2018: Why the full-time job will never be so precious, as the gig economy crumbles and judgment work is digitized

January 01, 2018 | Phil Fersht

The new “rules” of the workplace are being defined as computers are frantically being programmed to take the lead in the workplace, when it comes to judgment and intuition. We humans need to be the idea generators, the motivators, the negotiators, and the trouble-shooters to fix computer errors, if we want to govern our emerging digital environments. In short, we need to get closer to our firms, be more tightly integrated and intimate with work performance than ever before… which means the role and tenure of the much-derided middle-manager in the Dilbert Cartoons could be taking on a whole new potential twist - and a whole new (potential) level of relevance.

I would go as far as declaring 2018 as a new beginning of the value of the full-time employee – where alignment with the mission, spirit, culture, energy and context of an organization has never been so important.  We are seeing the value of contract work diminish as so much “outsource-able” work is so much easier to automate and global labor drives down the cost of getting things done quickly and easily.  Business success is more about investing in the core than ever - and that core includes the people who are the true pieces of human middleware to hold everything together.

The onus is circling back to the value of being a full-time employee, who needs to value the fruits of having a predictable income and adapt to the changing balance of how humans need to work with computers.

Remember when the rise of the gig worker was supposed to revamp how so many of us worked, as we escaped the shackles of the “evil employer”?

Almost two decades ago, the internet was creating the independent worker, as exemplified in Dan Pink’s timeless bookFree Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers are Transforming the Way We Live” became the seminal guide for what is now known as the “gig worker”.

Furthermore, unless recent research from McKinsey of 8000 workers can now be categorized as fake news, 162 million people in Europe and the United States—or 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population—engage in some form of independent work today. And a recent study from freelance site Upwork (which undoubtedly wants to hype the impact of gig world) cranks up the numbers even further, claiming that a staggering 50% of US millennials are already freelancing, before declaring the freelance sector will comprise the majority of the US workforce within a decade.  Wow.

So are the days of being gainfully employed really disintegrating before our very eyes?  Or is the gig hype beginning to atrophy for many people?

The gig economy is becoming a tough place to craft a living if many of the new reports are to be believed.  And it’s not just about driving Ubers, delivering food orders and contracting for logistics firms – i.e., working for businesses that exploit the gig economy to drive down labor costs and improve services.  It’s the freelance gig economy where people forge a living writing code, supporting content development, delivering consulting work on-demand etc.  Even that lovely Upwork research admits: “While finances are a challenge for all, freelancers experience a unique concern — income predictability. The study found that, with the ebbs and flows of freelancing, full-time freelancers dip into savings more often (63 percent at least once per month versus 20 percent of full-time non-freelancers)”.  So even if the most biased of sources admits most gig workers can’t cover their living costs, we can conclude that those “Free Agents”, which McKinsey describes as the gig worker sector using gig work as its primary income, are not in a sustainable earning situation.

Today, it’s a buyer’s market for gig work

You only need to spend a little time on LinkedIn to observe just how many people are now marketing their wares as solo free agents, or as part of a company bearing their name.  It’s abundantly clear that so many people have decided to set themselves up as independents, that the market for gig talent is saturated and it’s become a “buyers’ market” for gig work.  Whether I want to commission a crack consultant to validate some RPA software, hire an analyst to endorse my product, commission a writer to produce a white-label assessment of an emerging market, produce a go-to-market strategy for my business, redesign my website, my logo, or just have someone support my business on a part-time basis… today, I am spoiled for choice.  I barely need to hire fulltime employees these days, unless they are truly core to keeping my business ticking along – and I can create real competition to get the work done for much lower costs than a few short years ago.

On top of the risks of commoditizing gig work, we have to contend with the impact of automation and Machine Learning to stay relevant and worthy of earning a paycheck

We’re not in a world rejecting human work, but a world where work is rapidly changing – and the skills of the dynamic middle manager has never been so important. In short, the increasing availability of computing power to crunch massive amounts of data, coupled with advancing tools to tag and label data and workflow clusters with breakthrough programming in languages such as Python for syntax and R for data visualization, are the game-changers that will increasingly impact how we get work done, as we develop continually smarter algorithms to keep teaching computers to do the work of the human brain.

What's more, the rapid development of Machine Learning (ML) environments such as Google's TensorFlow, the Microsoft's Azure Machine Learning Workbench, Amazon's Sagemaker, Caffe and Alibaba’s Aliyun are becoming the new environments driving armies of coders and developers to align themselves with ML value - desperate to stay relevant (and well paid) against the headwinds of commoditization of legacy coding and app development.

As ML takes over judgment and (eventually) intuition, the human-value onus moves to interaction, agenda-setting, problem defining and idea generation

In short, the disruptive ML techniques are teaching computers to do what comes naturally to humans: to learn by example. Today’s emerging ML tools use massive amounts of data and computing power to simulate neural networks that imitate the human brain’s connectivity, classifying data sets and finding patterns and correlations between them.

Net-net, pattern-matching jobs are increasingly being affected by ML – vocations such as radiologists, pathologists, financial advisors, lawyers, procurement executives, accountants etc. are all being challenged as judgment work is (gradually) being replaced by smart algorithms.  However, as elements of these types of jobs are being affected, other job elements become even more important, namely interacting with other humans, creating, setting the agenda, defining and finding the problems to go after.  They motivate, they persuade, they negotiate, they coordinate. They are the dynamic conduits of driving information and ideas in an organization and will be increasingly in the driving seat as Machine Learning advancements increasingly take hold.  The digital middle manager who can bring a team together and lead people in the right direction does not exist and likely never will…. I’d be amazed if we saw one emerge soon.

Fulltime employment is now becoming a premium situation

Having predictability of income, healthcare costs covered, guaranteed paid vacation time - and a constant supply of work to do - is fast becoming the dream scenario for the disgruntled gig worker.  So here’s a thought – go get a JOB.  Or if you’re in a job and wanted to try the gig work thing… spare a thought for what your ideal situation looks like, because last time I looked, most firms are doing everything they can to avoid hiring well-paid staff… especially if they can get the work done much cheaper from desperate gig workers.

The Bottom-Line: Five steps to keeping your job:

i) Become the conduit of ideas and information that is irreplaceable right across your organization. So we’ve now come full circle, where the value of having people really close to the business is becoming more important than ever, as computers perform more and more of the routine and judgement based tasks. To the point, the value of the full-time employee goes both ways: companies need people who really understand their institutional processes, their quirks and ways of getting things done… who are onhand to troubleshoot mistakes, but also there to keep the ideas flowing to keep the business ahead of its competition and close to its customers.  “Human middleware” is becomimg the real OneOffice glue to break down those siloes and help govern a slick business operation from front to back office.

ii) Develop a positive attitude by finding aspects of your job you do like.  Your full time job is likely the best gig-work you will probably ever get, so even if you hate your boss and most of your colleagues, ask yourself if you’d prefer scrapping around for the boring work other companies prefer to outsource.  Focus on the interesting stuff you can do and keep reminding yourself that the grass is rarely greener elsewhere.  Unless you are a whizz at Python development, the chances are your job-hopping days are numbered and you need to figure out how to stay put and make it better for yourself.

iii) Motivate yourself and become a real motivator.  Being motivated - and helping to motivate others - is probably the least computerizable trait of all.  If you aren’t motivated, you are placing yourself at risk when your leadership assess which of their team then want to take them forward into the future.  If you really can’t get yourself excited about what you do, or your company just demotivates you in such a way you can’t dig yourself out of your rut, then you may need to take that Python course and brush up your resume…

iv) Let the computers take the lead and become the controller to fix mistakes double checking, intervening when the computers do something dumb.    Humans and computers make different kinds of mistakes, so we really need to bring humans and computers together intelligently to cancel out each other’s mistakes. Fighting automation and ML is a lost cause, especially when your firm is completely bought in to the concept and it rolling out bots and working on developing smart algorithms.  Just let these things take the lead and them figure out how to make them functional and monitor their errors, ad computers will always keep making them.  You can’t fight innovation, but you can nurture it, manage it and troubleshoot it.  

v) Find your pareto balance and stop whining. Nothing in life including your current or prospective employer will be perfect. Focus on the 80% that is right, versus making yourself (and others around you) miserable by the other 20%. There is rarely a perfect fit where workers only get to focus 100% on all the things they love to do… there has to be this 80/20 compromise, or you will be forever hopping around trying to find a workplace nirvana that doesn’t exist.  And it today’s social world your reputation follows you around like never before… and employers are steering clear of the whiners at all costs.

Posted in: Design ThinkingDigital TransformationHR Strategy

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  1. Graham Harvey
    Posted Dec 27, 2017 03:44 PM | Permalink Reply


    Excellent piece and some harsh realities well explained. Liked the 5 steps,


  2. James
    Posted Dec 27, 2017 07:27 PM | Permalink Reply


    This is one of the most thoughtful articles on the future of work I have read. You make a very strong case for the value of employment versus contract work - the ability to be an "idea conduit" is very important and tech takes over a lot of the operational work,


  3. Gaurav Gupta
    Posted Dec 27, 2017 08:33 PM | Permalink Reply

    Very pertinent piece. Predictabiliy of income will be critical as this economy evolves.

  4. Manish
    Posted Dec 28, 2017 09:01 AM | Permalink Reply

    Powerful stuff - and yet so true, especially with all the staff redundancies in IT services. The pendulum is definitely swinging back to the employer as the gig economy becomes saturated and the price of undependents is being eroded,


  5. Paul Smith
    Posted Dec 28, 2017 09:19 AM | Permalink Reply


    I think the tools are there to be very successful as a gig worker, but you have to stay more relevant than ever to command a good price, such as doing contract social media marketing, or being able to produce quality research on emerging technologies etc. Being independent is a lifestyle choice, and the balance will only really swing back to full time working when the lifestyle is better on the employment side, such as more freedom and telecommuting, longer paid vacation time and so on,

    Paul Smith

  6. Vinnie Mirchandani
    Posted Dec 28, 2017 10:54 AM | Permalink Reply

    Phil, yes the "Gig" economy is overhyped but full time jobs ain't coming back either. Reality is companies do not live more than 15-20 years and cannot with a straight face promise life time, FTE jobs. So, we have become a job economy with multiple concentric circles. The F500 only directly hires 10% of US civilian workforce. Surrounding them are jobs at several tiers of suppliers, multiple service firms (digital agencies, outsourcers, attorneys, CPAs, contract labor etc), at their franchisees (did you know 9 m people are employees at franchises - not just in fast food, at UPS, Ace Hardware and many others), on platforms (iOS, Android, eBay, Amazon KDP, Flex, Alibaba etc etc not just Uber). Then you have millions of small businesses who do little with the F500 but aim at consumers - alternative healthcare, ethnic grocers etc. I find few people take the time to really explore the jobs economy. The BLS does a very good job tracking over 900 occupations and all kinds of trends and does not anywhere use the Gig term. We have a very diverse job economy but people glibly talk in broad strokes - automation with kill all jobs, everything is moving to gig etc. One of the best things I did when I wrote Silicon Collar was to study BLS data and get a better appreciation for the nuances of the job economy. It is fascinating and misunderstood. That's why we have 6 million unfilled jobs (been for for 5+ years) many needing trade skills, and on the other hand young employees with white collar skills and $ 1.5 trillion in student debt. Behooves us all to become smarter about job trends.

  7. Phil Fersht
    Posted Dec 28, 2017 11:22 AM | Permalink Reply

    @Vinnie - I am not saying jobs are coming back in droves, I am saying people need to be smarter about staying in their current employment - it's a tough world out there for gig workers and creeping intelligent automation slowly taking over many judgment tasks...


  8. Vinnie Mirchandani
    Posted Dec 28, 2017 11:40 AM | Permalink Reply

    Phil, then you did not read my comment. In the concentric circle of jobs, the gig jobs are a small %. You are telling people to stay put in current full time jobs. I am saying they should look for full time at one of the other circles - in suppliers to F500, service firms, franchisees, in small biz etc not move to the "gig" economy. I would suggest we should all be looking for a new job, if not a new occupation, every 4-5 years. Employers are not loyal (they cannot afford to be long term), so you have to watch out for yourself and keep refreshing your skills to be able to do so.

  9. Manish Mehta
    Posted Dec 28, 2017 03:23 PM | Permalink Reply

    How about being in full employment and being treated like a quasi-sortofa-gig worker cum trainee cum whaever?

    I hear that a couple of big name IT services firms have already shifted rapidly to a new model (under pressure from enterprises, no doubt) triggered by cost/margin pressures and the marketplace. While customer actually pays only for the small sprint hour cycles (for specific skills allocated to each of those) AND for the actual work acceptably delivered, the company inturn backward pays resources/employees for the budgeted work hours assigned to that particular deliverable/use case sprints (The employee eats any extra hours/slippages, preparation period, wait period, learning/innovation time, risks etc. etc.). In some cases apparently employees have to bid for the work against each other?

    All this couched and packaged neatly under the SAFe (Scaled Agile) constructs, apparently. Talk about changing dynamics and variable earnings.

    And another firm is launching a so called hybrid sourcing model, touted to bring employees and gig/freelance workers together, eh, what was that, old wine rebranded or new wine in old brand? And immediately was written up by an analyst firm? Ha...

    Maybe, maybe some IT workers are saying enough, forget nirvana, forget winning and forget motivating oneself for the work on the plate, why not go outside and find nirvana directly, enjoy working on good, interesting work linked to business outcomes and on your own terms?

    Ofcourse, those who cannot find that niche, they are best put where they are currently, totally agree there...but for how long?

  10. Nigel Barron
    Posted Dec 29, 2017 05:49 AM | Permalink Reply

    I think Simon Wardley's (@swardley) thread on twitter re IBM this morning is relevant and could be said of other services companies. Many are in the death spiral. https://twitter.com/swardley/status/946684360324939776

  11. Boris
    Posted Dec 29, 2017 08:39 AM | Permalink Reply

    Very well articulated article. Depressing that gig economy is hard for many people - I see it as a supplemental income, not alternatice to full-time employment.

  12. Charles Bess
    Posted Jan 05, 2018 07:41 AM | Permalink Reply

    Have to agree with you Vinnie. There is no loyalty. With relatively 'full employment', it should be possible to find a full-time role and still have a gig-economy approach to your 'spare' time, unless your employer makes you sign away your IP rights.

    In today's environment with good MOOC options, reskilling has never been more abundant -- for those who want to put in the effort. Too often though we can get complacent once we have a full-time role (with the range of benifits that Phil pointed out). Everyone needs to decide on 'how much is enough' for themselves and that can be a tough convesation to have.

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