The workforce of the future is on-demand, flexible and location-independent. If approached in the right way, it can be a win for everybody.
So far, politicians and business leaders are grappling with how to make these features work. A quick look at Department of Labor reports in recent years will show that overall job growth estimates are positive, with 227,000 new jobs added to the U.S. economy in January alone. But these numbers don’t tell the full story: how the very nature of the economy is changing.
Enabled by technology that can connect employers with skilled freelancers on an at-will basis, employers and employees alike are shunning the traditional definition of what it means to have a job. The last time that the Bureau of Labor Statistics collected comprehensive data on the gig economy was in 2005, but they are currently in the midst of a massive new effort to collect the data again this year. If the facts that hourly workers make up about 60 percent of the full workforce, and that part-time workers comprise 18 percent clues, the results will likely show that the gig economy is thriving.
As the gig economy becomes more ensconced into the mainstream, the time has come to sort through that confusion and better understand its impacts and why we should embrace it as the new normal.
Technology Disrupts the Traditional System
Different generations take widely differing views on the disruption of the 40-hour-a-week white collar desk job. Even the word “disrupt” itself takes on different meanings for Millennials and older workers; for tech-savvy Millennials a “disruptor” is an exciting, innovative, game-changing new tool. For older generations, the word is usually associated with a frustrating inconvenience.
Whatever the interpretation of the word, it is clear that new technology has turned the old system of finding work upside-down. From LinkedIn to Upwork to dozens of other websites and apps meant to connect workers and employers, a skilled individual doing white-collar work on a freelance basis is usually just a few clicks away. Blue-collar workers have also been shaken up by technology, perhaps even more so than their white-collar counterparts. Uber has fundamentally changed what it means to be a taxi driver, and AirBnB has caused an identity crisis for hoteliers. Hardly any industry has been left untouched.
Contract Work: An Option That Stuck
Commitment-phobic companies gravitated towards temporary contract arrangements after the recessions of the 70s, 80s and 2000s and also under the mandates of the recent Affordable Care Act—which didn’t require companies to provide coverage for employees working under 30 hours per week. Profitability wasn’t dependable and the hire-as-needed model made a lot more sense, granting companies a certain flexibility in their workforce. Even as the outlook improved, the appeal of on-demand employees remained relatively constant, as demonstrated by stable part-time work rates.
Other tech tools have paved the way not just for the initial employer-employee connections, but for making it more viable for employees to work together from different locations and on different schedules. Trello helps managers organize projects and to-do lists. Slack offers group communications via text chat, calls or video. Employee management services such as time and attendance and employee scheduling, as well as detailed analysis on how many dollars employees earn for every dollar they are paid, offer managers the opportunity to automate on-demand recruiting. With these tools and more, managing a flexible workforce becomes not just possible, but profitable.
Workers’ Goals Have Changed Over the Years
This seismic shift has understandably caused turmoil, but it has also opened doors to opportunities that would not have otherwise existed. While many on the outside looking in may see the rise of the gig economy as a constraint, those on the inside often see it as a positive development increasing their overall choice. In fact, 70 percent of gig economy workers voluntarily chose their at-will employment arrangements as part of a lifestyledecision.
As a society, we are past due to redefine what work means today, and this is an excellent opportunity to do so. In a country where work-life balance is consistently cited as a source of frustration, many are choosing to interpret the rise of the gig economy in a positive light.
Rather than try to “have it all” at all times, workers can choose to focus on their personal lives when they need to, and take on work when it makes sense. Although project-based work usually comes with a due date, workers have a great deal of flexibility in determining when and from where they get their work done. Maybe that means working in the next room while a baby naps. Maybe it means picking up driving assignments as a second job to pay for that vacation.
It is a shift of place—both physical and mental—that has long-ranging implications not just for individuals, but also for businesses and for policy. Companies are discovering that the younger generations of workers have very different expectations than their predecessors when it comes to flexibility. According to the Multiple Generations @ Work survey by Future Work, 91 percent of Millennials expect to have 15-20 jobs during their lives. Many employees are no longer content to work out of cube farms for designated hours which they can’t control. They’re often willing put in more effort and more time in total if they can do the work on their own terms. Smart companies can capitalize on that trade-off if they’re willing to let go of some of the older notions of how we work.
The Future of the American Workforce
Politicians that talk about bringing back old school jobs, such as manual jobs or desk jobs, are deceiving their audience. Yes, it is certainly possible to bring jobs back into the United States. But those jobs will look different than they did decades ago. In the twenty-first century, even manufacturing jobs will demand that workers are well-educated and tech-savvy. Work will no longer be relegated to the desk, and any notion of office space has been vastly diluted to a more on-demand model.
It is important to be honest and upfront: some of those jobs are never coming back at all. And Instead of promising to bring us back into the past, politicians should focus on how to safely and ethically bring us into a rewarding future with a framework that will surely look different than anything we have ever seen before. Automation and the gig economy do not mean loss—displacement perhaps, but in that displacement there is room for unprecedented creation and opportunity.