In the last quarter-century alone, the world of work has tangoed with economic turmoil, rapid technological advancement, changing government policy and globalisation – and, as might be expected, has come out the other side transformed forever.
Without conscience, it has forced jobs, companies and entire industries into decline, and in the same breath created new economies, businesses and workforces. The evolution of job titles, from IT Technician to Cyber Expert is testament to this mutating landscape.
And it’s not just the type of work that has transformed. The way we work now has been utterly reimagined, with on-demand, remote and flexible working styles more pervasive than ever. But in this ever-changing and evolving job scene, how have individuals and businesses adapted to survive and even take advantage of it?
The rise of the entrepreneur
This decade has seen a rapid increase in entrepreneurial activity[i], with a glut of Founders, Directors and Presidents springing up from the embers of the financial crisis. Now, entrepreneurship is a hugely popular aspiration, with 76%[ii] of people[iii] believing it to be a good career move and even a ‘higher status’ role.
The surge in entrepreneurs may have a root cause in the recession in 2008, when job opportunities were severely impacted and trust in large corporations was at an all-time low. However, several positive circumstances also came together to make entrepreneurship both desirable and realistic.
Technological advancements and a growing online marketplace made the cost of setting up a business, selling services, and reaching new audiences cheaper and easier. Access to alternative funding streams – peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding, and tax breaks for small business owners and investors – also made starting a small business possible for many people.
Gig workers and crowds
The rapid growth in online, mobile, and on-demand services naturally required an immense labour force to support it. Enter the gig worker, who makes their living off short-term work postings, such as Takeaway Delivery Driver, Interpreter, or Video Producer. And cue the crowd worker, who also picks up the slack through similarly ad hoc work assignments, usually over an online platform.
While gig and crowd work has often been compared to the ‘odd jobs’ of old, the demographic taking on this type of work has one dramatic difference. It is now a uniquely young domain, with 34% of gig workers aged 16-30[iv], and half of all crowd workers in the UK under 35 years old[v] as well.
It was technology alone that allowed gig and crowd workers to flourish, and schedule flexible work according to their location and hours, with some making a fulltime living from a patchwork of gigs and assignments.
Today one in seven people who are employed are classed as self-employed, falling under the category of freelancer, sole trader, service worker or contractor. The recession played its part in making permanent jobs more difficult to obtain,[vi] but it was the subsequent corporate budget-tightening that drummed up the real need for freelancers and contractors.
Post-crash, business restructures and other money-saving measures cleaved many workforces down to their core competencies, with the extra work being outsourced to an external network of on-demand workers on freelance agreements and other project-only contracts.
This recessional change to corporate job architectures is also responsible for the rise in consultancy work. Particularly in digital industries, where the pace of technological progression requires constant modernisation of services, consultants have found an increasingly fertile niche.
The competitive market for these specialist freelance and consultancy skills has also seen the arrival of highly imaginative job titles, with names like SEO Guru, Social Media Ninja and Digital Overlord now an accepted normality in tech environments.
Building a portfolio career
Due to a complex cocktail of reasons, including rising import competition, deindustrialisation, automation and the financial crisis, whole industries which were once mass-employers have slowly and agonisingly declined.
The effect on working lives has been significant. Jobs for life are now officially a thing of the past, and the multi-role career is becoming the new norm. Over the average working life – now 60 to 70 years[vii] – the average stint at a job is just 4.5 years[viii]. And where once a job could provide clear-cut training and progressive salary increases over an entire working life, workers must now go through several job changes to get the necessary experience and pay increase.
Millennials in particular have reacted to this landscape change, with the “ability to learn and progress” now their number one concern when considering employers.[ix] Many workers have also adapted to this environment by creating something called “portfolio careers”. This involves being highly selective when choosing positions, always mindful of how it will enrich your resume with adaptable skills and experiences that will advance you towards the next role, while spreading the risk of finding work across several potential career options.
Out-skilling the robots
Given how many times you’re likely to change your job in a lifetime, the chances of engaging in the same work you originally studied or trained for until retirement is extremely low. According to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends, in today’s job market, the half-life of a learned skill is just five years. And certain careers, particularly those in technology, currently require updated training every 12 to 18 months.[x]
The emerging advice is to focus on developing soft skills. Progress in automation has meant artificial intelligence is taking over many job roles traditionally performed by humans and there are now fewer lower-skilled routine jobs than before. Demand has shifted to higher-skilled, non-routine jobs, which tend to require soft skills such as creativity, problem-solving, negotiation and networking. These are the humanlike traits that are important in managing and selling to other human beings, and the reliance on these softer skills will only increase as future AI capability is enhanced.
Both the landscape and lifespan of the jobs we do have undergone striking transformation, during a single generation. The current cohort of workers have seen entire career paths killed off, constructed and reconfigured at a startling rate. But even in the face of an unprecedented transformation to the job market, workers continue to find ways to adapt and thrive.
[iii] adult population across 52 economies