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The future of Working

© May 2009 Anthony Lawrence

The May 25th (2012) issue of Time Magazine arrived in my mailbox today and I was interested to see that the cover was dedicated to their feature article entitled "The Future of Work". I like Time because it generally represents a right-leaning, conservative viewpoint and I'm always interested in what people of that political bent are thinking (because I'm usually thinking quite the opposite).

Keeping its editorial bias in mind, I was a little surprised that Time actually seems to "get it". I rather expected them to stubbornly insist that traditional employee/employer relationships would remain much as they are now but in fact they presented a fairly thoughtful analysis of trends and recognize that freelancing and working at home will become more common in spite of conservative resistance.

On the other hand, I think they missed something important: there's a political backlash against free-wheeling capitalism and this may have influence on freelancers as well as traditional employees. If we manage to pass universal health insurance, no matter how screwed up it is it will make self employment easier for many people. On the other hand, laws designed to protect employees from corporate abuse may make freelancing more difficult - if the IRS and other laws force a company to view you as an employee in spite of your desire to be free, you may not be able to get work from that company.

Ethics was mentioned. Ethics was, of course, a large part of what caused our recent depression. Unbridled greed isn't ethical but it's hard to legislate greed out of a system that seems to champion behavior that exhibits just that. Time suggests that licensing managers much as we license doctors and lawyers is one answer, but that seems unlikely to me: we obviously still have ethics issues with licensed professionals. I personally lean toward punitive taxation, but very few agree with me on that.

Time also noticed the the entire concept of success is also changing. I've long been a proponent of that: to me, success is having free time to enjoy my life and while money is important, quality of life and overall happiness is much more so. Piling up cash while being miserably unhappy is not success; apparently more and more of us are recognizing that and some companies are responding by offering more flex time or shorter working hours instead of more traditional incentives.

Overall, Time did a good job and I recommend picking up that issue if you aren't a subscriber. In many ways, as depressing as the current work climate may be for many people, at the same time we have incredible opportunities that have never existed before. People talk about "re-inventing" themselves - it has never been more possible to do so than it is today. No, it's not necessarily easy, but technology has made these things POSSIBLE.

Personally, I'm a big fan of self employment. Again, that's easier today than it has ever been in the past and Time did recognize that entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly less difficult. It's really amazing what can be done today for very low startup costs. It's not just in the pure digital world; even things like printing custom fabric can be done now for a relatively small investment. I was also interested to read how little investment was needed for clay aerogel manufacturing. You can easily find many other examples of businesses that used to require large investments in manpower or equipment but now can be started on a shoestring and run by a very small number of people - sometimes just one!

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Mon May 18 19:12:11 2009: 6376   BrettLegree

I'll have to pick up the magazine and have a look (as my subscription ran out and I've not renewed yet).

My own ideas of success changed like this many years ago (probably right around the time we had children), and I recently had another reminder of this. My boss, who worked non-stop and talked about what he was going to do when he retired i.e. he didn't do much else but work, died suddenly.

The saddest thing (other than his death, of course) was how quickly some of the other management were chomping at the bit to see if they could "absorb" our workgroup, as there has been a hiring freeze for some time and everyone is looking for skilled staff.

Sad... I know more than ever that I will work for myself, the sooner, the better.

Mon May 18 20:37:20 2009: 6377   MikeHostetler

I lost faith early in working for someone else -- though I've never fully worked for myself. I saw early on that a company has very little loyalty to it's workers although they except utmost loyal from their workers. It's crazy.

On a related subject, I found about a book related to this subject that has just come out. From the first chapter, it looks quite good:
www.escapefromcubiclenation.com/ (link dead, sorry)

Mon May 18 23:35:11 2009: 6378   MartinMalden

Hi Tony,

I haven't read the Time article yet - I've only just read your post! - but just wanted to add my thoughts...

I used to be definitely 'right leaning'. I used to vehemently oppose punitive taxation. I still don't like the idea much and one of the reasons I live in Hong Kong is because of its low taxation. I used to be rabidly free market and scornful of the 'nanny state'.

But as I get older I've moved to the left. In fact I've probably crossed the line to left of center, which I thought was the opposite way that people moved as they got older!

Two events have pushed me in that direction: the telecom/internet melt down at the beginning of the century and the current financial melt down.

Both were caused by people in responsible positions taking leave of sense and sensibility, and an un-regulated environment.

And they caused misery to millions of people. Here I'm thinking more of people like those who lost their life savings in Enron, Worldcom and others, rather than those who lost their jobs (of which I was one).

The equivalent today are the dealers and suppliers to the US auto industry who find their businesses under threat because management in the big 3 failed to face problems that should have been addressed years ago.

The plus side, and one where I totally agree with you, is how easy it is to become self employed today. I'm an example.

I grew up on a farm in Africa, which probably accounted for my right leaning views. I then went and worked in the financial services industry and the telecom industry, but never in a technical role.

I was the guy on the end of the phone when people called to complain about their bills and I slowly rose through the ranks of people doing that kind of work.

About 3 years ago a friend introduced me to Google Adwords and Clickbank. And I proceeded to lose a lot of money.

But a little light came on in my mind so I took to learning as much as I could about the Internet and all that goes with it, to the point where I started offering to build websites for others.

Now, because of the economic situation, my employer has cut my time and salary by 30%, which I'm delighted about because it provides me with a great transition path to doing my web design business full time. (I'm the only person walking round the company at the moment with a big grin on my face)

Web design is a business that, 3 years ago, was the last thing I'd ever have thought of doing. In fact I didn't even know anything about it.

I still don't know a lot, by the way, but I make sure I know more than my customers do, and I'm learning as much and as fast as I can!

My point being to echo the comment you made about it being easier to go self employed now than it's ever been.

And the bit of me that resists punitive taxation is because I want to be able to get a real reward for the risk I take in doing so.

Although it could be argued that being self employed is more secure than being employed.

Cheers - and sorry to have rambled on a bit.


Tue May 19 00:57:06 2009: 6379   TonyLawrence

Nothing wrong with rambling on :-)

Forty years ago I never would have agreed with punitive taxes. Today I think they are absolutely the right thing to do. It doesn't mean that you can't reap the rewards of hard work - it just means that you have to share more of it.

Tue May 19 13:51:40 2009: 6382   AndrewSmallshaw

There are several points I could comment on length on here but if I did that you'd be left with a long, rambling and incoherent mess so I'll just address the tax issue here. I'm in the UK and the whole political spectrum is slightly to the left compared with the US, so while I'm right wing over here I'm a centrist in US terms.

Here in the UK taxes are higher than in the states - a LOT higher at around an additional 10% of GDP, but that is still quite low by European standards even after 12 years of Flash Gordon (Brown) economic policies. However, I don't really see that as a bad thing in and of itself. It is a question of what is done with the money.

The obvious difference is healthcare provision. Private health insurance exists but is a luxury - you don't need it and few have it. The National Health Service is comprehensive and covers most needs. Sure there are a few hiccups along the way (the availability of NHS dentists is one right now, but is not half as bad as the media makes out). Overall it is a good service and paid for out of general taxation. It is expensive but healthcare always is.

The US healthcare model on the other hand is an incredibly expensive way of doing things. You pay more for your healthcare as a proportion of GDP than we do and yet life expectancy is lower in the states. You have the freedom to choose between different providers but ultimately what choice is there? Is someone really going to say "oh yes, I really want dirt cheap and substandard healthcare", or is it merely that that is all they can afford? It is like schools - no parent wants to send their child to a bad school and so the good schools get massively oversubscribed. The result is no choice at all despite appearances to the contrary.

The thing is that when you factor together US tax rates and the cost of healthcare provision that must be provided separately you end up with an overall cost that is broadly comparable to British rates of tax. You have your healthcare provision but not the other services that higher tax rates provide - a decent welfare state for instance. I'm not going to pretend that poverty does not exist here in the UK but you see very little of the out-and-out destitution that you see in the states.

Ultimately you pay your money and you make your choice. Mindsets are different on either side of the Atlantic. In the US the focus is on personal responsibility whereas here in Britain it is more on the state providing for those who cannot provide for themselves. The American conservatives are right about one thing - government has no business interfering with people's lives more than needed, and all things being equal people should be left to themselves. However, when the state is uniquely placed to provide a better or cheaper service than anyone else, or indeed is the _only_ body that can provide a particular service, a dogmatic belief in rigid principles should not prevent the provision of that service.

Tue May 19 13:59:22 2009: 6383   TonyLawrence

I certainly agree with your point that the State is in a better position to provide health service, but I think it goes beyond that: I feel there is a moral obligation here. Access to health care shouldn't depend upon your ability to pay for it.


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