May 13, 2009, 10:03 AM — There’s something very strange happening in the job market—the very nature of what we think of as a “job” is being redefined right before our eyes. And for better or worse, we have a new paradigm to get used to.
I’ve seen three phases of “the job” over my lifetime. “Job 1.0” was in the days before desktop computers, when the prevailing philosophy was that one should get a job with a big company, and stay there until retirement or death. Job-hopping was strictly forbidden, and the concept of “job security” meant everything. They taught in business school that a person should work for no more than three companies over a lifetime; anything more marked you as a flake unworthy of hiring. “Entrepreneurship” was either not taught in business school, or if it was, only as a minor elective that was downplayed by the business cognoscenti who saw us all graduating, putting on white shirts and dark suits and working for IBM. There was, at least for a brief time, loyalty on the part of both employer and employee.
I recall those times well. In the ‘70s after high school, I worked for a year at Bendix Corp. The common reaction friends and family had when I told them I worked at Bendix was, “Wow, only 18 and working at Bendix! You have it made, you better hang onto that job!” Of course, I didn’t, and everyone thought I was crazy when I left. That was one of those companies that people stayed at for life. I could see even then though, that the Job 1.0 concept was flawed. A job was seen as almost like a marriage—but speaking as someone who’s gone down that aisle three times, I can tell you that marriages, while meant to last forever, often don’t. And so it is with jobs and single-company careers. Where I live, they used to make Studebaker automobiles, and Studebaker was another one of those companies that you stayed at for life. But if you know the history of the automotive industry, you know that Studebaker went belly-up, and workers who had been there for decades were left without their pensions.
The era of Job 2.0 was ushered in during the dotcom boom. Working for two to three companies over a lifetime turned into working for two to three companies a year. Startups were everywhere, and job-hopping became more accepted, and in some circles, even expected. When you went to work for a dotcom in Silicon Valley, nobody expected you to stay there for more than a few years. For that matter, nobody even expected the company itself to last for more than a few years. There was no concept of employer or employee loyalty, but none was needed. It was understood by all parties that it was every man for himself, and a job was just one stepping stone on a very long path. None of us knew quite where that path led, but it was fun walking it while it lasted.
Just as the dotcom boom represented a major shift that brought about a new paradigm of jobs, the “Great Recession of 2009” is ushering in a new era of Job 3.0, and nothing will ever be quite the same again. The Job 3.0 paradigm is one of even greater detachment from the corporation, in which employees are seen more as contractors, and in many cases, really are. In many ways, the dotcom boom (the era of Job 2.0) made Job 3.0 inevitable. The communications technology that came out of the dotcom boom has given us ubiquitous broadband, unified communications, instant messaging, and the ability to very easily work from home—and today, that technology is being taken advantage of by former employees who have reformulated their careers as freelancers, teleworkers and contractors.
With the communications technology already in place, the economic downturn pushed us to take advantage of it, and today we’re seeing the rise of workers who never see the inside of a cubicle (no great loss), logging in from a home office every day. And beyond that, more employees are not even employees any more, instead taking advantage of the growing number of freelance job boards to become one-person shops delivering services remotely. More companies today are moving towards hiring contractors in this manner instead of bringing on full-time employees, seeing it as a way to contain costs and stay afloat in a rough economy. The idea of “working on the Internet” went from late-night television get-rich-quick ads, to a realistic way of working.
Eventually, the economy will turn around, but the job shift will remain with us. And ultimately, it’s a better—and more secure—way of working.