The more I hear about stubbornly high unemployment and the jobless recovery, the more convinced I am that we’re looking at things all wrong.
We’re in the midst of a national political obsession about creating jobs, but what exactly constitutes employment today? Fewer and fewer U.S. citizens hold a 9-to-5, 40-hour-a-week job with salary, healthcare, 401k plan and paid vacation. Even fewer will in the future, because what people do for a living, and how they do it, is changing.
As a freelancer, I work at home, set my own hours, try to get paid what I’m worth, buy my own health insurance, contribute to an IRA (no matching funds here) and make a reasonably good living. But some people still don’t consider that a real job. Including many freelancers. A colleague of mine, who was laid off from a magazine six months ago and is freelancing while looking for another position, still refers to herself as unemployed. My neighbor, who lost her job as an administrative assistant two years ago, is among the “long-term, chronically unemployed.” Despite her best efforts, she hasn’t been able to find another full-time administrative job. But she seems to stay fairly busy temping.
It’s not just full-time communications and administrative positions that are vanishing. As we buy more and more stuff online, we need fewer salespeople. And at my local grocery store, where I used to chat amiably with a cashier who got good pay and benefits, I now scan and bag my own groceries.
The truth is that much of what we call employment are jobs that were created by and structured for the Industrial Age. In the Digital Age, they are no longer necessary. In the span of human history, most people worked for themselves (unless they were wealthy or enslaved), scratching out a living however they could. My grandparents, for example, were all farmers. In 1900, 41 percent of U.S. jobs were agricultural, according to government statistics.
Whatever you want to call it – – the contractor economy or free-agent nation – this new model of work requires individuals to have different skills and requires government to provide different services to support such a workforce. (National healthcare, anyone?) “People who are spending all their time trying to find that full-time job with benefits – some small portion will get them, but for the vast majority, these [freelance projects] are the jobs,” Sara Hororwitz, executive editor of the Freelancers Union, told Crain’s New York Business in an article earlier this year. (Note: Crain’s requires you to register for a free trial subscription.)
Yet our national leaders are looking backward, talking about creating last-century jobs, as if U.S. companies were going to start hiring full-time workers again. Even if the economy improves, corporations have learned that they don’t need employees. They only need contractors. In many cases, it’s going to be up to individuals to create their own jobs. That bodes well for those of us who have the skills and aptitude to become a company of one. For the rest of society, it’s time for the politicians and our government to face the realities of employment in the Digital Age and figure out how to nurture it.