Employers, workers, and politicians need to come to grip with reality – the definition of work is changing.
The theme of denial about joblessness is no longer effective. In fact, it’s destructive. Creating new jobs that match the skills levels of the unemployed is politically sound short term but economic cacophony in the long run. Sustainable long term growth requires the creation of new jobs that will grow and inherently stimulate our economy. Reframing existing jobs is simply subsidizing many obsolete workers and postponing the inevitable.
The definition of work and consequently, the definition of a job is changing. The evolution from agrarian and industrial age jobs to service and knowledge work is nearly complete, thanks to the help of the latest recession. The ability to use your “head” as well as your hands, not one or the other, is a requirement today. And yet, we have graduation rates hovering around 70 percent for many high schools and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) scores falling well behind dozens of nations. Today knowledge is power and too many workers simply don’t have the mojo.
Employees in new jobs don’t “go to work” … and if they do, they don’t work in permanent full-time positions. They work in part-time jobs, often working for several employers at the same time. But unlike the past when working part-time was a stepping stone to full-time employment or a means to propping up personal finances, part-time work in the future will be by design. Skilled workers will work remotely, simultaneously interacting with different teams in different places and even collaborating on different projects. People with the right skill sets can do that. The contingent worker, or “just-in-time” worker, will become the norm, especially in lower skill jobs. The less versatile the employee, the more expendable he or she becomes.
People also have long complained that they have been swamped by too much information. In 1917 a manager of a Connecticut manufacturing plant complained about the effects of the telephone: “Time is lost, confusion results, and money is spent.” Despite his objections, technologies like the telephone supported economies build around mass production. Today technology and globalization has created a seismic shift from quantitative change to qualitative differences. Economies, once driven by whoever owned the machinery and raw materials, is now being outflanked by the new raw material of business –data. Joe Hellerstein at the University of California at Berkeley, calls it the “industrial revolution of data.” The Economist called it the “data deluge.” Keeping up with all the new information being created is difficult enough. Analyzing it and extracting useful information is harder still. Ignoring it is economic suicide.
This revolution requires a new skill worker – one who has the ability to process large volumes of uninterrupted data and extract valuable information from it. Gordon in a recent issue of The Futurist called for a “new age [that] will require the reinvention of the education-to-employment system.”
In the meantime, employers seeking qualified workers will face unprecedented challenges to recruit and retain them. And our communities will be wrestling with the societal, personal, and economic impact of prolonged joblessness.
The bottom line is this: the definition of work is changing. The characteristics of a job are changing. It’s no longer business as usual for employers or workers.