The rise of ever more intelligent machines is prompting much speculation about the future of work and a clear separation of views is becoming apparent. Some claim that automation is likely to lead to job losses and that we should prepare for that. Others argue that the new technologies will create as many jobs as they destroy: after all, that is what has happened in the past.
Those -- like Donald Trump -- who argue they can “bring back the jobs” presume a return, or reinvention, of an almost mythical past where manufacturing dominated the economy and the big firms were also big employers who benefited from a large, full-time workforce.
The trouble is, that sort of economy is fading and the big firms now tend to be the tech giants that are not necessarily big employers (Facebook has 12,000 employees, for instance; Google employs fewer than 60,000 globally). What’s more, much of the work they do is contract-based and employees are brought in on a contingent basis to work on projects.
Whatever happens, it is unlikely paying work will be offered on the same terms as in the past, where people could build a career with a single firm, or industry, across a lifetime. As an indication of this shift, look no further than the way job recruitment has changed.
Increasingly, the traditional CV and interview are being abandoned as firms use new forms of data aggregation to find employees. This new field of recruitment, dubbed workforce science, is based on the idea that the data individuals create while doing things online can be harvested and interpreted and to provide a better idea of a person’s suitability than traditional methods.
Whereas in the past employers might have been impressed with the school you went to, practitioners of workforce science are encouraging them to prioritize other criteria. A New York Times article on the topic noted: “Today, every email, instant message, phone call, line of written code and mouse-click leaves a digital signal. These patterns can now be inexpensively collected and mined for insights into how people work and communicate, potentially opening doors to more efficiency and innovation within companies.”
Organizations including Knack and TalentBin are providing companies with information that, they claim, better matches people to jobs. Peter Kazanjy, the chief executive of TalentBin, explained to Business Insider Magazine : “Résumés are actually curious constructs now because, for the most part, work and our work product is fundamentally digital. Sometimes you don’t even need [résumés]. The reality of what somebody is and what they do … is already resident on their hard drive or their Evernote or their box.net account or their Dropbox cloud.”
The very nature of this sort of recruitment suggests that employees are being sought on the basis of particular skills or aptitudes to engage in specific projects, rather than criteria that used to apply when firms hired people for a lifetime. To grasp this aspect of the changing nature of work, look no further than LinkedIn.
For many, LinkedIn is that strange website somewhere between a social media platform and an online repository of CVs, and it sort of is. Nonetheless, in June 2016 Microsoft purchased it for $26bn.
Well, for a couple of reasons. First, it generates about $3bn annually in revenue, most of which comes from corporate subscriptions to LinkedIn’s Talent Solutions database, a tool that allows employers to find staff.
Second, LinkedIn is a huge repository of information about workers and the skills they have. It is a platform where people can talk to each other about work, advertise their talents, exchange information about their fields of interest and expertise, and communicate privately. For Microsoft to be able to integrate this immense repository of saleable data and work-related communications with the enterprise software they already own -- from Skype to Office Suite to, in particular, their customer relations management tools -- makes a lot of sense.
But here’s the key: as the analyst Ben Thompson argues, LinkedIn also allows Microsoft to refocus on individual users -- employees -- rather than companies. LinkedIn thus becomes the platform where individuals store their work personas in a searchable, communicable form that endures across a lifetime of work, where a person’s employer changes regularly. The rise of this sort of platform therefore suggests a lot more than the simple fact that employers are using new tools to find employees. It is showing us that the nature of work is changing.
That is to say, for all this to make any sense, the assumption has to be that the work of the future is increasingly going to be not full-time employment with a couple of companies across a lifetime but a constant shifting from contract to contract. It is to assume that contingent work -- part-time, short-term, self-employed -- is likely to become the norm, rather than the aberration it is often portrayed as today.
The evidence of this change is already accumulating in employment data. More than half the jobs created in the European Union since 2010 have been offered as short-term contracts; in Australia, since 2013, two-thirds of the new jobs have been part-time; in the US, 40% of all work is now classified as contingent.
By itself, Microsoft’s $26bn gamble on the changing nature of employment might not be proof of anything: the company has made bad investments in the past. But it is an indication of where some pretty serious players think work is heading. It suggests that “bring back the jobs” is not the easy solution that some would have us believe. It suggests that throwing up barriers to trade and immigration are kneejerk responses that ignore the structural transformation we are already in the midst of.
It also means that the argument about whether or not robots will take our jobs is the wrong argument. The more important point is that humans are going to be in ongoing competition with machines, whether you are an accountant competing with software like Xero or a fast-food worker competing with robotic chefs. This is going to affect the hours we work, the pay we receive and the sorts of job we do.
For humans to thrive in such an environment -- this new environment of which recruitment is a leading indicator -- we will need to drastically rethink all aspects of our economy, from education through to social welfare through to retirement. The sooner we start that rethink, the better.