‘People are Working Harder than Ever’ – Jonas Altman, Shapers – Book Review

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to interview Jonas Altman, author of the newly released Shapers: Reinvent The Way You Work and Change the Future.

Altman, based in Canada, has done a remarkable job of dissecting where we are as a society. Jobs, he argues, are stuck in a holding pattern: people are becoming narrow and specialized; we are working longer hours for less money and we are becoming ill, stressed and tired as a result. With growing income inequality, climate change and longer working hours – now is the time, he argues, for a radical rethink about the way we work and how we can improve our jobs for the future.

The resultant book, Shapers, is the kind of conversation you wish your boss would have with you at the end of the day. ‘Everything is not going to be alright,’ it seems to say, ‘but here is a plan for your future’.

At the core of the book is a proposition: “People are working harder than ever and still the modern economy leaves them behind.”

The different solutions posed by Altman range from: a universal basic income, to a shorter work week, to the idea of ‘Play’ in the office. An idea reminiscent of the time set aside for Lego employees to ‘play’ during their workday. Far from being a waste of time, ‘Play’ is seen a key part of unlocking their creativity and imagination.

I talked to Jonas Altman over Zoom at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Altman called in from Vancouver, “A good place to be stuck in current circumstances, with lots to explore.” I called in from Sydney, “A place I grew up. Doing well by world standards.” He came across as affable, in a way that is stereotypically Canadian. He talked with a warmth of character that at times contrasted against the language and style of a Silicon Valley-styled entrepreneur turned consultant.

I started by asking him how he came to care about the future of work.

“I’ll try be concise,” he said, “because I do like stories.”

It all started when he decided to start his own business. “I think I found myself in the burnout ballpark, where I was working stupid and not smart and just spinning my wheels. So I set up a company when I was 27. And by the age of 35, I think I was mentally and physically taxed.”

It came to the point where he thought he would have a heart attack.

That’s when he gave himself permission to try things differently. He went back to university. He did a masters of design and a teaching degree. In his masters, he explored what was happening to the new generation in the employment market. “So Post-2008 Great Recession – what happened was an entire generation was studying and not able to go into employment in the field that they studied, and many were underemployed.”

He wanted to know: “how do we engage and build capacity for the next generation – Gen Z or even the pandemic generation, we might call them?”

His answer was to consider the future of work – how work could change to suit our needs. He started by doing talks, which quickly grew in popularity.

In the audience he found two types of people.

There were “the agitators” – the “Mavericks, misfits, pirates, innovators who are in an organization and they’re like Jesus Christ – we’re really not optimizing human capital here. And it’s kind of sad, and they think they can change it within.”

And then there were people like him – who had left organizations and wanted to try and do things differently on their own. “They knew there was something new to breathe into the world of work.”

The world that they wanted to change was fairly bleak indeed. I put it to Altman that his book is quite negative, at times, in how it sees the world Post-2008. To quote a key chapter: “We face acute employee disengagement, the shortage of skilled labor, gender pay inequality, widespread underemployment, and machines that continue to gobble up our jobs. Oh, yes. And millennials have had to enjoy the bleakest financial future of any generation in over a century.”

Note that he wrote this prior to the pandemic.

“One view is that it’s going to hit rock bottom before there’s a major change,” he said, “And I remember I was… that quote is actually marketing copy from The Future of Less Work, which is my last event in Toronto. And it was kind of looking at universal basic income, systemic inequalities and Aboriginals and ethnic minorities, and just saying there’s actually a lot of people in prison or coming out of prison and mental health institutions in all sorts of marginalized places in the world who are pretty much out of work or certainly out of gainful work. It’s sort of like saying we’re not springing from a place of abundance.”

If there is hope, it is in the flexibility that the current moment provides to us. When I asked Altman if COVID-19 will lead to permanent changes in the way we work, he started to sound (a little) more optimistic.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said, “It’s a beautiful question. And I have an answer. I think what will happen is CFOs are already seeing the cost savings that they can make by not having office space. Lawyers are going to wonder what the hell is going to happen for employment benefits and working from home and lawsuits. But it’s going to be piecemeal, or what’s the expression, pick and mix. What will work for one business won’t work for another.”

What seems certain is that work is changing. Altman hopes for a future where work makes us happier, with greater balance and purpose. Whether this future comes to pass is yet to be seen.

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