The reality is that what is disappearing today is not just a certain number of jobs, or jobs in certain industries or in one country - or even jobs in the developed world as a whole. What is disappearing is the very thing itself: the job.
THE JOB is a social artefact, although it is so deeply embedded in our consciousness that most of us have forgotten its artificiality or the fact that most societies since the beginning of time have done fine without jobs. In the pre-industrial past, people worked very hard, but they did not have jobs to frame and contain their activities. Then jobs became not only common but important; they were nothing less than the only widely- available path to security and success. Now they are disappearing.
Like some species caught in the flow and ebb of evolution, jobs emerged under one set of conditions and now begin to vanish under another. It is hard for us to see these changes clearly, for we are too close to them. It's not that everyone has a good jobor that in hard times everyone can get one, but that for most people, earning a living means having a job. Parents tell their kids to "get a job" in the summer. Then they tell them how important it is to have "a good job" before you start a family. A good job makes you somebody.
But jobs are not a part of nature. Nothing makes this clearer than the changing meaning of the word itself. Originally, it meant "a small compact portion of some substance; a piece, lump, a mouthful". Then it expanded its meaning to include larger portions - such as piles of hay or farmyard muck. In the 17th century the meaning shifted from the pile to the act of transporting it in a cart. And from there it was only a short step to using "job" to refer to any task which was a single piece of work. (We still use the word that way when we speak of "a job well done" or when we say "I have a couple of jobs to do around the house.")
In the world before the 19th century, then, people did not "have" jobs; they "did" jobs. Their jobs were not provided by an organisation, but by the demands of their life situation, the requirements of an employer, and the things that needed to be done in that time and place.
WHEN change came it was gradual, happening faster in some places than others. In England it started around 1780. As the common lands on which people had kept gardens or grazed sheep were enclosed by their nominal owners, and as work in the new factories provided an alternative to household work, more and more people left the old-style job-work and did something radically different: they got a job in the new meaning of that word.
People were traumatised. The old way of life had had a stability that was very hard to give up. For a tumultuous half-century, between 1780 and 1830, the old rules and the new rules overlapped. Working for wages was a precarious existence, and it createdin the cities a kind of poverty that had never been known in the village. There were riots, arson, and killings. On the other side, the authorities handed out harsh punishments.
In this period Blake wrote of "dark satanic mills". Dickens portrayed a long line of harsh and heartless employers who cared more for the job than the person who filled it. Wordsworth wrote that "getting and spending, we lay waste our powers". Carlyle cried out that "men are grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand".
Almost everyone felt distress. The partisans of the factory were embittered by the refusal of people to see that industrial goods could now be made available to all; England could take the lead in international commerce and wealth would cascade down and give everyone a better life.
The partisans of the village were embittered by what they saw as the destruction of England. The world of jobs was destroying old relationships, making obsolete the traditional crafts that produced all the household objects that everyone knew and undermining the time-honoured ways of interweaving home life and work life.
Each side had an important half-truth in hand. It was a threshold in history and societies that succeeded in crossing into the machine age would have an enormous advantage over those that did not. In time the new wealth would bring comforts and little luxuries to almost everyone. At the same time, society was being dragged into a vaguely-understood future at enormous cost.
Even those who made the transition more or less successfully had a terrible time. It is difficult for us to appreciate how different "holding a job" was for village-born people. They could no longer move about among a variety of tasks on a schedule set by sunlight, weather and season. The demands of work in the factory never varied. From dawn to dark, and much longer in the winter months, people worked in one place, doing one thing. That was their job, and the word changed its meaning to reflect that new reality.
It was hard to learn the new rules. At the time, many did not believe that ordinary people could ever make the change because, as the historian E P Thompson has written, it "entailed a severe restructuring of working habits - new disciplines, new incentives, and a new human nature upon which these incentives could bite effectively".
Take wages. People had always provided as much of their own food and clothing as they could and worked at old-style jobs for money to meet extra needs. Once those needs were met, pre-industrial people slipped back into subsistence. The idea of working constantly for wages and then using that money to buy everything one needed; and the idea of continuing to work to accumulate savings that could be used to buy a house, start a business, or provide for one's old age - these were totally new concepts. "There was more to overcome," wrote the historian Sidney Pollard, "than the change of employment or the new rhythm of work; there was a whole new culture to be absorbed and an old one to be traduced and spurned."
Now, once again, we have come to a turning point at which the assumptions about living and working that people had grown comfortable with are being challenged. And once again we are polarising, this time between those who are dazzled by the promise of the electronic age and impatient with people who have misgivings about change, and those who are alarmed by the growing gap between haves and have-nots and the impact we are having on the environment.
Once again, each side is articulating a half-truth. These changes are coming, whether we want them or not, and they do offer real opportunities. Equally, they undermine something on which most people have built their sense of security, and they take awaymany people's identity. When people lose such things, they easily lose hope. It is not enough to let the market take care of the problem, for there is simply too much "social breakage" in such a policy.
So what do people do without jobs? Some possibilities are obvious: you can start a business of your own; you can become an artist; you can become a consultant; you can do freelance work, or part-time work, or piecework in your home. Under the pressure ofthe dejobbing in our organisations, more people than ever before are doing all of these things. But there is another answer. You can do what more and more people are doing: working within organisations as full-time employees, but under arrangements too fluid and idiosyncratic to be called jobs.
"You won't last at Microsoft if your job is just a job." That is how Teresa Stowell, a software design engineer, describes what it is like to work at the Seattle software powerhouse. To begin with, people work any time and all the time, with no one keeping track of their hours, but with everyone watching their output. They are accountable not to conventional managers but to the project teams of which they are a part. Those teams, in turn, are likely to be sub-sets of some larger group, and in a very bigproject, such as the development of the Windows operating system for PCs, there may be many project-within-larger-project groupings.
Within each team, individuals are always given a little more than they can accomplish on their own, so there is constant collaboration among team members. New employees, given important responsibilities from day one, are assigned a "buddy/mentor" to helpthem learn the ropes. In the words of one reporter who interviewed people throughout the company, Microsoft "trusts them to do what they already know how to do, turns them loose to solve problems and helps them when they get stuck".
Workers make regular reports to their team on how their work is going. According to Tom Corbett, a software developer: "It doesn't take long to straighten out a team member who is not pulling his weight. The next team meeting, in which a developer standsbefore the group to explain what he has contributed to the project lately, becomes a strong incentive to have the work done, and done right."
When a project ends, Microsoft employees move on to a new one, taking with them the reputation they earned at the last project. There are no standard career routes; in the words of human resources manager Mike Canizales: "If people want to change functions or they want to go get different experiences, that's not frowned on at all. There's a lot of movement internally and laterally . . . Employees drive their own development, and we need to design all of our management and our training programmes to support, augment and facilitate that development."
There is another side to this. The dejobbed system lacks the normal "edges" that tell workers when they have done a normal, satisfactory job. Since they are expected to do anything necessary to accomplish the expected results, they are no longer protected by the boundaries of a job. The words "normal" and "satisfactory" become synonyms for "substandard". Microsoft employees, like those at many other dejobbed companies, are expected to work beyond the limits that any job could set.
Many projects include periods of round-the-clock work. Microsoft's recently-released Windows NT program is a case in point. Two hundred code writers, broken down into teams, entered the project as if it were some underground cavern. That is, they disappeared. Driven by David Cutler, the Windows NT leader who, in the words of a Wall Street Journal writer, "shares some character traits with Captains Ahab and Bligh", they worked hard and struggled with one another constantly. Towards the end, as they pushed to have a finished "kit" ready for a software developers' conference, the project turned into what some of them called The Death March.
"The workload increased, the briefings and builds [progressively more complete integrations of the various program pieces] were extended to Saturdays and Sundays, dinners were brought in, and a fair number began sleeping at work." One programmer's marriage broke up. Another programmer's son told him as he dropped the little boy off at a soccer game on his way to work on a Saturday morning: "I would throw away all my toys if you would be here after the game." (He decided to skip work that day.) A few just quit.
But the kit was delivered on time. In the words of a developer who attended the conference: "It was a turning point. It moved NT from being all talk to being a viable product." Was it worth it? The workers are divided in their feelings. Many eagerly anticipate working on the next version of NT, while others, as one programmer put it, are "angry, tired and burned-out".
The same freedom from job limits that unleashes enormous effort also encourages people to over-extend themselves. John Sculley, former chief executive of the computer firm Apple, once estimated that a third of the people on a new-product development teamleft the company for six months or more after the product had been launched. Most of them eventually returned.
This pattern recalls E P Thompson's description of work patterns among English artisans who had not yet given in to the demands of an industrial job: "alternate bouts of intense labour and of idleness".
There are plenty of other examples of dejobbed organisations. IDEO Product Develop- ment of Palo Alto, California, is the largest industrial design firm in the US. Inc. magazine has reported: "At IDEO, no one has a title, or a boss, for that matter. Designers form teams around specific projects; each of those teams has a leader whose authority lasts only as long as the project, so today's manager may be tomorrow's subordinate."
At the advertising firm Chiat & Day, account executive Sean Hardwick said, "I've been here two years and I've never seen a job description." Lori Sweningson, chief executive of Minneapolis-based Boss Software, says: "I think of the company as a volleyball team. It takes three hits to get the ball over the net, and it doesn't matter who hits it."
At Intel Corporation, Marile Robinson, the redeployment manager, says: "We no longer look at a job as a function or a certain kind of work. Instead, we see it as a set of skills and competencies." In many parts of Hewlett-Packard, managers are using "ranking" as a way of evaluating people. To do this, they take everyone in a particular group and put them into a numbered list according to their "value" to the group. Such a value cuts across all job categories.
Each of these approaches has its pitfalls, and no one feels very confident about having found the answer. But the significance of these examples is that people are searching for alternatives to jobs and job descriptions.
A senior executive from a large Canadian corporation described the way in which what used to be different jobs are blending together. "Secretaries are becoming managers and many managers are becoming secretaries. As the new technology is introduced, conventional roles, patterns of deci- sion-making, and general relations change." Under such conditions what used to be fixed jobs become flexible roles, which cannot be described in terms of "duties", but only by relationships to other parts of the system (which are likely to change).
JOBS, and the "job-mindedness" that they create, make it difficult for any organisation to respond quickly to a rapidly changing market. At Conde Nast Publications, former executive Veronique Vienne complained that "employees who try to keep a tight holdon their job miss the point and fail to comprehend the reason why they were hired in the first place: to contribute to the molecular activity at the magazine . . . "
Let us give this attitude a name. Let's call it the TIM-J syndrome: "That Isn't My job. It's his or hers or I-don't-know whose, but it's not my job!"
David Glines, head of employee development at San Diego Zoo, tells a story that illustrates the point. Glines had started working at the zoo as a groundsman. His job was to keep the zoo's paths and public areas free of litter. When there was a lot to do or when he was tired, "sometimes I'd sweep a cigarette butt under a bush. Then it was the gardener's problem, not mine." In a job-based organisation, work doesn't get done. It gets passed around.
When Robert Frey, chief executive of Cin-Made, a manufacturer of specialised cans and containers, was trying to turn the company around, he encountered the same attitude. "I made people meet with me, then instead of telling them what to do, I asked them.They resisted.
`How can we cut the waste on this run?' I'd say. `That's not my job,' they'd say.
`Why not?' I'd say.
`Well, it just isn't,' they'd say.
`But I need your input,' I'd say. `How in the world can we have participative management if you won't participate?'
`I don't know,' they'd say. `Because that's not my job either. That's your job.' "
Where the business of an organisation is all parcelled out into jobs, it isn't going to be easy to change how it is done or to get it done faster. So what should be done? The common answer - which is good, as far as it goes - is to educate people about what the organisation is trying to achieve and show them where their work fits in. But such efforts are maddeningly slow, and the results are often disappointing. We say that the workers "just don't get it" and are "only concerned with themselves".
What we fail to see is that we are encouraging this outlook by keeping them in jobs, organising them in clusters of jobs, evaluating them by how well they do their jobs, and paying them according to job-based pay systems.
WE ARE much farther down the path towards the dejobbed organisation than most people think. Already people are starting to go back to the old meaning of the word job, talking about the "jobs" they have to get done today at the factory or the "job" they promised to do for a colleague at the office. At the Danish firm Oticon, a very successful hearing-aid manufacturer, an employee reported that she "used to say I was a secretary, but now I suppose I'm more like an `octopus'. [This is a slang term in Danish for somebody who does a little of this and a little of that.] I take care of more things . . . Now I work for a project leader in the legal department, for example. That can be exciting. I do investigative jobs for him, not just typing. [He and other project leaders] tell me when they need the job done and I tell them whether I can manage it. It's my obligation to keep the jobs organised, and get done what I promised on time." We're back to doing jobs, not having them. Or rather, not back but forward.
Such an organisation operates according to wholly new rules. Yesterday's organisations, built on jobs, located the employee at a particular level of a vertical hierarchy, responsible to the person above and responsible for the people below. It located the employee horizontally, as well, in a department or unit that was responsible for some particular kind of work, for example, engineering, accounting or sales. It gave each employee a well-defined area of responsibility, which was formalised in a job description. It laid out before ambitious employees career paths upward through the company hierarchy and salary structures.The intersection of the vertical and horizontal axes, bounded by the job description, was the employee's place in the organisation:his or her job. If you did this well, you could look forward to promotion and a long career.
Those old rules are gone. Although organisations are remarkably uncomfortable in articulating them, new rules are slowly coming into focus, and the sooner today's workers understand them, the better off they will be. The new rules are these: l Everyone is a contingent worker, not just the part-time and contract workers. Everyone's employment, that is, is contingent on the results that the organisation can achieve.
l Workers need to regard themselves as people whose value to the organisation must be demonstrated in each successive situation they find themselves in.
l Workers need to develop an approach to their work and a way of managing their own careers that is more like that of an external supplier than that of a traditional employee.
l The wise company will work with these new-style workers collaboratively to make the relationship as beneficial to them as possible, but the benefits of this new work arrangement will be different from the old ones. They will probably lie in the nature of the work itself rather than being add-ons such as sick leave, pensions and health care.
l Workers must act like people in business for themselves, by maintaining a plan for career-long self-development, by taking primary responsibility for health insurance and retirement funds, and by renegotiating their compensation arrangements with the organisation when and if organisational needs change.
l Because more and more of the organisation's efforts are likely to be undertaken by project teams made up of individuals from different backgrounds, workers must be able to switch their focus rapidly from one task to another, to work with people with very different training and mindsets, to work in situations where the group is the responsible party and the manager is only a co-ordinator, to work without clear job descriptions, and to work on several projects at the same time.
l Just as workers will need to be ready to shift from project to project within the same organisation, they should expect that much more frequently than in the past they will have to move from one organisation to another. Long-term employment is, for most workers, a thing of the past. The organisation will try to minimise these shifts, recognising that they are difficult and disruptive to the effectiveness of both the organisation and the worker. But both parties will have to make their long-term plans with the likelihood of such shifts in mind.
These new rules are still evolving and are becoming operative in some parts of the economy more quickly than in others. Nowhere would there be complete agreement with them as stated here, but everywhere companies are either openly or covertly moving toward them.
There is, in fact, considerable nervousness about saying these things in so many words. The human resources staff at one successful Silicon Valley company wrote out a draft version of the new employment conditions and one member of the group started circulating it among senior managers with a request for their comments. The human resources vice president was immediately called by another vice president, who said: "Don't let that paper get into circulation!" He went on to say that such a statement would "give people ideas" and that it would make employment at the company seem "insecure'' (my, my!). Besides, since Company X (their major competitor) did not talk about employment this way, people might jump ship, thinking that jobs at Company X were more secure.
If articulating the new realities can still be controversial in high-tech companies, it is completely unacceptable in slower-moving industries, in the traditional professions and in government service. But even in here we see layoffs, early retirements and reorganisations that lead to de facto demotions, cancellations or trimming of benefit packages and forced relocations. All of these actions say clearly that the rules have changed.
THESE new rules spell the end of jobs as we have known them. They define an approach to work and a career path that few of today's employees understand. Unless we can begin soon to re-educate our workforces in these new expectations and the economic realities that have shaped them, we are in for decades of economic chaos that will damage our organisations and devastate several generations of workers. Without such re-education, our workers will be like the 18th-century British redcoats who marched into battle shoulder to shoulder in the traditional way, only to get mowed down by fighters from the New World, who operated singly and in little teams, moving quickly from place to place, using the terrain to their advantage, and operating under new rules.
Armies, it has been said, are always trying to fight the last war, not the present one. Non-military organisations, too, are essentially conservative. And the more successful they have been in the past, the more difficult it is for them to pick up the clues that signal a sea change in how work is going to be done in the future. It was so in the 19th century, when industrialism transformed work into jobs. It is so today, when jobs are being transformed into something else.
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. This brings to mind the story of Balmung, the magic sword of the Germanic hero Siegfried. Balmung was so sharp that it could slice an armoured 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 feet it. Until he moved. And then he fell into two pieces. Today's job-holders may likewise feel that nothing has happened. But just wait until they leave their jobs.
`Jobshift: How to Prosper in a Workplace without Jobs', by William Bridges, is published by Nicholas Brealey on 2 March, price £16.99.Reuse content