Over the last year I have paid more attention to changes in our economy. Even as a computer science major and a part time economic hobbiest I somehow missed the recent structural changes to our economy. Now that my eyes are open I wanted to write a bit on the subject. Particularly I wanted to write about the recent changes in the nature of work.
Change in the Nature of Work is Constant
Change has been a consistent factor in the world of employment and business. A few months ago I was reading the Forbes’s 100 anniversary issue and they had a very interesting article on the nature and industries of the largest businesses in 1917, 1967, and 2017. The interesting thing was, the types of industries changed dramatically over the last 100 years. In 1917 it was Coal/Gas/Oil. During the 60s it was Chemical Companies and Telecommunication. Now in 2018 it is Tech. A significant difference there with major ramifications for those seeking employment.
The companies also changed, with only 2 of the original companies still doing business under the same name. Many companies in the 2017 top 50 companies did not even exist in 1967, let alone 1917. Some were not even around 20 years ago. Significant business disruption in 100 years, and even in the last 20. Business changes mean job changes, and it’s no more obvious than all the computer and tech based jobs that exist today.
Fear of Changes in the Nature of Work
Much has been written in fear about the coming next set of changes to work. The rise of the robots that will leave all of us unemployed. To this I say hogwash. Every 30-40 years a major change occurs in our economy and old jobs become obsolete. Sometimes those jobs employ millions, phone operator anyone? And yet after the revolution new jobs appear in ways no one ever expected. I tend to be a realistic person, and every fiber of my being tells me that the future is not some bleak unemployed mess. It’s a world of opportunity that will shine favor on those who can adapt and leave those who cannot behind. Be that person who grabs the opportunity. Realize no amount of kicking or screaming will save the jobs of those who will be left behind, so don’t be one of them!
Massive Change in the Nature of Work is Already Here
That all being said, we don’t need to wait until the robots arrive to see the dramatic changes. The latest major round of change actually started about 20 years ago with globalization. Now you are competing with people in other countries as much as the worker next door. That competition means you need to differentiate yourself even more. It’s one of the reasons I’m such a big proponent of international travel and exposure.
The Rise of the Freelance Economy
But it didn’t end with globalization. New jobs opened up with the advent of the internet. Coupled with the financial crisis of 2008 the very nature of employment changed. In 2007 most people were employed full time. The barriers to starting your own business still involved significant investment and marketing. These days more and more it is very easy to work as a freelancer. Simply attach yourself to any of the Uber, UpWork, Amazon Turk, or any number of other services and you are instantly self employed. No investment needed.
The Good of the Freelance Economy
I’d be remiss though in pointing out that change is both good and bad. Good in the fact that a side hustle is so much easier to obtain. Good in the fact that someone like my wife can work from home ten hours a week running a consulting business while still essentially being a stay at home mom. These things were not as common 10-20 years ago. In that time period there was more often simply a choice, full time, not employed, or lucky enough for some employer to allow you to work part time. In my wife and my chosen fields it is unlikely employee part time jobs ever existed. The investment needed in internal workers would just be too great to justify part time.
The Bad of the Freelance Economy
Which brings us to that down side. The problem with being a freelancer is you are on your own. Only you can invest in you. Benefits that W-2 employees take for granted like health care are not there for you. You are working without a net. The reality is it’s not for everyone, but the economy is slowly morphing away from full time work and towards this flexible work force. As things continue in this direction I predict full time W-2 Employee work will become harder to find. As such if you want to continue to thrive you need to work on adjusting to the freelance lifestyle, in case you find that you have to live that life to survive in the future.
My Fear of the Fast Changes in the Nature of Work
Now I said I have no fear about robots plunging the world into unemployment. I don’t. But I do have serious concerns about the speed of the changes already coursing through our economy, both with and without robots. We’re in the midst of a period changing at a speed not seen since the industrial revolution. What will that mean for our society and culture as we move forward. Will we have the ghost of Charles Dickens being read 50 years from now about the down trodden left behind? Will the mass of society move forward? How will we help those with lesser economic and educational means to move forward?
I unfortunately can not fund or run massive programs to help the downtrodden make the leap from one economy to another. If I were king for the day I would make sure everyone got the needed education in the new tools of the trade: the usage of the internet, marketing/self promotion, and self motivation. I’d also ensure everyone in the economy received a proper financial education, as there is no easier way to deal with change then to be financially independent. At that point even if you cannot adapt to the coming changes you will survive. Instead the best I can do is recommend these preparations to you the reader.
Changes are not all Bad
When we come out the other side of this period of rapid change I do suspect the world will be a better place. It’s hard in the moment to picture what will come next. The nature of real time communication and instant availability could have very positive results around the world with combating poverty and abuse. The nature of ever cheapening needs could raise even the most struggling to a world their ancestors could never imagine. New forms of government and communication could even arise. It truly is an interesting time to be alive.
Are you prepared/preparing for the ongoing changes in the nature of work? Do you disagree with my take on the coming of robots?