Will a post-employment economy actually suck or will it wallow in awesomeness? DaVinci Institute founder, Thomas Frey and the Atlantic’s Conor Sen offer two different views on the post-employment economy.
View #1: Post-Employment Sucks
In the Atlantic, Conor Sen offers up a quick overview the post-employee economy. One graph from the manufacturing sector pretty much tells the story. Since 1970 production has increased 170% while hours worked has decreased 30%. Businesses can do more work with fewer employees.
And it isn’t just manufacturing — across the board automation and outsourcing are providing the means by which companies can provide their products and services with fewer people on the payroll. This in part accounts for the precipitous drop in participation in the workforce that we’ve seen over the past few years.
Sen spells it out for us:
The issue, if you’re labor anyway, is those productivity gains accrue to consumers and the owners of the factors of production, not labor.
And while until now these job-destroying forces have mostly been confined to the goods-producing and information sectors, it looks like the next wave is going to hit much broader in the service sector. As nascent technologies like IBM’s Watson show, everyone from bankers to retail workers to health-care and education workers are at risk. “Long IBM, short labor” is a trade that should work for years barring government policy changes.
Sounds pretty bleak — a future with machines doing more and more and us doing less and less. It’s the paranoid Luddite fantasy finally realized.
But there’s another way of looking at this.
View #2: Post-Employment Wallows in Awesomeness
Da Vinci Institute founder Thomas Frey, writing at the World Future Society blog, describes tremendous opportunity arising from post-employment in a piece entitled Workerless Businesses: An Explosive New Trend. The trick, as Frey sees it, is to turn Sen’s assessment in its head. If productivity gains are accruing to “the owners of the factors of production,” what happens when individuals become the owners?
New technologies and massive de-industrialization have led us to exactly that point. Who needs a job working for a company that’s trying to cut staff when you can be the head of a company yourself, one with significant resources at your disposal and no staff to speak of?
Frey takes us through a process whereby the ambitious can go from being freelancers to controlling an empire of one, in the process providing employment for themselves and lots of work for other post-employees now participating in the gig economy.
The looming question is whether workerless businesses can somehow take up the slack, ultimately providing us much or more work as traditional employers are eliminating. As I noted a while back, this is no small challenge seeing as it is, in some ways, John Henry redux:
Automation is eliminating jobs. Machines are doing it. They are fast, efficient, and relentless. Creating jobs is a whole different matter. Creating jobs requires developing new business models, which means identifying market needs — figuring out what is important to people, what they will pay for. It is a fundamentally creative activity — one that machines can’t perform.
It’s the story of John Henry all over again…but there’s a difference. The same technology that is eliminating jobs also connects us and empowers us in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. Maybe what’s becoming obsolete is not jobs per se, but the idea that they are something that you simply find.
Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can’t count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing. We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won’t immediately grab.
The rub for a lot of folks is that this is not the deal they thought they were getting. The old deal was go to school, find a job, work it. Maybe once or twice you trade up for a better job, but basically there’s always a job there. Jobs are supposed to go on for years and years. They are supposed to be safe, secure, permanent. The gig economy is anything but that, and running an empire of one involves constant uncertainty.
All of which is kind of a drag. But Frey says there is a lot of upside to be considered:
- No-Alarm Clock Lifestyle – Your day starts and ends when you want it to.
- Finding the Real You – You do what interests you, and what interests you defines who you really are.
- Be Yourself, Genuine and Authentic – Most people spend their entire lives trying to be the person someone else wants them to be.
- Living without Fear – You no longer have to do the work of others, or live in the fear of being fired.
- Creating Your Own Value – Your personal worth is no longer defined by an employer. You get to keep as much as you earn.
- Accountable for Your Own Risks – While it may be risky to set up a business venture and work for yourself, ultimately there is far greater security than working for a company or even government. You can’t be laid off, and while your income may vary, you can always make money.
- Personal Freedom – You choose where you live rather than living where you happen to find the right job. You can sleep in, go to the beach during the day, work harder sometimes and slack off at others – all without having to ask for permission.
- Control Your Own Destiny – In the end, wherever you end up, is entirely up to you.
That all starts to sound pretty good, especially since the whole “security” thing was mostly an illusion anyway.
So will a post-employment economy actually suck or will it wallow in awesomeness after all? The answer is probably the same if we asked the question about the current, employment-based economy. Both answers apply, results vary widely, and a lot of it depends on what we do and how well we do it.