It seems that few days go past now without some new headline about the future of work. AI will steal all our jobs. We all need to re-skill. The only work available will be part-time. It all seems pretty stark.
Whilst I do agree that all of those things will and must happen to varying degrees, I take a different, and I hope, more optimistic view.
I don’t think it’s in doubt that AI will transform the way we operate in business today. Creating efficiencies and improvements previously unthought of, of course AI will replace many human jobs. The inexorable advance of technology innovation is here to stay; in his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly says, “Technology is humanity’s accelerant.” Deep. Scary. True.
I also think it’s clear that there is a shift away from the traditional model of permanent full-time employment. This is starting to happen for a number of reasons; the most notable is that people are increasingly seeking flexibility and balance in their lives. Others (notably younger generational cohorts) are also opting to seek more variety in their work and self-employment lends itself well to this.
Another compelling argument for a move towards a 'gig economy' is that as technology eats up certain job functions, there will be less scope for a business to offer full-time employment; it simply won’t make sense to employ someone full-time when their scope of work has fragmented and they are vastly under-utilised.
A third and perhaps even more ominous reason why the future of work is looking to be fragmented and part-time is the UK state pension system. It is unsustainable in its present form; it simply isn’t capable of supporting all the people who are coming up to retirement age and the fact that we are all living longer adds to the burden. Furthermore, you don’t have to do too much digging to find suggestion that many who have invested in company pension schemes are going to be bitterly disappointed when they come up to retirement. We are in trouble.
Once the pension crisis becomes public knowledge, I suspect the government will try and push the financial burden onto the private sector, as has been attempted to various degrees of success previously. Once again however, the figures don’t stack up. Dr Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott of London Business School have undertaken various financial modelling and their work shows the cost of a sustainable pension provision, alongside increased longevity would make the financial burden entirely punitive for most businesses. It will become far more attractive for businesses to utilise self-employed consultants as they carry their own on-costs.
As all these factors come in to play, it creates a highly compelling backdrop to the idea that the future of work is all about self-employment.
This being the case, how will organisations who need to bring in the right people at the right time to deliver commercial results make sure they have access to those people? Now is the time to start building 'eco-systems' of people who share the same values and vision and who can help move businesses forward. Lynda Gratton is one of the leading experts on the Future of Work. In her 2011 book The Shift, she makes the case for eco-systems, and defines them as “gatherings of like-minded people, gathering around an idea.”
The rise of self-employment is going to massively disrupt the way that many organisations both hire and retain the right staff; there will be a certain skill to bringing the right people on board at exactly the right moment to optimise efficiency and deliver the best commercial outcomes. Managing complex impermanent relationships will also require planning – those who truly feel a sense of belonging to these eco-systems will inevitably deliver best results but fostering a feeling of inclusion and cohesion throughout a product or service life-cycle won’t come naturally to many. On the upside, building social relationships is hardwired into our DNA – the growth of Facebook et al stands testament to that – and perhaps a solid commitment to building authentic professional networks will provide the sense of belonging and community that many of us have felt is missing in recent years.
As mainstream recruitment becomes disintermediated, I say again that those in the recruitment space who are more committed to long-term relationship building than “scores on the doors” will do well; any for whom recruitment is a zero-sum game would perhaps do well to consider their next career move.
Cat’s recruitment career has furnished her with fascinating insights into how people behave in the workplace, particularly in response to change. She has a deep interest in human behaviour, organisational psychology and helping business leaders create sustainable, ethical and values-based working environments.