In the heat of the 2010 US summer, I met digital entrepreneur, Matt Barrie, in a Washington DC bar. Matt enthusiastically explained his then emerging startup, Freelancer, an online marketplace where those who wanted a website coded, a logo designed or a voiceover created could get together with people delivering those things worldwide.
I recall, in a slightly beery fog, going back to my hotel and telling my wife why this crazy idea would never work.
Fast forward five years, and Freelancer has a market capitalisation of close to half a billion dollars on the ASX. What would I know about the future?
It does seem to me though, that these now commonplace platforms enabling freelancers to sell their services unbound by geography are the catalyst for massive change to our very idea of the traditional job.
Over the last century in Australia, the long-term and fairly constant average equivalent full-time job participation rate has been close to 40 per cent. In 2013, Australia scored its highest participation rate since the end of the convict era at 53.7 per cent.
However, well over a quarter of the workforce was what the ABS refers to as part-time jobs. I argue this massive acceleration towards fragmentation and freelancing will continue unabated for the foreseeable future. And the great disruption to jobs is being driven by ubiquitous connectivity and highly efficient online platforms like Freelancer.
We could call this the rise of the Uber-worker. Just as Freelancer and its ilk are driving new models of work, so too are Uber and AirBNB creating new models of wealth that disrupt the traditional idea of a having a job.
I recently got talking to a female Uber driver whose mother in the Hunter Valley had fallen ill. She’d resigned her well-paid executive job in Sydney to be closer to home. Instead, she’d started editing documents for customers on Freelancer, selling inspired craft on Etsy, driving two days a week with Uber, renting her spare room via AirBNB, and reading audiobooks on Voices. Through all these activities she had a lifestyle that paid well enough, with far more time for family duties.
So is this good or bad? Like all creative destructions, the answer is both. Sometime last century, noted economist, Joseph Schumpeter, coined the term ‘creative destruction’ to define the transformations that accompany radical disruption brought about by innovation. The job may not be completely dead, but it has been truly ‘Schumpetered’.
It is of course a no-brainer the Australian Tax Office wants its slice and frankly so it should. The rise of the Uber worker will rapidly erode the pay-as-you-go-tax base from a declining number of people who have a traditional job. And don’t be fooled into thinking driving for Uber makes you some sort of quasi-employee.
Its driver agreement states: "This agreement is between two co-equal, independent business enterprises that are separately owned and operated. The parties intend this agreement to create the relationship of principal and independent contractor and not that of employer and employee."
We have seen this somewhere before. Marx contended that in modern industrial production under capitalist conditions, workers would inevitably lose control of their lives by losing control over their work. Previously, a carpenter or a baker would own his own shop, set his own hours, determine his own working conditions, shape his own product, and have some say in how his product is bartered or sold.
So does the rise of the Uber-worker mean we are heading towards some Marxist utopia? And what does this mean for you as a leader and CIO?
Perhaps the future is less a job with an organisation, and more a service marketplace. Certainly, former CIO, Chris Sampson, thinks so. He’s established a new business called ‘CIO-as-a-service’.
Sampson says: “The business is actually a networked marketplace that could operate as a community or society CIO, carrying out the role of a CIO but instead of being locked into a single organisation, would operate across the community. The network would be a force for joining up initiatives to fit into an overall architecture, optimising efficiency and effectiveness, but at a whole-of-domain level.”
Sounds crazy right? But learning from my 2010 chat with Matt, Chris might be on to something.
David Bartlett is former premier of Tasmania and one-time CIO. He is chairman of Asdeq Labs and works with communities on the NBN through Explor Digital Futures.
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