A New Age of Self Reliance?



Out of my office at home I am lucky to be able to look down the hill to the River Derwent. Four miles downstream is the first powered factory in the World, open in 1719 based on technology “borrowed” from an Italian. Fifteen miles upstream is Arkwright’s Mill, one of the main driving forces as the first Industrial Revolution got underway in 1769, fifty years later and peaked fifty years after that in 1820.

It’s been said that we don’t really know there’s been a revolution until after it’s happened, and I’m sure that if we’d been part of one of the six generations born during the one hundred and fifty years it took for the industrial revolution to go from first embers to full realisation, that may have been the case, as we only experienced a part of the whole, and our part of represented our “normal.

During that 150 year transition, we experienced the “cottage industry” as the potential for large scale manufacture met agrarian infrastructure. Bits of manufacture were outsourced, creating real wealth, for weavers in particular, until Arkwright’s Mill started the next stage that made them for many years irrelevant. Skilled weavers were, for a time at least – several decades – replaced by children. It appears that the location of Arkwright’s mill was at partially based on the ready supply of children.

All around me are the houses and villages that supported those cottage industries. I live in one of them. 

Now, it feels like a reversal of the process as the previously “permanent” mills and factories were hit, in my lifetime, first by globalisation, then technology, then coronavirus. Concentrations of many people in small areas seems unlikely to return at scale as we discover those houses that supported cottage industry during the industrial revolution’s advance are also supporting the changes during it’s retreat. Covid-19 has catalysed the realisation that offices based on an industrial paradigm are no longer necessary, or for many, desirable.

Cottage Industry 2.0

For those that have them, valuable skills are migrating away from offices and back into the home. Office politics has been dealt a blow as the occupant of the corner office can only be seen for what she actually does, rather than for the presence she creates in doing it. Zoom is something of a leveller.

Also fading are those areas, that like the froth on a cappuccino add little to the substance of the creative caffeine. Just as the tea trolley morphed expensively into Starbucks and Subway for a while, so the pleasure, freedom and saving of being your own Barista returns with Cottage Industry 2.0

Along with the changes comes a slow, but quickening realisation. The need for self reliance. Not of the macho, survivalist variety but more of the quiet, confident sort. A knowledge that what we do is valuable, needed and adaptable as our society goes through the decades that will define our working lives.

The weavers who were first fleetingly wealthy, then destitute as the first industrial revolution progressed later came back into a form of prosperity as the scale of the weaving machines grew, and needed people supervising them who understood the craft of weaving.

We are perhaps in a similar process as AI replaces what were previously skilled jobs based on process from routine accounting, to aspects of legal practice, to machine operators. The prospects of nearly half of skilled jobs being replaced by AI are probably wide of the mark, but if they are only half right, the impact will still be huge in an economy dominated by services.

Self Reliance

For the last fifty years, the growth of the economy around me has been fuelled by the decline of manufacturing and the growth of service jobs that are hosted by a declining but pivotal core of skilled jobs in innovative sectors that generate sustainable value. 

Engineering in many forms from Aero to Software, which attractaround them far more transient services that provide to their needs, but do not themselves generate lasting value. A coffee, is a coffee, is a coffee. Half Life? Around five minutes. Residual value? The negative value of cup recycling cost. The transferable skills of a Barista? Limited. 

That, of course is no reflection on the Barista. There are in my view three things that shape us:

  • We are all full of different talents that we are given, but shaped by an education system that often doesn’t value them. 
  • The skills we acquire, that may or mat not leverage our talents, but which are none the less valuable.
  • Who we work with or for, who may value only part of the skills we have acquired, or the talents we were born with. Great employers allow these hidden things to flourish, poor ones don’t  – they just want the job done.

This is where self reliance comes in. 

After all, as the line in Invictus exhorts us, we are the captains of our fate, and the masters of or souls, and as Ta’Mara Leigh reminds us, “nobody is coming to rescue us

That being the case, in the current (and likely to be chronic) period of uncertainty, there are three things we can do:

  1. Listen to our talents. They exist, and you were born with them. You know when they are present because of how you feel, and the fleeting pleasure you get. Pay attention to them 
  2. Acquire skills that matter. If you’re a Barista, become a great one. Learn every aspect of coffee. Develop mastery. There are hundreds of thousands of High St shop Baristas, but very few great ones. The skills that seem likely to be in greatest demand during uncertainty are those around communication, empathy and leadership – the real sort, not the label. Merchants of hope who can inspire and support. 
  3. Be aware of your surroundings. Remember Jim Rohn’s line that we become the average of the five people we most associate with. That includes the organisation that employs you. Aspire and move to working with those that bring out the best in you, and tolerate any other sort only as long as you really, really must.

In the midst of the current uncertainty, there are huge opportunities to reshape what we do, to let our talents out to play, and to acquire and practice new skills. 

The people around you need you to do it. So do the rest of us. 

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