The global polarization of work: what we can do about it


Today I gave the keynote at an invitation-only meeting of senior executives looking at the future of their industry. My role was to bring perspectives on the broader drivers of change in business.

One of the central themes of my keynote was the future of work and organizations. There are of course many facets to this, but one of the fundamentally important ones in considering the future of business and society is in how work is being polarized.

On the one hand, the elites who have outstanding talents or expertise, combined with the ability to collaborate effectively, have extraordinary choices. They can choose the employers who give them the most flexibility, the highest pay, or the greatest work satisfaction, depending on their priorities. They can work freelance for companies anywhere in the world, usually working from the comfort of their own home or local co-working space. They can live and work pretty much wherever they want in the world. As connectivity reaches deeper and broader into developing countries, a far broader pool of talented people can reasonably aspire to this lifestyle.

On the other hand, many, many people in countries rich and poor are finding that their skills are commodities, and that employers feel that they can readily replace them. The alternative labor can be local, or increasingly sourced from anywhere around the world, sometimes from countries or regions where there are different ideas about what constitutes decent pay. Legislation and social pressure will mitigate against this flow, but the reality is that work that is truly commoditized will experience enormous wage pressure.

Last week’s cover story in The Economist titled My big fat career delves into these issues, drawing particularly on Lynda Gratton’s new book, The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here.

As Gratton points out, we must take responsibility for our careers, not least by understanding the reality of these shifts, and responding through learning and positioning ourselves effectively.

“The pleasures of the traditional working role were the certainty of a parent-child relationship. You could leave it in the hands of the corporation to make the big decisions about your working life,” Ms Gratton explains. Now the world is moving towards an “adult-adult” relationship, which will require “each one of us to take a more thoughtful, determined and energetic approach to exercising the choices available to us”.

It is also important for us to provide structures to avoid the fullest extent of the polarization of work, particularly through giving opportunities for ongoing adult education.

A key structural issue is how people who are working outside traditional employment can be protected.

America’s Freelancers Union has also been growing rapidly. Set up in 1995, it now has 150,000 members and expects to add a further 100,000 in the next 18 months. It is very different from a traditional trade union in that it does not engage in collective bargaining with its members’ widely dispersed employers. Instead, it uses its members’ combined buying muscle to negotiate better terms for things like health care and pensions. It also runs fitness centres. In Britain, the Professional Contractors Group does something similar. ODesk has also negotiated benefits packages for contractors using its site.

This may be the start of a “new mutualism movement” that will be very different from traditional trade unionism, says Sara Horowitz, the Freelancers Union’s founder. “If work is going to be more gig-like and short-term, the supportive safety-net institutions will need to be much more about enabling flexibility in the workforce.” This new movement will bring together mutual organisations, co-operatives, friendly societies and social-enterprise start-ups to build a “marketbased safety net” and exercise political influence to get better protection for members. It will get its power from information and aggregation. For example, the Freelancers Union is currently developing a “crowdsourced” system for rating employers on how promptly they pay contractors.

The forces that are leading to the polarization of work are immensely powerful, which could lead to massive social disruption on national and global levels. One of the highest priorities for governments, organizations, and individuals is to do what we mitigate these trends. Let’s work out what we can do.