The end of the job?

As long ago as 1994, William Bridges wrote in Fortune Magazine:

Large sign with the legend "Job Hunting"

“The world is on the verge of another leap in creativity and productivity - but the ‘job’ is not going to be part of tomorrow's economic reality.

“In its place is an emerging enterprise where workers will become more responsible for managing their own lives and will sell their skills to employers or customers across a globally connected market.”

Now, in 2016, the world he foresaw is happening all around us. Millions of factory jobs have already gone, taken over by robots, and it looks as if many, if not all, of the professions will soon be replaced by Artificial Intelligence.

It’s true that many new jobs have sprung up to replace manufacturing work. Internet companies, entertainment companies, tourism . . . all these have become mass employers, but if the trend continues, we may well find that he was right.

Work in the Past
If we look again to the past it’s clear that, before the industrial revolution, people worked as and when the work needed doing. Most of it was agricultural and it was very seasonal, taking every waking hour at busy times like harvest, and requiring almost no work in the depths of Winter. (Apparently it used to be said that the rural poor tended to hibernate for much of the winter because there was so little to do!)

Early painting of mediaeval people working on the land.

Before Industrialisation: People worked as the work demanded

Drawing of an early factory showing rows of women working at machines driven by overhead pulleys and leather belts.

19th Century jobs: 16 hours a day and more

Photograph of a motor car production line in the 1930s, showing men building the cars.

20th Century jobs: 7.5 hours a day plus holidays

Photograph of a modern factory showing robots working on a production line.

21st Century: Robots are doing the work.

In the future, we may find ourselves going back to the situation that existed before Industrialisation. We shall work as and when something needs doing. We’ll be building, making, serving and creating in response to the demand around us and not to the dictates of a nine-to-five job.

Zero Hours
There’s another clue, too. People are increasingly complaining about zero hour contracts, which are becoming more and more common. Is it possible that these are another sign of Willliam Bridges’ forecast coming true?

Photo of a protestor holding a sign which reads "No to zero hour contracts"

The thing that troubles workers on zero hours contracts is that they never know from one day to the next whether they will have work (and therefore money). They find it difficult to plan, difficult to budget, and difficult to manage their lives.

And yet, I can’t help feeling that, hidden in the zero hours contract, is a clue to the way we shall all live in the future - in a world without jobs. Zero hours contracts offer work when there is work to be done and not when there isn’t. 

From a business point of view this makes absolute sense. When work needs doing, you bring in people to do it - and they may choose to work far more than 40 hours in a week. The work is done, the business makes a profit and the employees take home good pay - or should do!

From an employee’s point of view, zero hour contracts lack the certainty of fixed hours for a fixed wage - even if those fixed hours might be frantically overstretched at busy times or mind-numbingly empty if work is slack. 

Life After Jobs
So perhaps the arrival of zero hours contracts is a sign of things to come? Perhaps they are a foretaste of how we shall all be living when ‘The Job’ has passed into history.

If, as William Bridges forecast, jobs do become a thing of the past, you can be sure we won’t all be lying about in bed all day, even if we could afford to. Humankind simply isn’t built that way. If we were, we’d still be hunter-gatherers living in caves

And it’s not as if there will ever be a shortage of actual work. Even if robots take over all manufacturing jobs and artificial intelligence takes over all of the professions, the likelihood is that we shall still all be busy creating, helping, building, etc. It’s what humans do, and we shall find new things to occupy us without doubt, and we shall be employing each other as we’ve always done. It just won’t be in the form of the “9 to 5 job”. 

Next: Everyone’s an Entrepreneur

© Brian Smith 2015