Hyperemployment

I: And Now For Something Completely Different

Last month, an executive recruitment firm asked me if I’d be interested in interviewing for a director-level position within a very well-known Australian firm. The offer came out of nowhere. For the last six years I have happily worked for myself, slowly growing my business, my clientele, and my offerings. I hadn’t been looking for a job, and, quite frankly, most jobs would not interest me.

This job was different. It had potential. I could see myself in that position, working with smart people, doing great things. I fell in love with the idea of the job, before I knew very much about it.

It has been fourteen years since my last job interview. All of the things that a job-seeker has at hand – such as a streamlined c.v. and list of referees – I had never needed in my years here in Australia.

Across a rainy January weekend I created all of these materials, trimming my 15-page academic c.v. into two-and-a-half pages of tightly-focused content. I drew a line under that trip down memory lane after twenty years – the point at which I founded my first business.

I learned a few things about myself. Although I consider myself steadfast and reliable, I’ve never held a job for longer than three years and four months. Mostly, I stick around for between two and three years before moving on. Statistically, this places me within the broad average of my peers. But I’d always considered them anxious job-hoppers, while I had patience and long-term focus. That’s less true than I’d like, an inconvenient truth.

Furthermore, my career today looks nothing like the road I set out upon when I began my professional career thirty years ago, nor do any of the twists and turns along the way bear any strong relationship to one another. I began as a software engineer, became and inventor and entrepreneur, moved into writing and teaching, then on to consulting, futurology, broadcasting, and now, public speaking. While I am very satisfied with the direction of my career, on a c.v. it looks almost like a random walk through a disconnected series of occupations.

Back in 1980, if you’d told me that I should study education while at university – because I would later go on to found post-graduate programs in America and Australia – I would have laughed at you. I had never wanted to be a teacher, until I taught. Then I found that I loved it. I always wanted to write heady, post-modernist fiction. That I’m working on my sixth volume of non-fiction seems nearly inconceivable.

To quote screenwriter William Golding, “Nobody knows anything.” Only a very few people are blessed – or perhaps cursed by – with perfect foresight into their own futures, together with an accurate understanding of their potential. The rest of us stumble around in the dark, going where fate and desire lead. There is no plan, anywhere, no architect capable of assembling the elements into a coherent career path.

This has not always been the case. After the end of the Second World War with the birth of Managerial Society and the “Organizational Man”, men knew what lay before them: the same job for forty years, and for a lucky few the possibility of a gradual climb up the corporate ladder. People held one position for their entire career, retiring with a gold watch and a pension and few more skills than what they arrived with, decades earlier.

This industrial steady-state of consistency and security began to fracture in the 1970s. By the time I entered the IT workforce, life-long employment was something only the most unimaginative and cautious individuals sought – generally within the bowels of insurance companies. Technology had begun its generation-long transformation of the world. Everything was changing. How could anyone stay with one job when something new and exciting arrived on the scene every day?

This transformation had a shadow side, the ‘creative destruction’ of jobs. No one calls themselves a ‘secretary’ any more – though my mother had a forty-year career as one. Everyone does their own typing – unless you are fortunate enough to be able to rely on an ‘assistant’ to handle correspondence. Travel agents still exist, but as a shadow of their former selves, even though we holiday in greater numbers than every before.

Entire industries have fallen: this past January, Kodak, the venerable godfather of popular photography, went into voluntary administration — although people take more photos than ever before. The automotive industry, once the bedrock of the industrial economy, has fallen on hard times, even as the vast populations of China and India purchase their first car. This transition is paradoxical, and that may be why the best-laid plans for our careers often fail. “Nobody knows anything.”

Which brings me back again to the job I had been asked to interview for. During my interview with the executive recruiters, it became clear the definition of the position itself was in flux, and that it would only be interesting – and suitable to my skills – in certain quite specific configurations. Very few love affairs survive an encounter with the truth. In the end, the position was not as interesting in practice as I imagined it might be.

When I told my friends about the opportunity, most expressed excitement and hope, but one greeted my news with shocked surprise.

“Why would you ever want a corporate job?” he asked. “You’ve got the perfect gig. You’ve basically turned your hobby into a well-paid professional career. What’s worth giving that up?”

The strength of that reaction, like a slap across the face, brought me back to myself. I am incredibly lucky: I’ve carved out a career doing what I love. In so doing, I’ve given my own business the kind of long-term commitment that I was never ready to give another employer. Six years in, and it still feels great, every single day.

Yet it’s not where I started, nor where I planned to be.

My entire career – and most of yours – consists of moments when the universe says, “And now for something completely different.” We find some other skill within ourselves that, as we bring it to the surface, launches us into a completely different direction. You will not end where you began. None of us will. This is what it means to work in the 21st century.

The entire situation has recently become more complicated. It is not simply that we move from job to job, changing our minds along the way, and revealing new skills. The jobs themselves have changed, no longer stubbornly attached to a fixed definition of roles and responsibilities, of skills and resources. Our jobs have followed in our footsteps, becoming mutable, fluid and utterly dynamic. The job that greets us tomorrow is not the one we labor at today. Everything is in motion, including the ground beneath our feet. To remain stable, business becomes dynamic. That I was interviewed for a position whose requirements were in flux as I interviewed was once an anomaly, a failure of planning. Today, it represents a cutting-edge, just-in-time approach to fitting the candidate and the position together like a hand in a glove.

If this all seems chaotic, fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to get a lot worse. We’re in for a bumpy ride as we adjust to a labour market suddenly become as freewheeling as the labour pool. We need to think hard about how to equip the labour force of the mid-21st century with the skills they need to dance the dance of their careers: constantly changing partners, changing steps, and continually learning new moves.

Before we can know what must be done, we must begin with an honest look at the world we inhabit today. When we get it all down – as I learned when I drafted my c.v. – we’ll see that what we know about ourselves is quite different from what we believe ourselves to be.

II: Smartphone Mob

Australians love gadgets. We know this about ourselves, and we embrace it. But we’re also a practical mob; our gadgets must do something for us. They must work. This explains why Australia became one of the first nations to see pervasive uptake of mobiles, long before other very advanced countries, including America.

In 1997, during my first visit to Australia, I made arrangements to catch up with some Sydneysider friends. I was staying at a hotel in Darling Harbour, so we agreed to meet in front of the nearby IMAX theatre before heading off to drinks and dinner. I arrived at the appointed time, as did a few of my friends. We waited a bit more, but saw no sign of the missing members of our party. What to do? Should we wait there – for goodness knows how long – or simply go on without them?

As I debated our choices – neither particularly palatable – one of my friends took a mobile out of his pocket, dialed our missing friends, and told them to meet us at an Oxford Street pub. Crisis resolved.

By the time my friend placed that call, half of Australians carried a mobile. When half the population can be reached instantly, anywhere, at any time, our behaviors change. What’s most striking about this story was my reaction, which seems hopelessly old-fashioned. But Los Angeles in 1997 had less than 20% mobile penetration. I simply didn’t think in these terms.

We rarely recall how different things were before everyone carried a mobile. The mobile has become such an essential part of our kit that on those rare occasions when we leave it at home or lose track of it, we feel a constant tug, like the phantom pain of a missing limb. Although we are loath to admit it, we need our mobiles to bring order to our lives.

We can take comfort in the fact that all of us feel this way. Mobile subscription rates in Australia are greater than one hundred and twenty-five percent – more than one mobile per person, one of the highest rates in the world. But Australia is no longer alone.

There are seven billion people on the planet right now, carrying six billion mobiles. They’ve reached into every corner of the planet, transforming all of our lives. For the poorest, the transformation has been greatest, because the mobile creates labour markets where none existed before.

A barber in Karachi, for example, always had to rent an expensive stall in the marketplace, depending on his clientele to seek him out. Today that barber buys a mobile, a bicycle, and prints up hundreds of signs advertising his haircutting services, which he posts throughout his neighborhood. Clients now call him to get service in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. He saves money, the client saves time, and everyone wins.

This shift signifies a small but fundamental change. Since their inception, markets have always been connected to a specific place and time. No longer.

The mobile connects individuals, creating an always-on-everywhere market. Place and time no longer organize the market — connectivity becomes its defining feature. To be connected is the necessary precondition for participation in 21st century markets. This is the central reason why everyone, everywhere – and most especially the poorest among us – have so enthusiastically adopted the mobile.

Trend-setters that we are, Australians have already abandoned the mobile for the smartphone. A smartphone is more than a supercharged mobile; it has the power to act as switchboard, communicating and coordinating our social activities. Facebook and Twitter rose to prominence alongside the smartphone. This is not a coincidence, but a direct consequence of the power of the smartphone to amplify our connectivity. The smartphone slathers a layer of software on top of the communication channel, takes everything the mobile does and makes it better, faster and stronger.

Over half of Australians now use smartphones – we’re the first ‘smartphone nation’. But we’re not alone. Last year, almost half a billion smartphones sold, representing a sixty percent increase on the year before. By the end of next year, perhaps eighty percent of all Australians will be using a smartphone, and by the end of this decade, all mobiles, everywhere in the world, will be then powerful, flexible communication computers.

What happens when the mobile market collides with the smartphone? Everything the Karachi barber does by hand can now be done electronically. That barber could signal his availability as a service provider with a ‘Get a haircut!’ smartphone app, and customers would flow to him, pretty much automatically. Sounds neat, right?

A number of businesses are beginning to take advantage of the intelligent connectivity provided by the smartphone. One, named Uber, has transformed the taxi market in the United States. Launched a year ago in San Francisco, Uber uses smartphone GPS to locate the user, showing available cars, with their positions updating in real-time. Uber transmits a request for a pickup to each of these cars, and when one car accepts, the others disappear. The user watches the car approach the pickup location in real-time, which makes for a wonderful experience, as an Uber passenger never left wondering when the driver will arrive.

The cars employed by Uber are standard black limousines, used for airport and executive transfers throughout the USA. Uber drivers run a companion iPhone app in their cars, adding Uber jobs to their scheduled pickups. Driver downtime – generally around 50% of the driver’s shift – is sharply reduced. The driver earns more per shift. Uber has transformed a discrete and disconnected army of cars into a single cohesive fleet – with nothing more than a little bit of smartphone software. The labour pool created by Uber’s software can service any demand for rides without delay. The process is seamless for both driver and passenger.

Imagine what happens when, over the next decade, such software becomes the norm. We are entering the era of hyperemployment, where software mediates the relationship between labourer and employer. Uber is a straightforward application in a very specific market segment, transportation. But other systems, already deployed, show how to broadly apply the idea of hyperemployment.

Zaarly, launched in May of 2011, offers Americans a smartphone-based interface to a competitive labour pool. As someone who needs a job done, you post a particular task, locale, timeframe and payment to Zaarly. That request is shared with everyone in the labour pool. Anyone interested in the job responds with their own price and time frame for completion. You review these responses, select one, and, after the transaction completes, money is automatically transferred from your credit card into the account of the individual who accepted the job.

Zaarly is a radical simplification and acceleration of the services once offered through classified advertisements, aggregating a pool of short-term labour just as Uber aggregates the pool of transportation. Zaarly could not have existed before the widespread adoption of smartphones, Now there is no inefficiency, and no resistance to aggregation of either labour demand or labour supply.

Zaarly focuses on short-term one-off jobs, but other services, such as Australia’s Freelancer.com, offer longer-term contracts, from hours to months, around areas such as design, transcription, and programming. Individuals present their skills in a directory, and it’s up to those in search of talent to carefully read through each individual’s c.v. (and reviews shared by previous clients) to determine whether they’re suited for the task. There’s a tight relationship between the overall cost and duration of the task and the amount of time someone is willing to invest in finding the right individual to perform that task. You may not care who drives you to the airport, but you may care a great deal about who designs a logo for your business. Yet existing systems for these high-quality, high-value employment opportunities are only barely automated. They’re ripe to be transformed by a Zaarly-like service which quickly guides people into making the appropriate choice.

As hyperemployment software matures, jobs progressively disintegrate into a series of discrete tasks that can be parceled out as demand requires. Temporary work will continue to move up the value chain. Yet there’s no disaster here. This is not going to lead to some catastrophic collapse in the workforce. Professionals like doctors and lawyers already work this way, parceling their time carefully across a broad array of clients. But the prospect of pervasive hyperemployment does require a change of focus for everyone in the labour pool. We need to tune our antennae to the strange new economic signals coming out of our smartphones.

III: All Things Being Equal

As software smooths away the inefficiencies that made it difficult to connect labour to the market, we face a raft of competitive forces which could not have existed before the invention of the smartphone. Six billion of us are participating in the same market, gathered into the same pool of labour.

All things being equal, this would result in an immediate ‘race to the bottom’, where the lowest bid for every job would succeed, driving labour costs down to levels unsustainable for the continued economic welfare of both labourers and the nation. I can’t hope to compete against a Bangladeshi, a Laotian, a Nigerian, or a Chinese. In every situation where I enter the market, all things being equal, they will win the labour contract.

Fortunately, things are not equal.

Even after all of the world has become hyperconnected, differences remain. Those differences become the mold that shapes the labour markets of the 21st century. Some things can not simply be smoothed away. Connectivity is wonderful, but it is not magical. Certain irreducible elements will always remain. Foremost among these are time and place.

Skills are portable. Workers somewhat less so. Jobs and and places of business are stubbornly stuck to the ground. And time is the ultimate tyrant. Something needs to be done at a specific place and within a particular time. If that specific place is cyberspace, the whole world can bid; when that specific place is a Gold Coast hotel, only locals need apply.

The solution, then, is to provide the labor pool with a strong awareness of local needs. What kind of jobs are there in the community, what kind of jobs will there be in the future? This is the kind of data that economists pour over. Individuals only rarely come across this information – perhaps in a report on the evening news – so they do not know enough about the labour market to adapt their own skills to it.

All things being equal, the new economy of labor is ‘hyperlocal’, focused on the needs of the community within commuting distance. The new economy of skills training both follows the labourer and leads them, anticipating their needs. In the 21st century educational organizations must ‘think locally’. They must continually assess community needs and provide the appropriate training to meet those needs.

This is already the way most training organizations provide services, but in the place where we’re headed, that training can come from a local organization or from a group located on the other side of the planet. Education is one of the most portable and easily deliverable of all skills. Although we know that people learn best when in direct contact with those mentoring them, the lure of nearly unlimited expertise available at any hour of the day can not be ignored. The competitive environment for education in the 21st century will be absolutely unique, unprecedented, and relentless.

For a generation we have given lip-service to ‘life-long’ education. Now we need to back that up. Workers will never stop learning, even while fully employed, because nothing about employment, or the skills needed for any job, will remain stationary. Workers now need to run to stay in place, and training organizations need to run alongside, staying just enough ahead to be useful, yet close enough to remain relevant.

This means that the relationship between laborer and training organization is not a one-off, or series of one-offs: it is continuous. When an individual leaves formal education behind, they need to be introduced to a skills and training organization which will work in partnership with them throughout the course of their working years.

We don’t yet think in these terms, but we should. We need to realize that employment skills have become dynamic, fluid and mutable. There are no fixed stars in the labour market. Everyone must dance the dance, and dance it ceaselessly until retirement. The only alternative is increasing irrelevance and inevitable redundancy.

Can we develop a vision for the worker which allows them to assess their skills, match those skills against the needs of the local labor market, and quickly remediate any skills deficits preventing them from reaching their employment potential? What kinds of informational resources do you require to bring that sort of capability to the communities you serve? If you had those resources at your fingertips, what kinds of processes would you need in place to bring those resources to bear to create positive outcomes for workers?

We need to think holistically, considering the worker, the local labor market, and the training organization as a single unit, a body with different organs, each charged with a specific task. When all the organs work in synchrony, the body functions beautifully. But if any of these organs atrophy, the body as a whole suffers. Labor market needs must be filled by local workers, but this can only happen where training organizations work to span the skills gap. If any part of this equation fails, the economy as a whole fails.

The future is more integrated than the past ever could be. Because we are connected it has become necessary to use that connectivity to maintain our economic viability. This means we must revision our educational organizations from the inside out: how do we use connectivity to marry labor market needs to worker skills? How do we do this quickly, flexibly, and reliably?

As I was doing research for this talk, I came across an article titled ‘The Three Laws of Future Employment’. Although written for an American audience, they apply equally well here in Australia.

Law #1: People will get jobs doing things computers can’t do.

Face to face represents an irreplaceable resource. We won’t soon see chefs or housepainters replaced by robots. But this rule has a corrolary: people will get jobs locally where the network doesn’t remove the tyranny of distance. Anyone can offer you training, but if you’re learning to cut hair, you’re going to need more than a few videos and a Skype chat. You’re going to need something hands-on. The future belongs to the hands-on.

Law #2: A global marketplace will result in lower pay and fewer opportunities for many careers.

We can not entirely avoid a race to the bottom. Some easily transferable skills – transcription, tutoring, even professions such as law and medicine – will migrate away from the local and into the global network, where they will be subject to competitive pressures unlike anything we have ever known. Consider the number of manufacturing jobs that have gone to China, never to return. Now imagine that happening across the board, in every market segment. That’s the economic environment of the 21st century, and it means that the local is more valuable – and more valued – than ever before.

Law #3: Professional people will more likely be freelancers and less likely to have a steady job.

I reckon this law doesn’t go far enough. It won’t just be professionals who will be more likely to freelancers. It will be every one of us. As it becomes easier to disaggregate employment into labor tasks, and as it becomes easier to tap into a labor pool on a moment-by-moment basis, the concept of ‘steady employment’ will gradually fade from view. By the end of this century, very few people will have or will want such an economic arrangement. It will be considered too binding, almost a form a slavery, which some few will submit to because of their specific circumstances. The rest of us, free to operate in a radically decentralized and pervasively networked marketplace, will do as time, opportunity and our training allow.

This law applies to all of us – including those working within educational institutions. These institution themselves are disaggregating; some combination of software and irreducible human input will frame the skills organizations of the 21st century.

You will no longer trumpet (or covet) physical plant and resources, nor the courses on offer, but rather, how effectively your organizations partner as collaborators with workers, and how comprehensively they maintain an awareness of local employment needs. You will be cheerleaders, teachers, switchboards and hyperlocal economists, fulfilling an essential role in the mid 21st century economy, ensuring that people have meaningful work.

Is this different from the way you work today? Absolutely. But then, why should you be any less subject to the forces which are transforming every other aspect of the labor market? Where work changes, where the worker changes, you need to follow.

In the end, your path will bring you to a very different destination than the one you’d intended – just as mine has. I can only hope that you will find your journey – into the 21st century of hyperemployment – as interesting and rewarding as I have found my own.

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