A recent article on top technology trends talks about “wiki-work”, which describes today’s seamless internet-facilitated creation and distribution of work, and the “porous workplace” where mobile technology enables work to be carried out in any location and at any time. Trend spotter, Howard Tullman, believes that these and other trends will contribute to a future where more people will piecemeal their workloads, working multiple freelance jobs instead of one full-time position. “By 2020”, Tullman claims, “40% of the U.S. population is going to be acting as free agents.”
This projection aligns with the concept of the “digital artisan” that we have defined in our previous blogs; an individual who is adept at leveraging digital capability to create, enhance and deliver high quality products or services in small quantities, tailored specifically for select customers and markets. In other words, it’s the antithesis of today’s world of mass-production and mass-markets.
For me, however, Tullman’s forecast arouses some concerns and prompts me to pose the following questions: if 40% of the population becomes freelance by 2020, what will the overall economy look like? Will large companies still dominate the economic landscape? Will mass-production and consumption still be the drivers of economic growth? What will be the role of Wall Street in this new world? How will labor law and human resources operate? How will people transition into these new roles? And how will society and the ecosystem evolve to support them?
I’ve also recently been reading about the new Catch 55 – a derivative of the famous Catch 22! Catch 55 refers to the requirement for employees to now work beyond the traditional retirement age, primarily due to dwindling pension funds. This is becoming complicated, however, at a time when companies are being forced to ease the 55+ year olds out of their positions as the younger generation – which is cheaper to employ – push for promotion and the top jobs. Again, this is something that we have written about – with the loss of the older, more experienced worker goes a wealth of tacit or aggregate knowledge that corporations traditionally hold so close to their chest as proprietary capability. This loss of know-how is effectively released out into the collective where it can, potentially, become fuel for the fire of competitors or new entrants. The question then arises – how do these 55+ year olds transition into a new world where the corporate workplace considers them too expensive to hire, even though they invariably bring valuable experience-based capabilities and a keen desire to continue working for at least another 10 to 15 years?
Having been one of those 55+ year olds who made the transition from corporate life to free agent / freelancer / consultant, I can attest to the challenges that this brings, and in particular the acquisition and application of new and practical skills. Aspects such as learning how to sell and market yourself, building a pipeline of work, ensuring that projects are in various stages of completion and execution to maintain a continuous cash flow, dealing with large companies that often delay projects, don’t pay or delay payment – all these are taken care of by others in a corporate environment. There is clearly an opportunity for a new type of agency to emerge – one that seeks and feeds jobs and projects to this select group of freelancers, and leverages their talents to meet corporate requirements. In a report by Vistage “The Future of Work”, this concept is referred to as “Going Hollywood”, where in movie making today a different set of actors, directors, screenwriters and producers are brought in each time to fill the necessary roles, versus the days when large movie studios controlled the whole process.
One final thought that comes to mind is that, if 40% of the working population is going to become free agents with no guaranteed employer or income, then credit bureaus, mortgage companies and banks will have to drastically rethink and readjust their perspectives on how they assess people for loans and mortgages, or otherwise the future implications for home ownership and wealth creation, as well as the building industry, appear pretty grim.
Since collaboration is now the name of the game, the social networks and communities that have rapidly emerged over the last 5-6 years should now be evolved into broader learning and support mechanisms for today’s digital artisans, to ensure that this group of individuals acquires the necessary skills, support and training to make a smooth transition into the 21st century workplace.
Steve Bell, President, KeySo Global