No jobs, no problem

August 03, 2008|By William J. Evitts

Published in 1995, William Bridges' JobShift lingers today around No. 400,000 on Amazon's sales list. The book's central idea deserves more attention than that.

Mr. Bridges argues that the "job" - a defined set of responsibilities that remains constant and is fulfilled by one or more people over time - is disappearing right in front of us. Work is being reorganized without jobs. Employees are being let go, then engaged as consultants. A major bank projects that only 19 percent of its work force will be considered permanent full-time employees. Software companies hire smart people not for a defined position but to get them on project teams that constantly form and reform. A frazzled executive complains that he can't shuffle job boxes on his organizational chart fast enough to keep up with change. Quick-response supply chains are being matched by on-demand staffing. Work is increasingly getting done as movies are made, by fluid bands of specialists who do not have traditional jobs.

Recent events have further validated the book's predictions. Work is outsourced not just overseas but to cheaper freelancers at home. Almost one-third of American workers are freelancers; there is a Freelancers Union with 75,000 members. This is not just about blue-collar jobs, either; it affects every gainfully employed American. In higher education, to pick one sector, seven of every 10 college faculty members are now impermanent - part-timers, adjuncts, grant-funded or holding an appointment that's set to run out. We are all increasingly out there on our own.

What we're up against is a revolution in the very nature and organization of work. Long ago, when people worked, they "did" jobs, they did not "have" them. That changed with the rise of modern industry and the concept of the market economy. Now the industrial pattern is dying in ways that go far beyond merely shipping work to a sweatshop in Bangladesh.

What's destroying the job? We can count at least the commercial volatility that discourages permanent commitment to any work force, the new options of globalization, the flux powered by technology and the productive capacity of personal computers and the Internet. The switch from labor- and facility-intensive manufacturing to less-rigid forms of technical and service work is in play here, too.

Along this path of change, employers have stumbled on the savings of having contracted workers responsible for their own benefits. Their biggest bonanza comes from ditching employee and retiree health care. Health insurance in America is expensive, full of gaps and burdened by the world's highest administrative overhead costs. American health care is also uniquely linked to employment, making the most frightening aspect of losing a job the threat that you will be kicked off the health care grid.

But this is changing, too. Now, at last, we seem to be at the critical juncture where providing affordable universal health care will happen. States are tinkering with it, and both major presidential candidates endorse the concept. And when it finally comes to be, we may be startled by what happens.

Freed from the tyranny of employment-linked health insurance, we'll follow dreams and take control of our work. The creative energy unleashed by this will electrify the economy, facilitating entrepreneurship and innovation by reducing the risks of doing without the swaddling security of a long-term job. The vision of that pedantic old dreamer, Karl Marx, will become reality; the workers will own the means of production - their brains and skills - and be free to take them wherever they wish.

Making the profound, scary transition to a de-jobbed world needs more than universal health care, of course. Social Security and tax structure also require rethinking. Our traditional values will be sorely challenged. In the end, what began as the offloading of benefits by strapped employers reacting to change may lead us to a new societal approach to both work and personal economic security. We'll have more control over our work, and this individuality, curiously, will be grounded in collective support.

Universal health care can be a first step toward liberation from the old, disappearing world of jobs. Once it is in place, we will be much better equipped to reap the benefits of a workplace upheaval as profound as the Industrial Revolution itself.

Jobs? We don't need no stinkin' jobs.

William J. Evitts is a Baltimore historian who teaches as an adjunct

at Johns Hopkins and Towson universities. His e-mail is

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