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A Nation of Owners

An adaptation from the author's book, 'Jobshift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs.'

We are in the midst of the single biggest change in the nature of work since the dawning of the industrial age 200 years ago. In the 21st century the most important small-business enterprise will be you

Something dramatic is going on in America. We are witnessing the disappearance of jobs. It is not just particular jobs in certain industries that are disappearing but the very thing itself, "the job," that is vanishing today.

A century from now, Americans will marvel that we couldn't see more clearly what was happening. They will remark how fixated we were on the continuing rounds of layoffs, the growing use of temps, and the prevalence of outsourcing. Those, they will say, were the symptoms, not the underlying condition. The more fundamental issue, they will understand, is that the job was simply no longer a good way to get work done. It was a historical artifact, a product of the Industrial Revolution. And with the advent of the information age, it began to disappear like some creature whose environment has been destroyed.

During the 1980s economists and labor experts kept telling us that the generation after the baby boomers was smaller and that there were going to be labor shortages in the 1990s. It was a reassuring message, since the big post-World War II generation had clogged the career channels in many organizations. So it came as a relief to hear that better times were ahead. But -- surprise! It hasn't worked out that way.

A different kind of statistic began to receive attention during the late '80s and the early '90s. It measured not the number of people who were out of work but the number of jobs that those out-of-work people would never be able to find because those jobs had disappeared from the economic landscape. In the summer of '93 the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the ratio of permanently terminated workers to temporarily laid-off workers was 4 to 1, whereas at the recession bottom in 1975 it had been 1.5 to 1, and at the bottom in 1982 it had been 2 to 1. The message was clear: jobs are going away, not just until times improve, but for good.

Whether we want it or not, change is coming. And it can bring not only difficulties but opportunities to people who know how to turn change to their advantage. Further, such change can revive the distinctively American values of both self-reliance and individualism. Even if you and your business are not innovation-minded right now, you will need to deal with that change soon, for it is one of those shifts in the socioeconomic environment guaranteed to render obsolete the people and institutions that deny it.

The change I am describing -- let's call it "dejobbing" -- has already happened. Intel, Microsoft, Sun Microsystem, Apple Computer, and hundreds of fast-moving, fast-growing companies have already left jobs behind.

How should businesses respond to those new realities? One answer is to educate workers about the outcomes that the organization is trying to achieve and show them where their "piece of the work" fits into the larger pattern. But such efforts are maddeningly slow, and the results are often disappointing. We say that the workers "just don't get it" and are "concerned only with themselves." But a better answer is to address head-on the issue of people holding on to their jobs. What we fail to see is that we are encouraging those limited outlooks by keeping people in jobs, organizing them into clusters of jobs, evaluating them as to how well they do their jobs, and paying them according to a job-based pay system.

Some organizations, large and small, do indeed do what they do without conventional jobs. Consider this explanation by a manager at Apple Computer to Rosabeth Moss Kanter of how his "job" was defined:

"In my position the nature of the duties can change a lot depending on the expertise and interest of the individual.

"For example, if I were really anxious to travel and instruct, I could look around for some topics that aren't well documented, make myself an expert on those topics, and tell management that someone needed to go out and teach a course on them. In general, there's more work to do than people to do it, so you look at your position and you say, There are lots of things that would be appropriate for me to do. If I have a conscience, I'll do what needs to be done. If I'm selfish, I'll do what I want to do.

"So there is a lot of flexibility."

That's not what we used to mean by a "job description."

The job is vanishing, not because some theorist recommended we abandon it, but because jobs inhibit the flexibility and responsiveness that are the do-or-die of today's organization. Throughout today's work world, we are witnessing a search for speed: faster product development, faster production, faster delivery, faster information processing, faster service, and faster implementation of everything needed to keep up with the changes in the marketplace. We are seeing a switch to a fast-break, no-huddle style of doing business. And jobs are disappearing as a result.

Jobs (and the "job-mindedness" that they create) make it difficult for any organization in any rapidly changing industry to respond quickly to its market. At CondÉ Nast Publications, former executive VÉronique Vienne complained that "employees who try to keep a tight hold on their jobs miss the point and fail to comprehend why they were hired in the first place: to contribute to the mo-lecular activity at the magazine." The variable is not the size of the organization or the economic sector it operates in. The variable is how rapidly the environment forces the organization to change how it works.

If ours were simply the recession-driven crimp in the job market that many people have tried to say it is, displaced workers could just look for another job. But today's transformation is far more profound. It is so great that you would have to go back more than two centuries to the coming of industrialism to find a comparable change. During that earlier period work was packaged into "jobs" to fit the demands of a new kind of workplace, and the numbers of those jobs grew along with the appearance of factories and bureaucracies. In our own time those big workplaces are shrinking and being automated, and work is once again being repackaged to meet new economic realities.

In start-up companies "job-less" employment is commonplace. If you ask for an explanation, people in such a company say, "We aren't big enough to have job descriptions yet. People just do whatever needs doing." But when start-ups are successful, they grow. When they grow, the jobs begin to firm up. When that happens, people start to say, "That isn't my job!" when they are faced with something that needs doing. Or they keep doing something that no longer makes sense and (when challenged) say, "I'm just doing my job!" In both cases they are illustrating the way "doing your job" can become dysfunctional in a company that is changing.

Or new problems arise, which don't fall within the boundaries of anyone's job. So a new job is created and a new person hired.

Or the growing company discovers that its old structure is inadequate to the situation it faces. So it reorganizes -- and people fight the reorganization because it threatens their jobs.

To make tomorrow's company work in the long run, people are going to have to let go of the job. That is the single biggest shift in the nature of work in the past 200 years. It means that the old rules are gone. Finished. Disappeared. Left no forwarding address.

Some of the new rules have been slowly coming into focus. These are how they look:

Everyone is a contingent worker -- not just the part-time and contract workers. Everyone's employment is contingent on the results that the organization can achieve.

Recognizing the turbulence in the business environment, workers need to regard themselves as people whose value to the organization must be demonstrated in each successive situation they find themselves in.

In light of their contingency, workers need to develop a mind-set, an approach to their work, and a way of managing their own careers that are more like that of an external vendor than that of a traditional employee.

Workers will be wise to think that they are "in business for themselves" and that their tasks have, in effect, been outsourced to them by the organization. They will go beyond the "company of owners" concept to seeing themselves as the owner of "You & Co.," a microbusiness and company of one. You & Co. is, in fact, the 21st century's most important small-business enterprise.

The wise company will work with those microbusiness people collaboratively to make the relationship as beneficial to them as possible. The benefits of that new work arrangement, however, will differ from the old ones. Rather than being add-ons like sick leave, pensions, and health care, they will likely inhere in the nature of the work itself.

Workers must act like people in business for themselves by maintaining a plan for career-long self-development, by taking primary responsibility for investing in health insurance and retirement funds, and by renegotiating their compensation arrangements with the organization when and if organizational needs change.

Because more and more of the organization's efforts are likely to be undertaken by project teams made up of individuals from different functional backgrounds, workers must be able to switch rapidly from one task to another, to work with people with very different vocational training and mind-sets, to work in situations in which the group is the responsible party and the manager only a coordinator, to work without clear job descriptions, and to work on several projects at the same time.

Just as workers must be prepared to shift from project to project within the same organization, they should expect to move more frequently from one organization to another. Long-term employment with one organization is, for most workers, a thing of the past. The organization will try to minimize those moves, recognizing that they are disruptive to the effectiveness of both the organization and the worker. But both parties will have to make their long-term plans with the likelihood of such moves in mind.

The new rules spell the end of jobs as we have known them. They define an approach to work and career path that few of today's employees understand. Unless we can begin soon to reeducate our work force, we are in for decades of economic chaos that will damage our organizations and devastate several generations of workers.

Although it is ultimately up to individuals to manage their own transitions from the old rules to the new, the government and organizations themselves also need to play a part.

The government needs to recognize the link between dejobbing and increasing productivity and to develop programs to help people learn to work under the new conditions. It may be, in fact, that the most important new mission that the Small Business Administration could assume would be to educate individual workers in the skills needed to manage their microbusinesses.

Recognizing that those are new and difficult demands, the organization will do its part in providing the information, the training, and the counsel to people who are making the difficult transition from the old rules to the new ones. Companies that refuse to help with the transition, on the grounds that workers are transitory, are missing the point. It is only the company that can enhance the effectiveness of those transitory assemblages of talent -- that treat them like a joint venture, if you will -- that can prosper in this time of constant change. It is in every organization's best interests to make sure that its workers can play by the new rules.

The organization cannot afford to wait until individual workers see the handwriting on the wall. You may not notice the change in the rules until you leave your present situation, for until then your assumptions and expectations may be protected by the refusal of everyone around you to deal with the new realities. Such a situation recalls the story of Balmung, the magic sword belonging to the Germanic hero Siegfried. Balmung was so sharp that it could slice an armored warrior in two, from the top of his helmet to the soles of his iron boots. But the cut was so fine that the wounded man could not even feel it. Until he moved. And then he fell into two pieces. Today's jobholders may likewise feel nothing has happened. But just wait until they leave their jobs!

* * *

Adapted from JobShift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs, by William Bridges. ©1994 by William Bridges and Associates Inc. By permission of Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

Last updated: May 15, 1995

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