The Future Of Work May Not (be) Work

Whenever I read about the ‘Flexible Workforce’ or ’The Future of Work’ (‘Het Nieuwe Werken, HNW’) I wonder whether the concept is a means to an end, an objective or a result. Governments and ICT vendors are telling us this concept can help us to overcome the problems an aging population will bring about and, while we are at it, reduce CO2 exhausts. If we want to keep our economic wealth and wellbeing we should work more. We should increase labour participation; more people (women), more hours (productivity) and more years (active people). In this case the promoted flexible workforce facilitated by IT is a means to an end. It supposedly increases labour participation by helping workers to strike a better balance between their professional and private life. In reality however the flexible workforce is the result of a different view on work.

During the last forty years, the proliferation of IT has generated a whole new industry, products and services. At the same it has emancipated and empowered individuals and the workforce. And while the promotion of the flexible workforce is all about economic drivers, work and productivity, the emancipation of individuals is what is really fundamentally changing the way we, workers, look at work. The growing freelance workforce is not as much the result of government policies to liberalize the labour market as well as a first result of people’s growing awareness that IT is not only changing the way we work but can also change the way we live.

The graph below shows post-WWII workforce dynamics. While the nature of work (vertical axis) changed substantially from physical labour to information work, traditional work relationships (horizontal axis) between business and employees are just starting to change now.

Looking at the workforce dynamics we distinguish 4 types of workers:

  • The traditional blue collar worker; this group consists of people doing manual labor, earning a hourly wage and working mostly in a production environment. It is a remnant of our industrial past and will further fade away as China enhances its number 1 manufacturing position in the world
  • The skills worker; this is a steady growing group of independent workers that have a specific physical skill set for hire (plumbers, truckers, nurses)
  • The empowered employee; this is a growing group of salaried information workers. Facilitated by IT their job is increasingly result driven rather than effort based. They are currently the largest potential for the ‘flexible workforce’ as their work doesn’t require physical presence
  • The e-entrepreneur; fast growing group of independent digitally skilled entrepreneurs. They typically focus on new types of work generated by the pervasiveness of the internet society

We have seen a major change in the type of work we do. Moving away from an industrial to a post-industrial society and services oriented economy, many blue collar jobs disappeared eastward to be replaced by jobs that were more information and knowledge driven. Not only the type of work has changed but we are also witnessing a change in the traditional hierarchical employee – business relationship. It wasn’t until the late 90s that we experienced an emerging workforce of independent, result driven and connected people. A steadily growing freelance workforce (estimates vary from four hundred thousand to one million depending on definition and measurement method) may just be the first indication of where the future of work is really heading.

But while all governments will welcome a more entrepreneurial society, it does not implicitly mean higher productivity. It will not automatically solve the issues of an aging population. The future of work is more about redefining the value of work by individuals than productivity gains stemming from flexible working as promoted by governments. Do not expect the new class of entrepreneurs to work the usual eighty hours a week older generations are used to. They may even be less motivated by income and much more driven by striking a balance between the quantity and quality in life and work. This trend could very well be reinforced by the millennium generation who grew up in affluence and the ever present web and know exactly how to turn IT to their benefit.

This emerging class of connected workers will also have a major impact on the composition of business structure. The number of very small businesses will continue to grow driven by the new generation of workers: the e-lancerpreneur. The number of very large companies will also grow. These companies compete on a global scale and operate in an environment where bigger is better. Midsize companies have a problem. They may not have the capacity to grow and the changing nature of work, e.g. more mobile and project based, does not specifically favor size. We may not be exactly sure what the business environment will look like fifteen years from now but it won’t be anything like today.

At the METISfiles we feel that the speed of technological change, globalization and the demographic shift already have a deep impact on the way we live and work. The future of work and the flexible workforce are a major theme in our publications. If you want to contribute your ideas, please feel free to comment.

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About Marcel Warmerdam

3 Responses to “The Future Of Work May Not (be) Work”

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  1. Puni Rajah says:

    Really good and useful scene-setter, Marcel.

    This is an issue that has already created angst for enterprise IT management. As more digital natives invade the workplace, they have introduced not only different attitudes towards tech, but have also demanded more expertise from tech support. A community that is used to throwing its problems to the world to solve and getting responds in seconds is not big on patience. Escalation processes do not work in this scenario.

    However, the bigger challenge for enterprise IT management is the heterogeneity of user capabilities and expectations. Life would be simple if the transition from blue collar to e-lancepreuner employee base was total. The reality is that all four employee types need to be supported in the enterprise today. I see enterprise IT management struggle with this for a while longer.

  2. What a marvelous outline of the problem, Marcel, and thank you for that.

    One of the developments we are seeing on the ground in the world of coworking is the rise of the “accidental entrepreneur”. Both in your skills worker category and in your e-entrepreneur category we are seeing a number of people who became freelancers or entrepreneurs, not out of a burning desire to do so but simply because they see no other option before them which makes sense. In particular in looking at women int he workforce, we see significant numbers getting a thorough education, entering the corporate world, and then departing it, disappearing to the system for all intents and purposes.

    The notion of lifetime employment and secure investments for the future have simply gone away for many of these workers, and especially those in their late 30s and older. In response, they are indeed creating jobs: their own.

    We see as much starting over as we see starting up in the current work force. As society shifts from an understanding of work based in many ways on the assembly line to an understanding based on the 3-D printer and cloud computing, I think it is this group from which the real, lasting innovation may be expected to come forth.

  3. Marcel Warmerdam says:

    Thanks for your comment Jeannine. I like your ‘accidental entrepreneur’ . I am probably one of those accidental entrepreneurs myself. And I am pretty sure that is also a fast growing section of the laborforce.