The future of jobs: not being an employee, but not quite like being a contractor either
Just as industrial society became a society of corporations, it developed into a society of employers and employees. These were two different ways of looking at the same phenomenon, jobs. Almost all economic theories have made, and still make, the same assumption: the employer — employee relationship is necessary to create jobs. We have taken that relationship as given.
Traditional management thinking sets employee goals and business goals against each other. The manager is free to choose the goals, but the employee is only free to follow or not to follow the given goals. This is why employee advocates mainly want responsible firms, nothing else, and the management of those firms wants skilled employees who do what they are told, nothing else.
The other assumption that is taken for granted is that it is the independentemployer/manager who exercises freedom of choice in choosing the goals and designing the rules that the members of the organization are to follow. The employees of the organization are not seen as being autonomous, with a choice of their own, but are seen as rule-following, dependent, entities. People are not really people, but resources.
We are as used to the employer choosing the work objectives as we are used to the teacher choosing the learning objectives. The manager directs the way in which the employee engages with work, and manages the timing and duration of the work. This image of work is easy to grasp because it has been taught at school, where the model is the same.
We should ask whether the current social construct of jobs is inevitable, or whether it is a social artefact that is over 100 years old, and should be redesigned.
Industrial workers used to do as they were told. This now creates a systemic inefficiency. Today, knowledge workers should negotiate solutions in active interaction with their peers. We also used to think that organizations outlived workers. The organization came first, and people served the organization. Today, workers’ careers outlive organizations, profoundly challenging our thinking.
We need a new agenda connecting people and businesses. The aim should not be a set of shared goals, but complementary goals and a co-created narrative for both.
We need to study the intersection of corporate strategy and personal narrative. Work needs whole human beings. People who are more fully present, people with responsibility and ownership.
This is where the biggest changes are taking place in the world of work. Instead of the industrial era’s generalizations and abstractions about what skills everybody should have, or what steps everybody should take, it is now time to cultivate a deep understanding of the context, the unique, particular situation you are in. Who are you and where do you come from? What kind of relations are the building blocks of your life?
Reflecting on your reality should be the starting point of any effort to find a job or to create work. Unfortunately, this is where we are often at our weakest. It did not matter in the past because most decisions were made for us. But now people can, and must, choose. Companies are not managing their employees’ long-term careers any more. Workers must be their own HRD professionals. With opportunity comes new responsibility. It is up to the worker to construct the narrative of (working) life, to know what to contribute, when to change course, and how to keep engaged for much longer than we have been used to. It may be a life that is not quite like being an employee, but not quite like being a contractor either. To make the right decisions, you have to develop a new understanding of yourself and what you are actually up to in life.
The new task is to choose work commitments on the basis of our own particular strengths and our own sense of purpose and belonging, not just on having some free time and wanting to earn some extra money for Uber. That is not what being independent, being your own boss, really means.
We are accustomed to taking work home, but what would the opposite be? Perhaps following your unique intentions, hopes, and wishes for the future, in everything you do? Instead of thinking about what employers want, you’re better off conceiving a match between what you want and what customers want.