(This article also appears on my Huffington Post blog site)
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” T.S. Eliot, 1934
The Beginning of the Decline of the “Knowledge Worker”
The term “knowledge worker” was first coined in 1959, and although definitions vary even to this day, it generally has come to mean those who think for a living and employ “knowledge as their capital”. Conventional wisdom has it that the knowledge worker will reign supreme well into the 21st century. The thing is, many aspects of “knowledge work” are being replaced by technology, most notably artificial intelligence. Examples include everything from legal case research, certain aspects of journalism, a host of financial services work, and even increasingly some facets of medical diagnosis.
The Rise of a New Worker
A new class of worker is beginning to emerge and supersede the knowledge worker. This group is distinguished not only by their ability to think with reason, but also with creativity, intuition, and emotional intelligence. In short, they possess an amalgam of the skills and dimensions that define human exceptionalism and wisdom, in a word, as the most esteemed human quality, seems to be the term best suited to encompass this dynamic. By using the term “wisdom worker” as opposed to say creative worker or imaginative worker, suggests that we are now, at last, using all dimensions of consummate human ability.
Why “Wisdom Worker”?
But it can be difficult to talk about wisdom. To many, it’s both a somewhat vague and deeply personal concept. And it just feels right to most of us to practice some sort of intellectual humility. That shouldn’t mean we should not strive to be wise, and to not embrace incorporating wisdom in all aspects of life, including our career and work. “Among all human pursuits,” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “the pursuit of wisdom is more perfect, more noble, more useful, and more full of joy.” In other words, it is a distinctly human activity requiring high-level human skills and dimensions, and is of tremendous value. Thus, “wisdom work” is the best way to convey a skill set that will not be a mere incremental step beyond knowledge work, but the next evolution of the human worker.
Wisdom can also be thought of as the judicious application of knowledge. This description gets us closer to making the case for what might be better described as operational wisdom (similar to what the ancient Greeks referred to as phronesis, usually translated as “practical wisdom”). Workers functioning with heightened and augmented creative abilities along with emotional and communicative savvy would generate real value by enhancing individual or group performance at achieving goals and key objectives. Last but not least, operational wisdom should be improvable by enhancing its components. This last supposition will seem heretical to some; but if wisdom is indeed a process, why can’t it be enhanced, at least at the margins? Given the immense value more wisdom would add to society, shouldn’t we try?
Jeopardy! is so 20th Century
An insightful parallel to what is now happening to the knowledge worker is what has already happened to “knowledge games”. IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue ended the human dominance of chess when it beat Grandmaster Gary Kasparov back in 1997, and the company’s Watson, with its deep dive queries and improved understanding of language and idioms, defeated the top Jeopardy! players too.
And that’s why Jeopardy! is so 20th century, and Shark Tank, the reality show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to savvy investors, so today. Not because entrepreneurs are somehow inherently wise of course, but that no machine yet has come up with an original, imaginative thought, created an innovative solution, product or service, pitched it to others, and built an enterprise that employs people and creates a novel and useful product or services.
That requires cognition, creative insight and emotional intelligence. And because this trifecta of abilities is well beyond the realm of machine capabilities, it is also where the good jobs of the future will be found, and therein lies one of the great challenges we face: developing a pedagogy and andragogy to cultivate and nurture these skills. Given that our schools are failing at fostering even just creativity, we have our work cut out for us to promote wisdom.
The Age of Sapience
So thousands of years after the time mankind first began to wrestle with the idea of wisdom, we find ourselves today once again compelled to do so, and perhaps more than ever. Indeed, it is now both desirable and necessary to embrace wisdom; we should all become philosophers in a sense—lovers of wisdom. Of course the pursuit of wisdom in and of itself is a noble one, but it is also becoming in part an existential one, as machines continue to replace the knowledge worker of the 20th century. In the past, technology has undoubtedly displaced jobs, but has also typically created even more. As some prominent economists have recently opined, it doesn’t have to always work that way, and perhaps we are entering such a period. But this “threat” could be an amazing opportunity. Just as the first machine age freed us to a large extent from our physical limitations, this “second machine age” could allow us to wallow in wisdom, in both our lives and our work.
Finally, surely the wisdom worker will belong to a new age, just as the knowledge worker was the offspring of the Information Age. It can’t be a coincidence that what may be the final evolution of the human worker, as Homo sapiens, would assuredly belong to the Age of Sapience.
Mark HT Ridinger, MD