Tomorrow, you don’t go into the office. You log on to a platform.
You don’t have a resume. You have ratings collected in a digital profile with your skills and work experience.
You don’t have an employer. You have assignments, algorithmically matched.
You don’t have a boss. You have a robo-advisor that highlights upskilling opportunities that keep you relevant and earn you more money.
This is by no means a distant future. In fact, it’s already happening in countless corners of the cloud. HourlyNerd takes the hustle out of being a freelancer, Degreed is making strides to become the “central bank” of credentials, LearnUp trains you to get the job and Udacity trains you while you’re on it. LaunchCode gets you an apprenticeship when your skills need to shift and LinkedIn keeps it all in the open.
We’re moving from the era of organizations to the era of options. Even if you don’t fully embody a free agent contract worker, we will all enjoy the flexibility of constant connectivity, the versatility of gig work, a little extra income from the sharing economy, and the passion potential of the maker movement. Interviewing young workers, you learn quickly just how unappealing and constraining the traditional corporate set-up feels. Optionality is the new stability.
But with new flexibility comes the destruction of a support structure centered on the benefits and steady income of an institutional employer. The scary cousin to flexibility is unpredictability. Is a world where we’re all our own little start-ups one of tremendous opportunity — or exhausting uncertainty?
Land of the free-lancer
The pursuit of freedom has always been a consistently powerful human motivator, and technology now allows us to untie many binds. Fixed acquisitions like cars, mortgages, and jobs that once anchored us can now flow with us. Wi-Fi, Li-Fi, 5G and changing norms allow us to de-locate tasks and complete anything from anywhere. Artisans work through Etsy, artists through 99designs, programmers through Topcoder, and everyone else through Upwork. Participation in this online platform economy has grown 47 times from 2012 to 2015, and experts predict it will only speed up. Even traditional institutions are gigging out their work. IBM’s Open Talent Marketplace breaks projects down into discrete tasks and publicizes those tasks to an open market, where players bid for and form communities to complete the work.
But as the 1099 economy bursts open, for many, traditional employment’s doors close. In a World Economic Forum survey of 371 international companies, job security is expected to worsen in over half of industries. Oxford University reported that 47% of today’s jobs are at serious risk of automation. Increasingly, “disruption” sounds like a Silicon Valley euphemism for an efficiency-minded innovation that dislocates the Middle Class.
The opportunity for organizations
It’s a tremendous challenge for society, but it’s also an opportunity for enlightened organizations who could be a powerful stabilizing force. Two solutions stand out. First, as many companies decrease investment in on-the-job training, organizations can differentiate by doubling down on development. Could education for the age of automation become the new must-have employee benefit, like health insurance became in the ‘40s? AT&T has teamed up with Georgia Tech and Udacity to offer an online Master’s degree in computer science. NBCUniversal has a Talent Lab where leaders learn design thinking. In this age of exponential accelerations, the most important skill isn’t coding, creativity, or complex problem solving: it’s adaptability. Companies who can equip employees with the ability to keep up stand the best chance to keep up themselves.
Second, as some companies respond to the tech-led disruptions by dehumanizing the employee experience—swapping out gigers as they would parts on the factory floor—companies can attract talent by connecting employees to a bigger purpose. It will be a mandate in a world of radical transparency, where corporate behavior and impact can be ranked and rated. High scores of corporate citizenship will be table stakes for attracting talent, who tomorrow will be able to switch “employers” as easily as we toggle through browser tabs. And, perhaps more importantly, a purpose-led organization is essential in maintaining dignity in a digitizing age. We often write about technology happening to us. But we’re creating this world and we get to decide. Disruption could be dehumanizing. Or it could be empowering. Great talent will flow to the organizations that point to a higher purpose amidst the quickening pace of change.
In the gig economy, with flexibility comes uncertainty. But our organizations can play a pivotal role in restoring power and purpose amidst disruption.