What does it mean to be human?

Sam Whittaker, Head of Strategy Development at the CIPD asks how we find humanity at work

What does it mean to be human?

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

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