Trending toward a jobless economy
Three trends (other than AI) that may mean jobs as we know them cease to exist
This morning I listened to an HBR article from Rita McGrath, management scholar at Colombia Business School, and Ram Charan about the “permissionless corporation”. Listening to their description of such a corporation - which uses carefully optimised metrics and self-organising multi-disciplinary teams to decentralise strategic moves to the frontlines - got me reflecting on other trends that may collide with this one to result in a “jobless economy”.
What do I mean by a jobless economy?
This is an economy where the idea of a traditional job as we know it is gone. Where individuals provide services to a small, singular or non-existent leadership team, collaborating with other individual contributors through asynchronous, automated collaboration tools, to develop digitally marketed products and services. You don’t go into an office, you don’t have a boss and you are remunerated based on delivery against your specific metrics, rather than a traditional salary. It’s not a work-less economy. People still undertake labour for pay. But the work format is hyper-individualised and decentralised such that what a “job” traditionally looked like is mostly gone.
So what are the trends pointing that way, and do I really think we’ll get there?
1. The gig economy
I first contemplated the idea of a jobless future when conversation about the “gig economy” ramped up in about 2014/2015. Perhaps the “gig-ification” of work would continue to a point where every worker was a gig worker, and brands hired the services of these workers on a gig basis. This is very similar to the jobless economy I described above.
But who would manage the gig workers and how would we create the multi-disciplinary teams required to deliver worthwhile value to market if everyone was an individual contractor?
2. The permissionless corporation
Enter McGrath and Charan’s permissionless corporation. They cite examples of Amazon and the investment firm, Fidelity. In these organisations, carefully tuned metrics tell teams what outcomes they should be pursuing. These metrics give management the confidence to push more decisions out to these teams, as long as the metrics keep going in the right direction. Combined with asynchronous collaboration tools, this style of work reduces the need for “time at desk” management and lengthy meetings.
With optimised enough metrics, a small board of leaders could leverage the gig economy and some clever contracting to build teams of gig workers, incentivised to pursue carefully constructed metrics, resulting in products being delivered to market with revenues going to those leaders and paying the gig workers.
3. Remote work
Of course no future work trends conversation would be complete without mentioning remote work. But it doesn’t appear here just because it is in vogue. The incentives of remote work push both the organisation and the individual toward more jobless models. For examples, organisations may want less responsibility for their workers’ pay checks as they simultaneously retain less control of their actions centrally. Similarly, individuals pursuing the benefits of remote work may want to or be required to take on more gig work and respectively want more control of how they work given their share of the risk is greater.
While remote work doesn’t create a jobless economy, it accelerates the individualisation of control and the move toward rented labour forces.
Will we actually get there?
While an interesting thought experiment, I think there’s a few reasons we may never actually reach a true version of a jobless economy.
Firstly, this is a race against AI. An old colleague of mine envisioned a future where the marginal cost for all products was extremely low through a combination of recycling, AI-driven everything and subscription models. Essentially you would pay one “subscription to life” to access all the goods and services you needed and the need for work would be low or non-existent. This future would make jobless work irrelevant too and we may end up here first given the advancements in AI.
Secondly, the pace of change in this direction is extremely slow. This is in part due human nature and the strength of historical management constructs built around command and control. The technology industry and others have been trying to shift from Tayloristic management techniques toward more self-organising, agile techniques for well over 20 years (that’s just the date those guys wrote a manifesto). Many management theory revolutions are about how well the costs and inputs to producing products can be seen and managed. A jobless economy will be very slow to eventuate because organisations will seek to retain more control than this type of work arrangement will allow them to have.
These two challenges - AI and human nature - may mean we never end up seeing the jobless economy.
Is that a problem?
Probably not. There are benefits to the job, including mental health and wellness benefits, and societal benefits.
I was recently introduced to the concept of de-atomisation through the podcast on the How To Business Substack. This idea is that as humans we’ve been separating activities in our lives into discrete components and then struggling to fit these in. For example, the atomisation of exercise from work as fewer jobs rely on physical labour. Or the atomisation of socialisation from work as more of us work remotely or as gig workers. Nat Eliason highlights that bringing these back together, or de-atomising your life, may be essential to happiness and mental wellness. A jobless economy atomises companies, and consequently we may lose associated social connections, creative energy and other benefits that come from working together.
Why talk about futures that may not happen?
The jobless economy is taking the trends of gig work, self-organising teams and remote work to their absolute extreme. At the end of the day, it’s a thought exercise.
I like to use these hyperbolic thought exercises to draw out useful questions as we set out down these paths to highlight risks that may not be evident in the more gradual change we’re experiencing.
Some questions that arise for me are:
Are self-organising teams and individual gig jobs reasonable options for majority sections of the world population? Or are their populations that will lose out from these trends?
Do we want to atomise work so far that individual workers operate completely outside a social, organisational and strategic context, driven only by metrics?
What other trends may collide with gig work, permissionless organisations and remote work to change the trajectory?