Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Work patterns in developed countries are changing dramatically. OK, so a plumber or a surgeon cannot work primarily from home, so certain “jobs” are simply going to be hours spent at a company-designated location. But to the extent that work is information related, from software design to data analysis to creative services to marketing, the possibility of not being anchored to a desk “at the office” becomes not only possible but routine. And even for those who spend considerable time “at the office,” if it’s information that is the core of their employment, that capacity to reach workers at remote locations has also changed job expectations forever.
Concepts like “job” security seem to have been relegated to the history books. Not only are employers facing fiscal cliffs with increasing frequency – even federal and local governments go through major downsizing sweeps all the time these days – but workers are often engaged to cover a particular project to fill a gap for a specified time. These are contract workers. With massive changes in skillsets being required all the time, there is a danger in hiring “permanent” employees whose skills might no longer fit company needs in the not-too-distant future. Further, employers like having contract workers to see how they fare over a longer period even if they do want to hire “permanent” employees.
The picture isn’t so rosy for “permanent” employees either. The erosion of private sector unions leaves many, constantly looking over their shoulders at who wants their job, willing to accept some pretty abominable work realities. Remember when the Great Recession fired three employees and shift their workload to just one survivor? No pay increase, just more hours and more work for the same or even lower paycheck. We called that a massive “productivity increase.”
These changes are rather significant for the kinds of preparations we as a nation must make to deal with these realities. For contract workers, healthcare and retirement contributions just do not happen. Access to healthcare suddenly becomes mission critical, not to mention affordability. Even the Affordable Care Act is expensive, and making choices between paying off student loans from underfunded and over-priced education, eating and keeping a roof over your head, young healthy bodies often opt out of the healthcare option (despite the penalties) and simply assume that they will not ever retire. Vacations? Only between gigs or without pay, if you can afford to take a trip anyway (staycation, anyone? Another word for “unemployment”?).
The May 18th took a look at the new rules of work, as these labor pools now ply their services, and the picture is anything but pretty.
"Rush hour" is disappearing: The MTA (New York City's subway system) reports that "weekday growth was strongest outside of the traditional morning and evening rush hours" as people ditch the traditional commute to live and work differently. Co-working spaces are popping up everywhere: one estimate puts the number above 20,000—a virtual doubling in the number of co-working spaces globally since 2008. Work-from-home policies are increasingly standard among employers, and remote work is a growing trend—Automattic, the company behind Wordpress, is 100% remote, its employees scattered in bedrooms and home offices everywhere. The Remote Year initiative enables 100 remote workers to spend one month in 12 different locations across the globe. Technology may be the great enabler, but the impulse is deeply human: we want to live life on our terms in the place we are most comfortable, and we can work there, too.
2.      NEW RULE: YOU’RE ON CALL 24-7.
Time matters just as much space. The upside is working when we want to—employers are increasingly likely not to care exactly when the work is done, as long as it gets done well and on deadline. The downside is always being on call—the same screens that connect us to many aspects of our personal lives are also the means of production.
According to a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association, "More than half of employed adults said they check work messages at least once a day over the weekend." Almost the same number also did so before or after work on weekdays and during sick days. A full 44% even do it while on vacation. Also in 2013, theAmerican Time Survey found that 34% of those employed work on an average of one weekend day every week, rising to 43% in the growing ranks of the self-employed.
Last year, and the freelancer marketplace Elance-oDesk estimated that there are 53 million freelancers in the U.S., which represents 34% of the workforce. No wonder the polite question to ask these days is not "Where do you work?" but "What are you working on?"… All freelancers share a focus on getting gigs, which are the new unit of work, but surveys find that around half of freelancers feel lucky and liberated, while the other half are seriously stressed, wishing they could find full-time work.
Companies are obsessed with work-life balance, says AndrĂ© Spicer of the City University Business School in London—"but the more people talk about it, the less it seems to actually exist. The realities of contemporary work involve a complete blurring of work and life. We try to establish barriers but they are constantly knocked down."
Take the constant search for new income streams: when platforms like Airbnb and Uber enabled the monetization of "slack" resources, many people suddenly had themselves working overtime as landlords or drivers. Time with friends is replaced by networking. Social media updates, once entirely personal, are now an extension of your CV, another way to constantly be selling yourself.
Don’t ever say you "just need a job"—"the unofficial work mantra for our time," wrote Miya Tokemitsu in a widely discussed article, is "Do What You Love." Employers looking to harness or answer the "passion" of workers are increasingly branding themselves as movements and causes, anything but a boring old company that makes widgets.
The problem with "Do What You Love," says Tokemitsu, is that "it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work . . . Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace." Instead of enabling the good life, work gobbles it up entirely.
Self-actualization, says Carl Cederström of the Stockholm Business School, "is not necessarily something we want, but something that we’re required to do." When so many of us are in the persuasion business—persuasion workers now account for some 30% of U.S. GDP, estimated economist Gerry Antioch in 2013—it’s no surprise that we have to start by persuading ourselves of the life-or-death importance of what we’re doing.
Sound familiar? Feels wrong, but it is what it is? Feeling a fit trapped? Disconnected? Stressed and concerned? Wary about your future and the future of your family, if you can even think about affording a family these days? Make you understand how easy prey you are for politicians with cute slogans but absolutely zero in workable solutions to make this even slightly better.
I’m Peter Dekom, and that American slather at the thought of simple solution-slogans but lack the willpower to elect politicians to make some hard choices seems to suggest that we deserve what we’ve got.

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