The end of the job

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?

7 thoughts on “The end of the job”

  1. According to that Made in Britain programme on the telly, British manufacturing productivity is the highest it’s ever been, and still accounts for a higher percentage of GDP than the service sector.

  2. Hmmm… what channel was that on? Sounds more than a little boosterish to me.

    I’m guessing *productivity* is a function of output compared with workforce size (e.g. more output w/ same amount of workers means higher productivity)? Because I can’t think of anyone I know anywhere in the country who’s not observed a drying-up of manufacturing work… look at the hollow towns of the North, f’rinstance, or my very own P-town, where the few factories remaining are relocating to smaller facilities and outsourcing the low-level assembly to Asia, machines or both (hell, the place I was working back in 2003 already found it cheaper to ship the parts and boards for simple transformer units to Vietnam for assembly and then back to the UK for finishing and testing than it was to pay Brit workers to do the assembly themselves… and this was really basic solderwork, all discrete components, little SMT, sorta stuff you can train a GCSE kid to do in an afternoon).

    In other words: I think we still have a manufacturing industry based in the UK, but hardly anyone from the UK does the actual manufacturing in it any more…

  3. The idea of a world built on that kind of freelance life is very attractive to me — it would allow me to make good money for awhile and then spend time on my own work — and does seem to be the appropriate way to organize things in a fast-changing world. But — and it’s a very big but — given the way things are currently structured in the U.S., I fear the only part of that we’ll actually get is the current penchant for hiring contract workers who get neither benefits nor job security and who don’t get paid well enough to provide their own health insurance or retirement plan. Even if health care reform in the U.S. survives the lawsuits trying to block it, the best way to get decent health coverage will still be through employment. Likewise, retirement benefits — even though true pension plans are declining — are still tied to work. Our Social Security system only provides a minimum amount and even though our Medicare system for the elderly is better insurance than most people have, a supplemental policy is still necessary to keep from ending up in the poorhouse.

    Of course, none of this bothers employers, because they like workers who are too scared to rock the boat. And the big corporations will still be running the show — all those nice little groups that hire for short periods will be some sort of subsidiary of something larger. To do this in the U.S. in a way that does more than just contribute to the currently skyrocketing income inequality, we will need government-run health care and pension programs funded primarily by those corporations so that workers can jump from project to project (and spend time on their own work in between, the way I’d want to do it) without jeopardizing their health or their old age. (As someone keeping an eye on an elderly father, I am very aware these days of the need to plan for old age.)

  4. The one issue, at least in the U.S., with this much mobility will be education. It’s hard to pay $70,000 for another degree when your next stint may only last 1-2 years. That’s a lot of risk to take on without the idea of long-term job or reliable stints.

    Concerning the previous comments:

    A recent article (I looked but can’t find it. I think it was on Bloomberg) suggested that the cost of manufacturing most non-electronic goods in China is now no cheaper than the U.S. There were even examples given where U.S. companies are exporting goods, such as cotton cloth, to China that seem counter intuitive to recent history.

    Of couse, the U.S. factories are full of robots, which creates few manufacturing jobs. This is one reason I have never been as concerned as many with manufacturing jobs leaving the U.S.(peak oil/costly energy is another), as the majority are going to be replaced by some type of robot in the next decade or two anyway. The days of giant industrial factories supporting one town/city are in their final days, which is some support for the “stint” argument.

  5. Hiemstra’s concept only works for a man (preferably young and single) who produces vaporware. As in: consultant, futurist, “advisor”. And it only works to serve entrenched plutocratic interests who don’t care where their money comes from, as long as it keeps rolling in unencumbered by such pesky issues as results.

    Beyond the far-from-trivial questions of insurance and retirement, there are slews of issues with this. Where will this roving force (sort of like immigrant fruit harvesters) live? Where will they send their children to school? What kind of tax bases and neighborhoods will they create and sustain? How much expertise and specific knowledge will get lost from this constant moving? How much will such roving bands understand or care for local conditions? Who will be responsible if something goes wrong in the work of such a group? How easy on energy and other stressed natural resources will this constant roving be? On the individual level, how much interest or commitment will anyone have to this kind of employment model?

    We’ve seen some of the answers in the policies of such bodies as the IMF — who are privileged and accountable to nobody but their sugar daddies. To propose this as a permanent, dominant work model for the future is to condemn everyone to de facto permanent disenfranchisement. Mind you, I don’t think that tied to a single factory your entire life is liberating, either. In the end, some sort of guild structure has to exist, for the sake of preserving expertise, expanding knowledge and maintaining a modicum of security and dignity for the workers.

  6. Incidentally, Hiemstra’s analogy of a film project (or a NASA one, for that matter) is totally false. Although the projects are discrete and finite, those who converge to execute them are members of several guilds. In the primary knowledge domain, which is scientific research (not, as Hiemstra seems to think, philosophizing about voodoo economic models based exclusively on service), a lab move takes two years — or we can have large feudal labs that are run by techs and robots. Not the best setup for original thinking or high-risk work. In the primary production domain, it may still be cheaper to export labor to places that run on sweatshops, but the short-term balance sheets do not factor in human misery, social degradation or the environmental footprint.

  7. “Company of one”… it’s as if I’m re-reading an old Tom Peters book, and I didn’t like it back then. If that’s the best this Hiemstra can come up with, I’m seriously inclined to have him tar and feathered. Just think how many people are actually qualified to lead such a life. And re-thinking social security is already a bridge too far for most people. (rightly so, btw. a few weeks ago employers, unions and the government agreed upon a pension deal, which was criticized afterward from every side for being a Ponzi scheme, yet no-one’s protesting. isn’t /that/ the bigger problem?)

    As for economics, I too am an amateur, but I think the nation state & fiat currency are anything but the problem. I’m more with Umair Haque, calling for institutional revolution. But taking away the nation state is a very bad idea, especially in Europe. Without fiat currency we’re back in pre-Bismarck days and you can kiss wealth in the non-government sector goodbye.

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