We have a changing work landscape and old certainties are vanishing. There are a number of trends and traditions that we as a society have noticed but currently do little to address. Freelancing or setting up our own small business, social enterprise or charity provides one way of meeting that challenge.
1. Job insecurity
When I left university in the early 90s I already knew I couldn’t expect a job for life. People spoke as if that was a bad thing, but I was fine with it. As it turns out not only have I regularly changed jobs (I’ve spent no more than 6 consecutive years with any organisation, although I have gone back to some of them) but I have lived in 4 countries and worked in three of them. That is the nature of our world now where you don’t have certainty but it is made up for by variety and a degree of flexibility.
Whilst we’ve accepted that very few people still have jobs for life, it feels like that trend is accelerating. I used to plan to stay with an employer for 5 years, many people don’t even have that luxury any more. More organisations, in order to deal with uncertainty and the need for flexibility, advertise short fixed term contracts for only one or two years. In addition more people are working on zero hour contracts. For some this is a benefit, for others a disaster as they struggle to pay the bills.
Once automation only affected people who did repetitive manual tasks like factory workers. But nowadays any repetitive task, including data crunching, is subject to automation. There are a number of white collar office jobs that can now be done by machines. It is estimated that nearly half our current jobs are at risk of automation.
Whilst specialisation greatly improves productivity for companies, it traps people in a very narrow field. Jobs are so narrowly defined and specialist that it can be difficult to move away from them. This applies to almost all jobs from a branding manager, brick layer, web developer to bookkeeper. So what happens if your narrow area of expertise gets automated? Suddenly you’re out of a job and the proud possessor of a skill nobody wants. Your two current options are to take early retirement, if that’s possible, or to retrain. Retraining is tough and you’ll find yourself back in the situation of new entrants to the job market, you’ll need two years experience before anyone will take you on.
4. We don’t plan for resilience
Resilience is that magical ability to bounce back when we hit a problem in life, but we don’t really plan for it in the working world. We have a society that has developed a very efficient factory model for training people for work. You get an education during which time you specialise, you pick a single career and plan to stay in that career for your whole life. But you aren’t prepared for the moment when everything changes and your job as a lawyer gets automated. If society planned for change you wouldn’t suddenly find yourself jobless with no saleable skills. Transferrable skills are great on paper but seldom impress in a CV, especially if you go after a job that’s already filled with career experts.
How can freelancing address this changing work landscape?
First realise the current status quo is new. We expect to get one job in a big organisation with a boss and stick to it. But before industrialisation most people worked for themselves and were flexible about what they took on, farmers helped build houses or went hunting whilst they waited for their crops to grow. So our past gives us an insight into what we could do instead.
We can take charge of our own destiny. We can work for ourselves and pick up a portfolio of things that we can market to others. Speak to any freelancer and chances are they have at least three different services they can provide. Frequently they are in widely diverse fields such as copywriting and gardening, coaching and photography or acting and teaching.
The solution to automation is to find work that is novel, with very little repetition and is therefore difficult to automate. Working in the environment sector is a good option as the job frequently involves a mix of outdoor work and research which would be hard to automate. Moving into a creative industry is also a good option as people will always value original art.
There are a number of ways to prepare, to build your skills and your resilience before crunch time comes. I will show you some of them in my next blog.