Thursday, December 11, 2008

I have been wondering lately whether the current recession might result in a giant leap forward in an evolution away from the traditional employer/employee relationship.

For years now, there have been more entrepreneurial businesses starting. In addition, there have been displaced workers who, by choice or by default, become independent contractors. Those two things were indisputably trends before this recession hit. But as we look at the massive numbers of traditional jobs that are beign eliminated, I can't help but suspect that we will never see similar numbers of traditional jobs created to replace them.

Maybe by the time my 15-year-old son is my age, going to work in an office or a factory or a lab where you have to clock in and out at the same time every day will be the exception rather than the rule. I could see the economy evolving to one where most people are free agents. Maybe we will all -- or at least most of us -- work in an environment where we go where the work is, when there's work to be done.

That would be especially new and challenging, I think, to those in the manufacturing sector. My husband's sister and her sons all work in factories, as did my oldest brother until his retirement. My observation of factory work traditionally has been a deal that said, more or less: "I will come in and do mind-numbing and physically difficult work that provides no inherent satisfaction. I will do that faithfully and in return, you will provide me a secure and predictable income." To go from that model to a free agency one looks like a loss to those employees. And maybe the evolution will be such that there remains a core team that is guaranteed stability in return for their stability. (After all, someone has to keep the place running.) But I see there being a large pool of workers who are called when there's work and not paid when there is not.

My personal experience is more in the corporate world. It's a little easier to imagine that world working on a freelance model. Again, you'd probably have a core of management that works its manic 60-hour weeks just like now, but a lot more of the employees would be free agents. They would be contracted to get things done, not to sit at desks or attend meetings. There would be a lot more flexibility about getting that work done wherever it makes the most sense. This is all easier for me to imagine because I think the corporate world has been moving in that direction already anyway. Many big corporations have embraced flex-time and alternate work environments and job-sharing and telecommuting, at least in certain situations. It's only a small leap to envision those things becoming the more dominant model.

Of course, for any of these things to be more than pie in the sky, there needs to be a solution to the problem of benefits. An awful lot of American workers work where they do in order to maintain major medical coverage, access to a pension plan or 401(k) plan, and some kind of income protection in case they become ill or disabled. In today's world, someone who is self-employed does without those protections, or purchases them at a high cost. That's why I think the current recession might help move us along this continuum: when you are talking about millions of Americans with these needs, there will be an incentive to come up with a solution.

Well, that's my deep thought for the day. We have a big family birthday party this weekend, so I'm off to shop for birthday presents.

1 comment:

Shannon said...

Great blog! To add another layer: I think the good thing the recession will do will be to remind us that poorly run companies fail! That's just what happens in capitalism! People keep saying this is proof that capitalism fails, but really capitalism works when a standard of excellence is maintained. Gosh, they said all these businesses would fail without being able to get short term bank loans---if my family can't get through the month without a loan, we are going to fail too!