Just about 10,000 years ago, work started to fracture and specialize. Before that, before we became settled societies, most of our ancestors were subsistent workers – solo-preneurs tilling the land, looking for daily food requirements wherever they may have been.
Once society reached a certain size and level of sophistication something happened to how we worked and specialists were born. Blacksmiths, tailors, bankers, doctors and priests started to emerge supported by society’s ability to create a surplus – allowing them to provide their services in exchange for the fruits of others labour.
While things have become more complicated and the job arena more plentiful, this concept of the value of surplus has allowed specialization to flourish and the invention of the 9-5, 5 day a week society evolved. Generation after generation have grown up, gone to school, chosen a career path and entered the workforce.
As society evolved by growing roots, segmenting social classes and defining and defending borders, the work itself has become more sophisticated and wide ranging. However, the concepts haven’t been radically altered since the first kid decided their life’s passion was to become a Blacksmith.
The rise of the Free Agent
Author Daniel Pink noticed a hard trend in the way society was shifting their views on work and penned Free Agent Nation in late 2001. In it he describes the new landscape of work as the economic and social power moves from the organizations we once relied on to the individual. Pink’s assessment of our collective abilities goes beyond a traditional focus on single skill and even goes as far as calling it “Lego career” – all our skills and experiences in a form that can be assembled and reassembled to suit the situation the same way kids play with Lego.
The shift Pink talks about, away from “working for the man” to working for yourself – the global entrepreneurial movement we are seeing today – is in full flight brought on by technological advancement, prohibitive walls being brought down and a truly global ecosystem of ideas, talent and initiative.
One of the greatest enablers of this free agent nation is mobile. It is here that not only the way we work changes but the type of work, how we pay for it and the impact that has on our society and economy becomes apparent.
The New New Job
Work has grown up rigid. The process hasn’t changed even though the parameters have, even though humans have. It is a simple equation and societies depend on it for structure. Adding flexibility to work has been a challenge but we are slowly redefining the term “work” and the value of “job” and mobile is at the heart of this enablement.
Burstable Work – the always on worker
The medical profession is a prime example of early burstable work. Hand a doctor a pager and their lives are altered dramatically. They are able to wander, explore and live like never before while being connected to work, all as a result of a small mobile device.
Now take this concept to the rest of the population, starting with the underemployed and moving it gradually up the chain to the gainfully employed (today) and the professionals tomorrow. This shift, the ability to hand someone a device and let them find their work, is the first step in this mobilization of the workforce.
The shift is happening
There are companies, many of them, that are turning proximity-based tasks into income. TaskRabbit and Gigwalk are two and are on course to eat at the disruptive fringe of the way we currently work.
Clayton Christensen described the disruptive forces always at play in his seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. He described incumbents that allow upstarts to take the work that wasn’t as profitable or large or prestigious, seemingly allowing them to focus on the larger, more profitable work. Moving up market. The problem with that is the upstarts start moving up market as well, continuously offering the right amount of product for the right set of requirements. Pretty soon, the incumbent is dead – replaced by the upstart and the cycle begins again.
Work is being disrupted, we just aren’t seeing it yet from our vantage point behind the cubicle wall. With enabling technologies inherent in mobile, the way we find, source and pay for things to get done is about to put an end to the classic definition of work – and the paycheque.
The Future Work is mobile
One thing hasn’t changed – people congregate around where the work is. Cities grew because of the opportunities they provided. Today, with mobile, location is even more important but not why you think. Location is a niche in the future of work and could mean the distance between where you stand where you are going. A quick check of your phone could tell you if there is an opportunity to earn a few dollars on the way by doing a simple task. Complete it and get paid immediately.
The fringe of disruption
Our grandfathers probably sat at the same desk from age 18 through to retirement for 7.5 hours per day. When 5pm rolled around they may have put down their lead pencil – sometimes mid-paragraph – stood up and walked away from their desk only to not think about work again until 9am the next morning. At that point, they simply picked up their pencil and continued where they left off. That was their norm but only 2 generations removed that seems an alien landscape when it comes to work. The next generation will look at our processes – being paid every two weeks, not being paid full value, boring work, wasted meetings – and wonder what we were thinking.
This is changing quickly, enabled by mobile, based on location and proximity.