Via Gerd Leonhard, here’s Glen Hiemstra suggesting that the current unemployment trough in the US (and, by extension, much of the rest of the West) is here to stay. Grim news on the surface, but Hiemstra’s theory – which I have a certain degree of sympathy for – is that it’s the post-industrialisation notion of “a job” that’s had its day, and that employment will become a far more fluid thing, with everyone becoming their own freelance “company of one”.
In the real future you will be working at a stint rather than a job. To work at a stint is to become part of a project team for 18 months, followed by joining three friends doing a start-up business that folds after two years, after which you sign on with a multinational which disappears in a merger…and the beat goes on. This requires a reinvention of the social contract around security and benefits.
Since you have become a stint worker, you will have shifted from being an employee to being a free agent. This will not be new, as increasing numbers of us are already free agents in 2011, but for most of us it requires a change in perspective. The biggest change involves learning how to think of your self as a company of one.
The most profound shift may be the disappearance of employers as we have known them, as they are replaced by amoeba-like networks that come together to complete certain projects and tasks. Consider a feature film production. The project is conceived, some key people flesh out a proposal, funding is arranged, a global network of talent is hired, they work together for weeks or months, and then disband, never to work in that exact combination again.
Obviously there will remain many exceptions to this enterprise model. The corner grocer, the local coffee house, the dry-cleaning store down the street will likely continue to be small and stable, with fixed employees, though even these employees will likely be free agents working on a stint.
It’s not that huge a leap, really; my own employment prospects for the next year or two are already looking to be very similar to Hiemstra’s stint model, as are the careers of many of the other knowledge workers and artists I know. The job for life – which was still the assumed end-point of the education system in the UK when I was spat out of it in the mid-nineties – was already pretty much dead; even the folk I know in ‘proper’ jobs rarely work for the same company for more than a few years at a stretch. Work has become nomadic, even if not necessarily in geographical terms.
Hiemstra’s vision has some worrying gaps, though, the most obvious of which being the fate of the working class, already reeling from the massive downscaling of manufacturing jobs in the Countries Formerly Known As The First World. Will they shift to the service industries (retail, catering, logistics and goods-fulfillment gruntwork etc.), or maybe self-train themselves into the knowledge-work economy? In a theoretically ideal free employment market (which would have to involve nigh-universal freedom of movement across national borders, for a start), Hiemstra’s ‘stints’ would adjust in workload and number until everyone had a chunk of work to do, with the wage spread shrinking and evening out in response to market forces. However, the arrival of such an employment market is by no means a given, and quite possibly a naive thing to even hope for, let alone predict.
Furthermore, Hiemstra’s model leaves plenty of space at the top for the global super-rich to maintain their current status at the top of a tall and ever-narrowing pyramid of wealth… and while that might be sustainable economically, I’m not sure that the social fabric will be able to take the strain for very much longer. (After all, things are pretty tense already, aren’t they?)
I’m still far from being any sort of expert in economics, but the more I think about this situation the more I conclude that the biggest barriers to a fairer and freer employment market world-wide are the nation-state and the fiat currency… and as they’re also the two things that best serve the folk already at the top of the pyramid, there’s going to be considerable resistance to their dismantling, to the extent that no one with the power to attempt such will be interested in doing so. (No point shitting in your own penthouse, after all.) So while Hiemstra’s atomisation of jobs into stints looks pretty inevitable, I’m left wondering whether bottom-upward construction of new subeconomies based on mutual exchange is the only way for the workers of the world to free themselves from the velvet-gloved tyranny of corporatist capital. After all, if we don’t do it ourselves, who will?