The long-term shift in employment from full-time jobs to contingent work is gathering momentum. Most of us will spend some part of our working life in this mode. We will work as independent contractors, we will work on hybrid teams with other people who are contingent employees, and we will be responsible for hiring such people onto teams.

What will this mean for our working lives, our families and the kind of society we are leaving to our children?

Who is in this economy?

Pretty much all of us will be at one time or another. For some jobs it is the conventional way to work – most of the trades (electricians, carpenters, plumbers for example), most of the people driving taxis (even before the disruption by Uber and Lift), people with professional certifications (your lawyer, your doctor, possibly your accountant) are all used to this. Then there is the army of contractors that the government has been hiring to do, well, to do pretty much everything – provide security, analyze data, develop policy, staff administrative positions. And large companies are moving to the contingent economy as well. That is what is really behind IBM’s down sizing. It is not that fewer people will be working on IBM projects. It is just that most of these people will not be full-time employees of IBM. (Read Ben Kepes articles in Fortune for one take on this.)

Some see this as a disaster. Something that will rend the social fabric, benefit the 1% of the 1%, and leave most people scrambling to find work.

Others see this as liberating. An opportunity to free many people from the weight of bureaucracies and open new creative possibilities.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts in this four-question survey.

We will compile the results in a future post.

Dystopia

This could get very bad. People could be left scrambling from project to project, overworked one week, at loose ends the next, but afraid to relax because who knows where the next dollar will come from.

Company benefits will be the preserve of the ultra-elite, that core of people who cannot be outsourced, while governments, starved of tax revenue and burdened by an ageing society will cut back on services.

People will be responsible for their own training but will not have the time or energy to invest in it. As they are being hired for a contract the expectation will be that they already know what they need to know so that they can hit the ground running.

All the records that companies keep about people’s skills, training, potential will be lost in databases that no one will ever access (IBM is famous for the depth of information it has about its people, what happens to that information when the person leaves? Do people get a record they can take with them when they leave?)

Social ties will fray as people move from job-to-job and place-to-place. Companies have been a big part of our social fabric, part of many people’s identities, where they make friends and find their life partners. Having a job, full time, with benefits, gives people the security they need to be good partners to each other, parents to children and care givers to their own parents.

In losing the security and continuity provided by employment we will be losing a lot.

Read more in ‘The Sharing Economy Isn’t About Trust, It’s About Desperation’ by Kevin Roose.

Utopia

But then, not everyone thinks that working for a large bureaucracy is the pinnacle of success (and large companies are bureaucracies before they are anything else).

Working for oneself, with peers, on projects that fit your skills and extend them, is deeply fulfilling and can be quite rewarding. The top freelancers make very good livings. Maybe not as much as top management, who are able to leverage the work of other people, but enough for a satisfying and comfortable life.

The mutual support systems formed by freelancers can be much more resilient than those dependent on having the same employer. People experienced in the freelance world go out of their way to help each other find work, and to provide advice when needed.

And let’s face it, people have to rely on their own resources (which include their networks) for the continuous learning and improvement needed to survive today. A day in which you don’t learn something is a day lost.

Relying on a network of your peers, and the people in your community, is a safer, and dare I say more human, way to make a living then relying on some corporation that has a shorter lifespan than that of your career.

In 1958 the average firm survived 61 years. That had narrowed to 25 years in 1980 and to 18 years now. (See Richard Foster’s report for Innosight.) You can’t rely on companies to provide continuity throughout your work life. Working on projects with other committed people where you have some control over the outcome is a much better option.

Finding a way forward

The contingent economy is on us whether we like it or not. So we need to find ways to make it work.

There are some things we can do as individuals.

  • Invest in our networks, making sure we are helping other people as much as we can, because at some point we are going to need help.
  • Have a formal plan for our own learning, and good ways to demonstrate the skills we are applying.
  • Learn how to work on teams, and how to come up to speed with a new team quickly, so that we are always ready to hit the ground running.

Companies have to pick up their side.

  • Show respect for contractors, they are key team members, and you have to be able to trust them.
  • Recognize that people are working in teams, that people are not interchangeable parts, who they work with and how they work makes a difference.
  • Help contractors demonstrate the value they have added to your business to the outside world. It helps them, and it makes you look better.

Even the government is going to have to change how it thinks about employment.

  • Companies will not provide benefits for the length of a person’s career (companies don’t survive that long) but there needs to be some form of continuity, this may need to come from the government.
  • Companies will not provide people with the training they need. Time cycles are too short and the need for fast returns to pressing. We need new approaches to support and record lifelong learning.
  • Governments need to regard contractors as just as important as fulltime employees, and just as worthy of protection and support.

At TeamFit our mission is to push for a positive outcome. We are working towards a world where people have control over their careers (and their data), can find meaningful work, with the people they want to work with, and where their skills will be recognized and rewarded.

Image by Robert Toth