Are you a Swiss Army knife?

An article in The Guardian, “My father had one job in his life, I’ve had six in mine, my kids will have six at the same time”, published as part of a special report about the future of work, describes the growth of the so-called gig economy, characterized by the disappearance of previous concepts of job security and the appearance of new platforms that aim to provide just about anybody with the chance of earning money.

Like the author of the article, my father, now retired, had just one job all his life, working as an engineer at the oil refinery in the Spanish Atlantic port city of La Coruña. A pretty successful working career, notwithstanding several changes of ownership of the plant… but one place and one unique source of income. Having other jobs at the time would have looked weird, uncommon, and probably very difficult to justify.

For the moment, it looks like I’m following his path: I am one of the few of my fellow MBA graduates that is still working for the same organization I joined when I finished my studies: I have been at IE Business School for 26 years now. But there the similarity with my father ends, because in reality, my work as a professor at IE Business School (Gosh, you can tell I’m an old-timer, my hair is still black in that page!) is just one of a number of gigs. I have a small company to manage my speaking engagements and other work I do for companies, I write for a number of publications, I have a weekly participation in Spain’s national TV, I’m a member of the board at recently launched digital newspaper El Español, an advisor to a number of companies, and I edit my own website.

But let’s check the next generation: in the case of my daughter, aged 21 and about to finish her degree program in Advertising and Communication, she has already worked as an intern in five different companies representing different aspects of the profession she intends to enter. So that’s five companies in less than four years: she has stayed with each for as long as she was able to learn something, and when she felt she wasn’t progressing, she simply moved to another, despite the complicated situation of the job market for young people in Spain. My daughter’s concept of employment is completely different to my father’s and even my own when I was her age.

Technology is largely responsible for this new approach to work: we live in a hyper-connected society in which new opportunities and possibilities present themselves constantly. Many of my MBA students in recent years don’t even bother looking for “interesting companies” like I did, but instead look for “interesting opportunities”.

Leaving aside the unemployment rates of individual countries and the particular tough case of Spain, it’s pretty clear that the technological environment has created a much more fluid employment market: some see it as a disaster, while others accept it for what it is. As technology brings supply and demand closer, holding down a number of different income streams is easier than ever, and throughout the economy.

What is the future of work? It’s still not entirely clear, but the signs would seem to indicate that what some commentators still see as a form of sub-employment of the carrying out of complementary activities, others see as a trend that will include more and more tasks, with greater responsibilities and better pay, and that in many cases are linked to platforms trying to bring supply and demand together. If you feel challenged by ideas such as Uber or Airbnb, that allow people to make money by becoming drivers or hoteliers, check out what’s been happening for years at places such as Upwork, Freelancer, Guru.com, PeoplePerHour or SimplyHired, to name a few. Will we ever see a platform for managers or C-level jobs? Or politicians?

In the meantime, menial tasks are increasingly being relegated to machines or carried out as secondary activities, as additional sources of income. The question we might ask ourselves is whether we’re headed toward a situation similar to what happened after the first industrial revolution, when traditional forms of earning a living were destroyed, to be gradually replaced by other occupations that made up the difference overall (although not at the individual level), or if we are on track toward a post-work society. For the moment, the signs seem to indicate that traditional ideas of work are less and less applicable, and that we’re all going to become Swiss Army knives.

For decades, transaction and coordination costs were the framework on which the threads of the industrial fabric of society were woven. And when that framework changes shape, it’s hard to predict what will happen. One thing is for sure, however, and that is that there is no going back to how things were, for better or worse.


(En español, aquí)