The Unbundling of Jobs and What it Means for the Future of Work

In the mass economy, each job used to be a bundle. With that job came money, health care, a pension, provable solvency to purchase a house and a car, the promise of stability and constant enrichment, and more. Each worker accepted a “bargain”: division of labour in exchange for a “bundle” of benefits and security. Work wasn’t necessarily fulfilling and interesting. But the bargain made the relative alienation perfectly acceptable.

For at least four decades now, jobs have been progressively unbundled. With globalisation, desindustrialisation, the rise of automation, and the decline of labour unions, jobs are less and less coupled with the traditional benefits of the industrial age. Wages have declined. The financialisation of the economy has stopped corporations from offering workers job security. The old “bargain” is gone.

In many ways today’s white-collar and service jobs resemble the jobs of the industrial age as division of labour and bureaucracy still largely define how work is organised. But workers now face the possibility of unemployment, downward mobility, and the lack of social protection. Jobs no longer come with the promise of upward mobility.

An increasingly large number of “outsiders”, newly arrived on the job market, have no way of proving their solvency. They find it harder to access housing in the densest urban centres. Geographic inequalities have only intensified the problem, as some cities or areas concentrate more and more jobs while others become depopulated and poorer.

And so the unbundling of jobs is triggering profound transformations which are reshaping corporations, the organisation of work, and our institutions — social protection, education, health care. Work as we knew it is changing in drastic ways and at unprecedented speed.

The end of loyalty and what it means for HR

Most of today’s new jobs no longer come with the promise of security. In France, nearly ALL of the newly created jobs come with short-term contracts and few benefits. In the USA, as author Rick Wartzman documented in his enlightening book The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America (2017), there has been a strong erosion of the social contract between corporations and employees. The American Dream has “gone sideways”.

Naturally the end of corporate loyalty has been followed by the end of employee loyalty. As workers are offered mostly low-paid, no-security jobs, they’ve become less loyal. As a result, corporations now find it harder to recruit employees. Human resource departments are faced with the challenge to hire and retain workers who’ve become more fickle and demanding. They strive to strengthen their employer “brands” to seduce those workers who behave more like “consumers” of jobs, always on the lookout for better opportunities. For highly qualified jobs, the task is particularly daunting.

Alienation, automation and the return to craftsmanship

Alienation at work through division of labour was acceptable to workers with the tradeoff of benefits and security. It is now increasingly questioned by workers who aren’t offered that tradeoff. That’s how the rise of phrases like “bullshit jobs”, “boreout”, or “brownout” can be accounted for. They reveal to what extent alienation at work is less accepted today.

The rise of robots and software makes it possible to automate most of the repetitive tasks, including qualified ones. Automation causes an unbundling of the professions of the last century. And because machines are to do all the repetitive work, workers demand a return to the values of craftsmanship. They want to develop their creativity at work. They crave for more autonomy and responsibility, more flexibility in the form of remote work, for example. They reject hierarchy and bureaucracy. This is why qualified workers in high demand are reinventing craftsmanship in the digital age.

Work platforms and the unbundling of the firm

The unbundling of jobs and the increased demand for the values of craftsmanship are best revealed by the rise of freelancing. One third of the US workforce is now self-employed. In France, salaried workers still represent the overwhelming majority of the total workforce, but a recent McKinsey survey suggests as many as 13 million French people are to some extent involved with independent work. It takes different forms: having a part-time gig on a digital platform, renting one’s apartment on Airbnb, or selling one’s services full-time to companies.

Digital work platforms are still a relatively marginal phenomenon, but they are growing amazingly fast. Their rise challenges our definition of the firm. Many workers have fully embraced the digital transition: their hunger for more autonomy, flexibility and purpose leads them to adopt new work models. These freelancers, in particular the most qualified among them, are now in a position to negotiate a new “bundle”, one where work comes with self-fulfillment and autonomy. The challenge for companies will be to take the full measure of what that implies.