I read a blog recently that I just can’t get out of my head. It was an essay by Reuven Gorsht about rethinking jobs and unemployment. Take a look if you’d like before continuing.
This struck me because it resulted in a flashback to the late 90’s. At that time, I lead a research group in a notable mutual fund company that was responsible for pulling together an annual key trends presentation for the Chief Marketing Officer. That time was at the height of the dot com frenzy and the web was going to take over everything (we all know how that went). It was difficult predicting what was going to happen because everyone was overwhelmed by the internet and the hype. Although it seems hard to believe, at the time there was tremendous debate about if this “crazy internet” was a fad or truly disruptive. And to be fair, I can understand why. It was unproven and the realm of geeks. But one of the trends I saw that I felt was absolutely going to impact how people earned a living was one described by Daniel Pink, I believe employed by Wired Magazine at the time.
In the near future, he predicted, we would become a “Free Agent Nation.” A nation of freelancers with no loyalty. Constantly jumping from project to project, always connected by the web. I sincerely and passionately believed this was going to dramatically impact how people earned a living, and that as a mutual fund company, we had to be thinking about how to be relevant in that world. How we could provide asset management expertise in a world where people’s income was unpredictable and variant. Well, the dot com bubble burst, all the supposed free agents got jobs and for a while we returned to business as usual. “Revenge of the grey hairs” is how I recall that time period being described. The freelance movement returned to what it had always been - temporary work.
This time, though, I think things may be a little different. We now know that in the early 2000’s, the technology actually wasn’t there to support the vision of a digital world. The passion and fervor about the web was strong, but when a business person asked “how are you going to actually do that” to ideas like pets.com or peapod.com, they didn’t have a good answer. A lot of backend manual hacks were created to accomplish what the technology couldn’t yet. In other words, the dream wasn’t scalable. I remember when our executives asked our web team how having a web site was going to contribute to the company’s bottom line, we never had good answer. We couldn’t quantify how being on the web would either reduce expense or increase revenue, or explain how the web would actually do any of the amazing things the powerpoint slides promised.
My, how that has changed. I don’t think there is a business person alive today who wouldn’t agree that their overall strategy has a significant digital (substitute mobile) component. The technology now is completely capable of delivering on that original vision - an incredibly efficient, completely connected and continuously disruptive world. And this describes the job market as well as it describes the business world. It is now possible to be completely remote and separate from a group of people and effectively collaborate. In the early 2000’s, it was clunky and difficult to collaboratively work on a document. Now, piece of cake. Google docs. iCloud. Easy. (Well, usually. There’s still many companies stuck in the vestiges of the analog world). But for the most part, it’s pretty easy to get work done remotely.
So I’m actually fairly optimistic about the concept of the“Free Agent Nation” now. We were just ten years ahead of our time. I have the same questions as the author - why haven’t more people jumped on the free agent bandwagon as opposed to collecting unemployment? As I thought more about it, I suspect it’s because the majority of long-term unemployed are men over the age of 50. And this group, of which I’m a part, is very much out of touch with the collaborative economy. When I talk to men in my age group, most are fairly bewildered by the digital age. “Why would I join Twitter?” they ask. “I don’t care what people had for breakfast.” You see the problem. It’s a complete misunderstanding of the social economy and collaborative work practices. And while Reuven raises excellent questions, it’s a problem that is not going to resolve itself until my peers realize they have to change. They have to become more digital.
Is that possible? I don’t know. But I do know this. The digital age is inevitable. The social era is inevitable. And unless us “geezers” get our act together and get social, learn to make things in the digital world and accept the temporary nature of jobs anymore, we are doomed to a future of low-paying jobs. I see a great opportunity for us to find a way to share our vast experiences in this new world. We have learned a lot over the years, often through the school of hard knocks, that can be invaluable to companies. Let’s accept that challenge and find a way to marry our lessons from the past with the completely connected future! Who’s with me?