit to the UK economy, has removed 800,000 jobs since 2001, and that up to 11m UK jobs have a high chance of being automated within the next 20 years.

Reports espousing the rise of technology now proliferate, yet as we think about the future of work, what does that mean in terms of the impact on productivity, on requirements for skills, on job design, education?  What does this mean for our children and future generations who have to navigate this brave new world? How do we make technology our friend and not our foe?

Finding our humanity at work

So critical are these question that we at the CIPD want to help convene a conversation around the rallying cry  ‘the future of work is human’; to debate and discuss what the future of work could and should look like.  But in beginning to answer that question, should we first understand what it means to be human?

One place to start, perhaps, is in looking at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 in Paris.  It set out, for the first time, the notion of fundamental human rights; ideas of tolerance and respect for others, the right to being treated with dignity and respect, rights to desirable work, to freedom of movement and so on.

As the human rights lawyer, Helena Kennedy has been exploring in a current Radio 4 series, can we actually claim that humanity is a universal idea?  Is a notion of humanity – that transcends nation states, religion and local laws – true or realistic?  And if so, how do we adhere to that within our own cultures and contexts?  Or does the declaration provide an ethical framework, as Helena Kennedy put it, to shine a light on what we must consider when dealing with people?

Human beings — wonderful and messy

Of course, as we celebrate the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we are reminded of all facets of the human condition — in all its glory and all its ‘messiness’.  Both my daughters are currently studying Macbeth at school and we are reminded in the opening scene, in the witches’ prophecy, that ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ and of the ambiguity inherent in the human condition.

Origins of humanity

The Smithsonian in the US has a research initiative  exploring what it means to be human. This work recognises that attempts to answer this question is, in part, helped by understanding the origins of being human. It is fascinating to read the scientific evidence that shows how human characteristics came about and, more interestingly, to note that within just the past 12,000 years, our species, Homo sapiens, has been so successful ‘that we have inadvertently created a turning point in the history of life on Earth’.  And judging by the numerous answers they have had to posting the question of what it means to be human, clearly outlines both the multiplicity of views and the passion of the debate.

If the future of work is human… what does that mean?

Philosophers, theologians and scientists alike have struggled to define humanity for many centuries. Clearly, the answer isn’t straightforward. So, if the future of work is human, what does that mean?  The CEO of Sodexo, Michel Landel, wrote in 2013 that ‘today, the new frontier of performance is human.’  People need to be put at the heart of business models: their creativity, innovation, empathy, their ability to ask ‘why’, their humanness.

What does it mean to aim beyond efficiency to lives worth living, where humans flourish and organisations, economies and societies prosper?

Would love to hear your thoughts…

Join the debate on Twitter using the hashtag #workischanging

3 thoughts on “What does it mean to be human?

  1. Profile photo of Para

    These are challenging questions. Can the idea of humanity be a universal idea?

    If by this we mean – the human race then yes, we are part of the human race. If we mean the special qualities that make us human – that of compassion, kindness, the ability to reason, empathy and many more – I would like to think these too are universal qualities that can transcend cultural differences, borders and local laws. For me the values that came out of the Enlightenment – that of autonomy, right to privacy, the demos and the right to free speech are all universal ideas. Coming from a country that gave you no freedom to speak your mind, and a demos in name only makes me realise the importance of these values. What’s more these values by transcending cultural aspects have the potential to unite us.

    And it is this that separates us from machines. We are conscious human beings who can communicate with other human beings, expressing any one of the qualities above. Since the Luddites there has always been anxieties about machines taking away our jobs. Yes some jobs did disappear but in the main new jobs were created and mankind progressed. Likewise robots may do some of the current jobs we do – clean, serve food, even operate on us but at the end of the day we humans are the ones who will programme the machines to act as such. It is us humans with our unique imagination and powers of creativity who can bring about new opportunities for work.

  2. Profile photo of

    Hey Sam – great post and fabulous prompts to remind ourselves what we really mean by human.

    Fallibility and vulnerability are juxtaposed with invincibility and strength in pursuing what we believe life to be all about. I think you’re right to force us to think deeply about what we mean by human before we mourn the loss of whatever automation eventually takes away from us (especially in working life).

    For me, being human is about so much but yes, having the frailties and imperfections of human beings whilst simultaneously striving to the best version of you you can be. If that means that this best you is helped out with a bit of technological support then more power to it.

    There’s a lot of tech/digital backlash that says we’re becoming glued to our screens and so on, whilst this may be the case we are also keeping good connections with new friends and old across time zones not to mention taking in information and being entertained when we want, how we want.

    A feature of human is making choices and decisions. Let’s hope where the future, technology and the Singularity on our horizon, we make choices and decisions that help us BE more human, DO more humane things and HELP our planet, societies and fellow humans put right wrongs and generally do more good for the world.

    Less soul destroying low-value and high-stress living would be desirable for many of us. I can’t see us achieving this unless technological advancement frees up more time and effort to do good and we can pivot our reward mechanics towards a sustainable way that we can all do more good for each other.

    I choose a future of more human.

  3. Profile photo of katyadalar

    I think that if we really want the future of work to be human, we need to find a way to put an end to the idea that technology is bringing unstoppable change to the world of work. Who says it’s unstoppable? Isn’t it human beings who are making the decisions about how, where and when we use technology? Jobs don’t automate themselves – people actively decide to replace people with machines. I’m not saying that’s always a bad decision, but I’m not convinced that those decisions are always being made as consciously as they should, or with the right motivations in mind.

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