Posts tagged: employment
At the rate things are going, tens of millions of us could end up as temps, contract employees, call-center operators, and the like.
The signs are all there. Your future ‘job’ might be nothing more than a task list, paid at the lowest bid price, coordinated by a computer.
Update: And just in case you needed some insight into what this future might look like, have a read of the way your next Amazon package gets packed and shipped:
“Yep, if you do something particularly great, you might just be allowed to rear back and let out a scream as loud as you want,” says Spivey. “Let’s all try it together, huh?”
Fiction, or reality?
For most of us, there’s just three possibilities for the future of what we currently call our ‘job’:
If those three outcomes really are the only ones, then they set up a dire environment for the future of work, at least form the perspective of the middle classes of Western Liberal Democracies. In my mind, these changes are inevitable in one form or another, perhaps within my working life, and unarguably so within the working lives of my children.
I wonder if there is a fourth option?
That title above is a mind-blowing quote from this article:
Whilst I think the quote is somewhat hyperbolic, it certainly serves to make the basic point: Western liberal democracies are exporting their middle classes to developing nations. And no job is safe.
I have no axe to grind with anyone over that, it’s simply the nature of things. And to be fair, we’ve exported most of our pollution generating enterprises to developing nations over the last 50 years, so it only seems fair that those nations can start to reap some return on their “investment”.
The more interesting question for me is: What can I do, and what can my kids do, with the insight that the traditional idea of a “job” is simply not going to exist in the future? The very near future.
I really think it’s that simple. If you are a small part of a machine that is making someone else’s stuff, then you are in line to be out of work when that role is arbitraged into a low wage jurisdiction, or perhaps more likely as the article suggests, automated out of existence.
But if you can make something - atoms or bits - and make it great, and then sell it to an audience or market or fan base or whatever, then you’ll have an advantage over someone who is simply selling their time to the lowest bidder.
Update 20130903: And of course, here’s a counterpoint:
Make up your own mind.
Here’s an article that provides further data points on the theme that jobs, as we currently understand them, are on the way out:
"… we are on a "robot curve," in which creative work at first is skilled, then becomes merely rote, and finally, with the help of algorithms, turns robotic."
More and more, this quote by Mark Andreeson starts to ring true:
The spread of computers and the Internet will put jobs in two categories. People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.
I keep telling my young kids that “jobs” won’t exist when it comes time for them to leave school, so they had better work out a way to make something - atoms or bits - before they end up as small cogs in an organic machine being told what to do by clever computers.
As an employee, consulting seems like a great business model. When you compare the typical hourly rate of a consultant with the annualised hourly rate of a salaried employee it looks like the consultant is doing very well. But the economics of consulting are tricky to get right.
I have been running a small consulting business for about 6 years and whilst the directors and several sub-contractors have been gainfully employed for pretty much the entire time, there’s a fundamental problem with consulting: the only asset you can leverage is your time, and time is finite.
Fighting against this fundamental law of nature is essentially impossible, so consulting firms are left with a very small set of opportunities to scale. There are really only three levers to play with here: 1) bill more hours, 2) charge more to a customer for those billable hours, or 3) pay less to staff and sub-contractors for the hours required to provide the services.
If one was cynical it would be easy to characterise these options as screwing yourself, screwing your customers, or screwing your staff. If you have a skerrick of business ethics, it means you end up screwing yourself. Sometimes, without even being kissed.
But whatever the strategy, and however cynically you look at it, the scalability of a consulting business is always limited to the personal exertion of individuals. This is why I continue to believe that the only way to break free from the shackles of employment - and prepare for a future in which employment as we know it simply does not exist - is to build something.
It doesn’t matter whether what you build is physical or digital, just as long as you can profitably deliver it to a receptive market.
I am trying to do just that with a couple of live products, plus one one more secret squirrel project in development. I’m not entirely convinced that I’m following my own rules for one of the products (which may mean it needs a change of direction soon), but the other definitely does because we’ve got live customers, making (modest) revenue, with a lot of potential for growth.
So what have I learned through this process? The last five years balancing consulting with product development has taught me two things: 1) it’s all about cash flow, and 2) out-of-work hours are no-where near as productive as in-work hours.
Having the ability to work full-time on building product requires cash to pay your bills. Without that, you have to continue to consult and then spend non-consulting time working on your ideas. Ultimately, something has to give - family, study, leisure, friends - because there simply isn’t enough time to nourish everything.
But the cost of working out-of-hours (at least for me) is that time spent backing up is no-where near as productive as dedicated time spent fresh during normal working hours. I have repeatedly found that I am able to get significant work done if I can arrange for a dedicated block of time away from consulting. Chipping away after hours does move the ball forward, but only ever so slightly.
Sadly, I am yet to find a satisfactory solution to the cash flow problem so I remain gainfully employed as a consultant, at least for the remainder of this year. However, should someone want to plonk some coin into one of my start-ups, drop me a line. I’m always keen to chat.
Today’s Sydney Morning Herald has the following article on Gen-Y / Millennial attitudes to work:
This particular quote is telling:
“Once I get $1000 profit a week, I will think about [leaving]. I always call my day job my back-up plan.”
Rather than telling these kids to get off my lawn, I think the above comment shows a really deep, if perhaps intuitive, understanding of a global change taking place in the nature of work: the whole concept of ‘employment’ as it is traditionally understood is disappearing.
Strong words, but this is more profound than simply saying that people change jobs more often today than they did in the past. What we are talking about here is people not being, not wanting to be, or not able to be, employed any more. At all.
The causes of this trend are multi-faceted, but Western Liberal Democracies exporting their middle classes to the developing world through outsourcing plays a big role. As does the inexorable march of technology not just displacing jobs but profoundly removing the underlying need for whole classes of industry to exist at all. For evidence, consider the impact of the Internet on industries that are built around complex physical distribution networks such as Newspapers.
The SMH article gave me cause to go back and examine some of the “future of work” posts I had put together over the last 18 months or so.
Here they are:
Just by examining the titles, it was obvious that I had managed to collect a rather telling list of links and quotes on the changing nature of work without ever really setting out to do so. It is obvious that technology is changing both the way we work and the nature of the work we do, and it is also clear that simple economics encourage organisations to acquire the services of labour from low-wage jurisdictions, with the inevitable consequence that opportunities for traditional jobs in high-wages jurisdictions shrink.
Unless, of course, you can stay ahead of the trend. Which is why I find it very encouraging that the Gen-Ys and Millennials mentioned in the article are actively trying to get ahead by building their own businesses and becoming their own employers. Power to them.
Sadly, this passion and optimism is in stark contrast to the actions and words of our Governments and traditional employers. Whilst we are in the process of being completely broadsided by a fundamental change in the nature of work, no-one seems to be paying attention. Governments of all persuasions are quick to fund programs for traditional employment, but do almost nothing to nourish the entrepreneurial spirit.
Where are the policies for big ideas like founder failure insurance, or better targeting of concessional tax treatment for innovative businesses that mean funds go to real start-ups, as opposed to being funnelled through multi-national mining companies who use the funds to offset the cost of land remediation.
Or what about adopting one of the ideas of the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart:
What we need to do in this country is make it a softer cushion for failure. Because what they say is the job creators need more tax cuts and they need a bigger payoff on the risk that they take. … But what about the risk of, you’re afraid to leave your job and be an entrepreneur because that’s where your health insurance is? … Why aren’t we able to sell this idea that you don’t have to amplify the payoff of risk to gain success in this country, you need to soften the damage of risk? [Source]
Technology has already significantly reduced the cost of failure in starting a business, but as the mining boom winds down, perhaps its time for Governments to look to other areas of the economy to provide growth and gainful, satisfying ‘employment’ for the population.
If not, then what are we going to do when we’ve finished digging all of the holes?
This is some of the best advice I’ve read in ages:
"Get something going for you that works while you’re asleep." - Michael Caine’s Dad (apparently)
It comes from this post, which is well worth the read:
Yet another data point in the mega-trend of profound change underway in the way we work.
Another data point in the narrative that suggests that the Industrial Revolution concept of “employment” (at least as it is practiced in the Developed World) will cease to exist. And most likely in our lifetime.
As technology systematises more and more processes, the need for middle-level white collar jobs will decline.
The only way to stay in front of this transition is to make stuff.