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The 21st Century Worker

24 August 2009 14 Comments

The liberal segment of society, specifically the pro-union segment of society looks at the decade of the 1950’s as the dream decade of the American economy. Their goal is to pursue policy to get back to this age. Job security was abundant, America was growing, the lower & middle classes were having their standard of living improved and the gap between the rich and the poor was decreasing. Yes, this was a good time. Even being a conservative, I see why people view this as a great time in America.

There’s just one problem, there are no set of policies or legislation to be enacted that can bring us back to that economic reality. Today, we are in a global economy, competing with everyone around the world. An American company with a unionized work force must innovate and sell a product cheaper than competitors on the other side of the globe; otherwise, that company goes down. For an example, see General Motors.

Today’s Worker

Today’s worker looks very different than that good ole day of American labor. Unions are much weaker than back then. One only has to look at Union membership numbers to see the lessened influence and power from today’s Unions. Pensions have been all but done away with.

Furthermore, individuals work for many different companies over the course of a career. My grandfather worked for a single company his entire life. There is a good chance that 20-somethings like myself will work for many companies by the time they hit 30. I’ve worked for 2 companies before my 25th birthday.

Looking Ahead To The 21st Century Worker

Will this trend continue? I believe it will for the following reasons:

  • Global competition is intensifying and will continue to intensify as countries like China, India, Brazil, Russia, Eastern Europe, even African countries continue to grow and have more and more cheap labor
  • American economic growth is likely to be anemic at best over the coming years. Companies, fearful of increasing costs, will not invest in the same way with their labor (especially when it comes to benefits and long term job security)
  • Outsourcing and technology that enables global communication is making it more and more easy to manage cheaper labor abroad, removing the need for workers here in America

If the trend continues, as I believe it will, what will the American (or the global) worker look like? Let’s look at the characteristics of the 21st Century Worker:

  • While the 1950’s Worker worked at a single company his whole career, the 21st Century Worker will work for many companies throughout his career.
  • While the 1950’s Worker had a narrow skill set and performed a single task or similar tasks his entire career, the 21st Century Worker has a wide range of skills and performs a wide range of duties.
  • In the 1950’s, job security was assured and looked upon as the most important thing in a career. Today and tomorrow, job security is not guaranteed, nor is it expected.

Interestingly, as the trend continues moving toward the 21st Century Worker as identified in the table above, there are additional ramifications that we will see in the economy.

I believe one of these ramifications could be the large increase in contractor work vs full time worker. Contractors are paid by the job and are a way for employers to not take on benefit costs or a long term commitment. With legislation on the horizon that will definitely create more costs (i.e. healthcare) for employers, using contractors might be a way to avoid these costs.

Similarly, location is becoming less of a requirement for workers. Because of technology, it is just as easy to work with someone in another state or country as it is to work with someone down the street with you. Sure there’s always face-to-face benefits, but what if the costs outweigh the benefits?

An Example Of The 21st Century Worker

Picture this… a 25-year old working from his home office in Atlanta re-tooling a Utah-based small business’s website with a more up-to-date content management platform so that, in the future, the small business can update their website without hiring a web developer. This job lasts for three weeks. The Utah-based business is thrilled with the result and views the costs as money well invested.

Although, it took a couple weeks to get another job, the 25-year old spent the time wisely, updating his websites that he runs/owns personally. These websites bring in a few hundred bucks a month, and more importantly, have the potential to make big bucks if the growth continues.

The new job is a three month assignment assisting a consulting team that is working on a new marketing campaign for a Fortune 500 company. His role with the team is graphic design. Since he has been doing web design for years, he picked up some very nice graphic design skills and a high level proficiency with graphic software like Adobe Photoshop. Although the team is working in New York, he is able to do most of his work from home, communicating through email and online meetings / conference calls. A single trip to New York is required and paid for by the employer.

Following this assignment, a local entrepreneur hires the 25-year old to assist him in the web strategy for a start up company. The entrepreneur understands that business needs to have a web presence and even operate fully over the web, but needs a younger person with the right skills and business world view to help him strategize. The job doesn’t pay well, but he is offered a small stake in the company that makes the job interesting enough to accept. Plus, the business skills he will learn from the entrepreneur will prove to be very valuable in the future. After all, the 25-year old has big entrepreneurial plans of his own.

What This Means For Us

Some people might read this description of the 21st Century Worker and embrace it. Some like the idea of not being tied down with a specific company and like the idea of being able to move around, maybe even travel semi-full time, but still be able to work and get paid from wherever he plugs his laptop in.

No matter what your political leaning or your personal desires for your career, if this shift is to happen, it will happen with or without you. Do not fight it, but position yourself accordingly. How can you position yourself accordingly?

Take a look at the table above, 21st Century Workers need a wide skill set. More importantly, some of those skills better be in technology. There are a myriad of technologies that are very easy to learn that can really boost your attractiveness to an employer (stay tuned at this blog for a list of these technologies). You need to either be a top-tier expert at a specific skill or be able to offer multiple skills to an employer. Most of you are not top-tier experts at a specific skill, so start building your resume by picking up a new skill.

There are two main ways to learn new skills: at work on the job and at home as a hobby. You should do both. Ask your boss to move you to a new area where you can pick up some new skills or gain new responsibility. At the same time, buy a “…For Dummies” book on a technology that you have an interest in and start playing around at home.

To sum up, the shift towards the 21st Century Worker has been in the works for years. Globalization kicked the shift into overdrive. Today’s recession surely doesn’t help. Even a left-leaning government will attempt to bring back the glory days of labor, but business will do what it takes to grow, and do what it takes to keep costs low so they can compete. Moving towards contract workers is likely to be only one example of many of business trends in the years ahead. The most important thing you can do is to position yourself accordingly. Find new skills and new ways to market yourself. If the trend continues, you’ll be ready.


  • billy-bob said:

    In addition to new skill acquisition, you have to make sure that you are acquiring the high-demand skills for your chosen industry. Relocating to a relevant economic zone (Silicon Valley, Hollywood, NYC, London, Etc) is also highly desirable as it allows you access to more jobs, companies, consulting, networking, etc. You're not likely to find those types of opportunities in Detroit these days. Working in the global economy is a lot like surfing. Catch a wave, ride it with style, paddle back out, repeat.

    Unfortunately your post doesn't explore the ugly side of globalization. Globalization was not inevitable, it was planned. The flight of jobs and capital to support endless exploitation of cheap labor, little-to-no regulation, and environmental degradation. Do you think it's a good thing that our manufacturing base in the US was gutted in favor of cheap, offshore labor? Was it a good thing to lose our pensions and all of the rights of labor that our parents and grandparents fought hard and often got bloodied for? Where do you think the 5 day work week and health insurance come from? Do you think capitalists invented those things to have great working conditions?

    It may be impossible to fight off globalization and its discontents. The ultimate outcome of our Western-style production and consumption when applied at a global scale is likely to result in the browning (or blackening) of our air and water (take a look at the environmental havoc in China as one example). Sure we might invent cleaner technologies, but who the hell needs all the cars, TVs, iPods, etc? Where does it all leave our humanity?

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