A silver lining to be found in this pandemic is that it has forced many issues and societal short-comings to the surface in such an abrupt manner that it has spared us our otherwise likely fate: the American worker being the proverbial frog in the pot as the water increasingly gets warmer and warmer. But now we’re faced with the question, “Is it better to be slowly brought to a boil or to be pulled out of the frying pan, only to be thrown into the fire?”
We were (are) going to have mass unemployment in the not-so-distant future regardless of a global pandemic, due to the increasing demands of a global marketplace and the disruption it will inevitably bring. Automation and innovation will eliminate many of our current jobs, all in the name of increased efficiency. Like the old adage goes, “Markets say, corporations do. Humans screwed.” It’s like reality just performed a bad impression of Ozzy Osbourne by biting the head off of a bat, slapping us in the face and forcing us to look at ourselves directly in the mirror, made tasteless “your momma” jokes at our expense, and labeled many of us as “non-essential.” As if we needed a global pandemic to remind us that our work was non-essential.
I’ve heard it said that COVID-19 will cause 10 years worth of change in 10 weeks (Credit for this phrase to Andrew Yang, Prior 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidate). That’s the most accurate summation I’ve heard regarding what I see happening. Our reality is transforming in front of us. What we’re seeing is proof that the shared fiction we’ve all subscribed to is, in fact, more malleable and more fragile than we wanted to believe. The markets will be fine without our labor. In fact, they’ll grow faster as productivity without the cost of labor will raise GDP. In Darwinian logic, there’s simply no way that strategy doesn’t win out. The future of work is going to look vastly different than what we were accustomed to during even the most advanced stages of the industrial revolution. And it’s happening fast.
Employer-employee relationships, and everything that they have come to entail such as health insurance, retirement and pensions, labor laws, and worker protections, etc., were put in place in our nation over decades-long battles and hardships during the industrial revolution throughout the 1900s. Tomorrow’s (now today’s) arrangement(s) for performing work will evolve in response to a technological revolution that encounters competition on a global scale. Not exactly a tit-for-tat comparison. What we’ve fought so hard for and been accustomed to in the last few decades is not sustainable — even though we’ve tried to hold on to it. What’s coming is inevitable — even though we haven’t done enough to prepare for it. COVID-19 has become the very vehicle to definitively, if not forcibly, usher in this change. It was the final blow to our archaic, industrial traditions. It will serve as the palpable hinge point between the industrial revolution and the technological revolution.
We’ve long known that disruption lay on the horizon and that the way we perform work in our nation is changing. We know our jobs will be automated away and that robots lie in wait. Remote work has been a growing trend since the advent of the personal computer in the 1970s. More and more the type of work being created in our economy is being performed outside of a brick-and-mortar site and outside of the confines of direct employment (the implications this will have on real estate is a different conversation). Companies have been shifting towards a distributed workforce model to leverage ad hoc global talent sources for decades.
Another transformation is going to take place during all of this that we need to understand. The extinction of employers. At least, as we have come to know them. Employers with a robust workforce move too slow to survive in a Darwinian, global marketplace. Size is a liability. Mammoth employers, whose responsibility it has become to care for thousands of employees and their families well-being, have been hunted to extinction by small, efficiently organized tech-tribes from Silicone Valley. And where there is a hole in the food chain, be sure nature will fill it in. Exit stage left: employers. Enter: companies. And companies have commitment issues. Commitments are costly. And companies know that shareholders and markets alike are cost-averse. So, the question for our post-coronavirus world is, “Where will we find our work if not from employers?” And a separate yet eerily relevant question is, “How will we earn our income, if not from our employer?” I want to end this piece with a bold prediction: the death of the employer makes way for the unimpeded growth of the corporation.