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The Future of Work

In the US and elsewhere, what we have long considered as “work” is changing. Automation, the Gig economy, and frequent hops are creating both uncertainty, and opportunity.

Datestamp: 11/8/2016

As I write this, the US elections are underway, and one thing that stands out is that the concept of “work” in this country, as well as in the world is changing drastically. Beyond the rhetoric around manufacturing vs. outsourcing, clearly the concept of work and workplace are in flux.

The world of my parents, really pre-baby-boomers (I guess that makes them part of “The Greatest Generation”), was simple. You got your high school diploma, and walked to the local factory|steel mill|Textile Plant|etc. and you got a good job. This was post WWII so there was ample work, strong union participation, and the ability to earn enough to buy a house, take a vacation with the family every year, put a car in the driveway, and tuck enough away for your children to go to college.

Or you went to university (like my father did,) get a degree in Physics or some hard science, and have an even better career at one of the rising defense contractors.

A job where you can put decades in and earn a solid retirement with it. There was a sense of security, and comfort. There was a definite progression, a ladder if you will, that if you were so motivated you could progress from an assembly line worker, to a shift lead, to a floor manager, and even, with some luck, grasp the lower rungs of the management ladder.

In short, you had a career, and it might have been at a single company or enterprise. This was largely possible because in the post war economy, only the USA had remained largely untouched, able to scale and grow into the supplier of the world. We ran huge (truly massive) trade surpluses, as our goods propagated throughout the world, to help rebuild Europe and Asia, bolster our allies, and get the world back on track. Of course it wasn’t all hunky-dory, we began the cold war, the arms race, the rapid growth of military and defense spending that to some degree fueled our adventures in Korea and Vietnam.

But that has changed. At first it was small changes. Pensions began to give way to self directed retirement accounts, unions that were already becoming quite corrupt were being broken, and that compact, that you would have a job at a company for your entire career was in jeopardy. By the time I graduated college in 1988, this had accelerated. The fall of the Soviet Union, and the Berlin wall was the beginning of the end of the unfettered defense spending, and me with my freshly minted Physics degree was finding that many of the usual jobs at the Government Labs were closed, that the major defense contractors were merging, and restructuring.

Work was changing even then. Less certainty, more chaotic, in summary, it was becoming more fluid. Of course, the rise of computers, and Information Technology was driving exciting new opportunities, reinvigorating the organizations, and enhancing productivity across the board. This picked up much of the strength that was being drained from the traditional large enterprises. Email, Networks, ERP systems, CRM systems, Web based commerce, and a flood of related technologies both allowed exiting organizations to reinvent themselves, and drove a new playing field of disruptive, nimble players to enter.

Here we are, 2016 is closing out, and clearly the change is accelerating. Regardless of what the politicians running for President say, the world of the 1950’s and 1960’s, where large manufacturing operations will have ample jobs for high school graduates, offering salaries that can provide a solid middle class life are gone. If it requires manual labor to assemble, it will be assembled elsewhere, and if it can be fully automated, it will be built in plants staffed with robots.

This gets me to my point, in this long rambling post. To compete today, we really need to change the model. The old model was linear. You had your education, that lasted until you were ready for your career, then you got a job, and you worked, and then you retired. It was very serial in its nature, with distinct phases, and it was assumed that if your time in your career required education, it was provided, and you were encouraged to take it.

But today, it is different. You can think of it in parallel, Once you have gotten through your secondary school, and your university (increasingly demanded, even for entry level jobs), you are expected to continue to pursue your education, on your own time. You take control of your career, and its direction. Job roles have become more fluid/less defined, and success means that you are constantly adapting, evolving, and improving yourself.

Additionally, it is common to change jobs much more frequently than before. The expectation, by both the employee and the employer is that the compact is much less solid than it once was. The fall of unions, and their built in protections, seniority system, and contractually defined salaries/raises have drastically changed the world. For the better or not, is not for me to decide, but preparing the workforce of the future requires a different paradigm.
Some observations:

  • Job roles are less well defined. Both the scope, and the titles are less structured. Successful employees need to be able to navigate and adjust their expectations
  • Organizations are less hierarchical. The expectation is increasing that throughout the organization, there is more empowerment, and responsibility that can be entrusted to the individuals.
  • The “Gig” economy is increasing. What started as a race to the bottom (competing with eastern European contractors is difficult for US based contractors) is becoming a solid portion of the workforce. This contingency workforce provides flexibility to both companies who hire the contractors, as well as the contractors, who are empowered to work when and how much they want (note: There needs to be some attention to the rate scales of this. Unfortunately, I suspect some regulation will be required to ensure that this doesn’t just drive the contractors into poverty level earnings)

The future? Working to help drive this transition. The convergence of technology to make it all work, to help educate the workforce, giving them options that just a few years ago seemed fantastic. Make it all a reality.

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Written by gander2112

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