As power shifts from companies to individuals, work is becoming invisible

We no longer have the certainty of being told exactly what to do and how, and have to rely more on our own resources. Work has become more personal, private, subjective, nomadic and never-ending. As a result, work is moving from observable public spheres into the private and unseen.

Just as power has moved from boardrooms into the domain of dynamic individuals, Invisible Work maps the evolution of this new way of being and succeeding. It is also, crucially, the answer to the question of how we thrive in the AI era and raise a new generation capable of working with – rather than being replaced by – AI.

From the author of The Creative Economy comes a new book on the most important new phenomenon in the radically changed world of work. (Out 5 March 2020.)

Below is a condensed extract from Invisible Work by John Howkins.

The Six Forces Reshaping Work

Endless facts, instant opinion and constant sharing are so pervasive in daily life, both in real life and online, that it is not surprising they are central to work. They are evident in the bitty, noisy chatter of fact and comment; and the minute-by-minute juggling of private and public views; the continual refocussing between our own work on a screen and team work in meetings. They affect our judgements, both trivial and consequential, about when to speak up and when to keep quiet.

It is evident in the rise in diversity and the celebration of all kinds of difference of individual voice and style. And in the journeys of almost half (42 per cent) of British people who work flexible hours in one form or another. The figure throughout Europe is slightly lower. In America, it is 40 per cent. Only 10 per cent now work the traditional ‘9–5’ hours, five days a week, and stay in one workplace all day long. (1)

These are deep shifts in power from a clear-cut job to varied work, from slow organisations to work shaped intuitively by fast-thinking individuals, and from company agendas to personal choices over what we know and what we say.

This chapter sets out six trends that are pushing work out of sight and making it harder to grasp:

  1. The Capacity to Learn: moving from formal education to lifelong learning.
  2. The Ideas Business: from innovation to creativity.
  3. The Search for Meaning: from repetition to self-fulfilment.
  4. Self-Management: from hierarchy to swarm.
  5. Plural Work: from a single job to a mix of work.
  6. The Four Circles: from changing physical things to changing perceptions.

Such long-term trends may seem out of place in a book on day-to-day work but, as work cuts free from the job spec, so we need to know which way we are heading.

1. The Capacity to Learn

The prime cause of the rise in invisible work is the massive expansion in education in the past two generations, especially in universities. But the primacy of education is being matched and overtaken by its partner, learning, now sprinting ahead on its own terms, and for which people need only curiosity and determination. But they do need that.

Faced with the opportunities for invisible work, we have to stop focussing on repeating what is already known and think about what might be done differently. Above all, what is our role in this process? We need to restructure our minds. We have to learn new ideas about self-management and leadership.

The phrase ‘capacity to learn’ was coined by Indonesian journalist and diplomat Soedjatmoko who became the country’s first Minister of Education and then the founding Rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo. He wanted to increase people’s ‘capacity to learn’. (2)

As Minister, he said the country’s most precious resource is people’s hunger for knowledge; and they have to learn how to learn. He wanted a shift from top-down instruction to peer-to-peer dialogue, from official curriculum to personal choice.

We have to desire it. We have to nurture our capacity to learn, as well as recognise it in others, and choose a domain where it is encouraged.

2. The Ideas Business

The processes of ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ differ in this way. Creativity is a unique personal expression or action whose value lies in it being unrepeatable; and innovation is a generally verifiable idea or process whose value lies in it being copied exactly.

The sales of a new innovation follow an ‘S’-shaped curve. Initially, customer demand for any new product is small. As demand swells, so the company faces a dilemma: it can either look after its existing customers or it can continue to innovate, produce new products and attract new customers. But it is very hard to satisfy the existing customers as well as attract new ones. And so another smaller and more agile company pops up with another innovation, and the earlier company declines. And the whole cycle starts again. Innovation contains the seeds of its own downfall. It only works if there is a drag in the system.

Creativity obeys the same ‘S’ curve but at a much faster rate, and its speed increases as the number of physical elements falls.

John Howkins is author of seminal text The Creative Economy, which was translated into 14 languages

This is the language of creativity: ‘making the heart sing’. It starts with a personal hunch. The starting point of innovation is often a hunch, too. But with creativity the hunch stays in control for much longer and, in some sectors, all the way to the end, whereas with innovation the hunch is subject to rational calculation and proof.

3. The Search for Meaning

This is relatively new: the idea that work can be not only ‘satisfying’ in a mildly pleasant way but also deeply meaningful. Even newer is the idea that such meaningful work might be beneficial to other workers and, crucially, to the company as a whole.

It’s a move from physical labour that is judged by external criteria to invisible work that is judged, as far as possible, by the person doing it in their own subjective terms. It’s a move from commodified labour to meaningful work.

The people who find their work most profoundly meaningful are those who have thought deeply about it and moulded it to their own personality over a long period. They discover the elements that they enjoy and find important (as well as those they find boring) and make the work their own.

So it is unrealistic to look for a job that will immediately provide meaningful work, especially when we are young and may not know exactly what we are looking for. Better to start by developing our capacity to experience a sense of meaning. It needs careful nurturing. It’s not the job that’s meaningful. It’s our experience of the work.

4. Self-Management

Each of these shifts can give us more control over our work but we cannot do much on our own. We need other people. So I want to describe a parallel shift in how we gather together and share thoughts. It is symbolised in a decline in formal hierarchies and an increase in a variety of informal and often temporary groups and networks (such as swarms).

The self-managed organisation is a place where individuals are respected and managing is an earned choice and not an arbitrary gift (let alone one given ‘accidentally’).

It rejects the hierarchy’s zero-sum game where an increase in power for A means a loss of power for B. It seeks a positive-sum game where more power for A means either more power for B or has no effect on B.

In this way, the individual uses the organisation as much as the organisation uses the individual.

The question is not ‘How can everyone have equal power?’ but ‘How can everyone be powerful?’

John Howkins is a leading figure in the global understanding of work and creativity.

5. Plural Work

These shifts to personal learning and swarming are weakening the ideas of one job at a time and one job for life. The one job for life is now a small minority in all industrialised economies except Japan and France. It represents fewer than 10 per cent of all business employees in Britain (the proportion rises to 30 per cent if government employees are included). The one job at a time is more common but as many as one third of workers have more than one kind of work. Figures are hard to obtain because this kind of work is often temporary or part-time work and wages are not easily monitored.

The result is plural work: an individual mix of work done by one person according to circumstance and which may or may not include a job. It is common in the gig economy and the sharing economy, but it isn’t an exact fit. Plural work is simply having more than one kind of work on at a time.

Plural work grows out of the personal and nomadic nature of invisible work. It is easier to work on more than one thing at a time when work is invisible. It reflects the move from a single job ordained by an organisation to a personalised and individually curated mix of work which is mobile and opportunistic (other descriptions are ‘unstable’ and ‘precarious’). The work may be paid or unpaid; employment or freelance work; commissioned or speculative.

Plural work symbolises the future of work in this century just as stable, full-time physical employment symbolised it in the last.

6. The Four Circles

Bertrand Russell said ‘There are only two kinds of work. The first is altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relative to other such matter. The second is telling other people to do so.’

Since then, the first group has shrunk and the second has lost its dominant position. Two new groups have emerged whose size and influence are limited only by our imagination.

Marie Kondo started to tidy her classroom bookshelves when she was at junior school – pure First Circle work. Then she progressed rapidly to the Second Circle and charged $100 for five hours of tidying work before and after her day job. She moved on to the Third Circle and set up her own business aged 19. She entered the Fourth Circle and became world famous when she presented tidying and decluttering as a philosophical concept worthy of a book and launched the brand name of KonMari.

The tidying and decluttering remain the same; but Kondo has used her personal, subjective invisible talent to change our perceptions by reframing it as a concept and creating a unique process. Now when someone tidies books they are doing a Kondo.

None of these circles exist in isolation. Each depends on each other although while insiders know what is happening, outsiders can struggle as cognitive work becomes more specialised. By comparing the circles we realise how people add value to their work and why that value is personal and subjective – and invisible.


Invisible Work by John Howkins is out 5 March 2020. Pre-order now.


  1. The main data sources in this chapter are the Office for National Statistics (UK), the Bureau of Labor Statistics (USA) and census data. The main source of global data is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
  2. Soedjatmoko, The Future and the Learning Capacity of Nations: The role of communications, International Institute of Communications, 1978.