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The Incredible, Disappearing Job

6 minute read

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach.

Last year, at the Society for Neuroscience conference, I gave a talk on how to find work. I expected 20 or 30 people to attend–after all, it was just a concurrent session. Four-hundred and fifty people showed up, mostly people with hard-science PhDs. After the session, about 75 of them lined up to talk with me—most of them telling me they were having a hard time finding a job and wanted advice.

On the other end of the professional continuum, an article in Forbes reports, “When Walmart opens a new store, it’s not uncommon for as many as 10,000 people to apply for just 300 jobs.”

And as a career counselor, I’ve been struck by how, increasingly, even well-degreed, well-experienced people are having a hard time landing stable, middle-income-paying, employment.

There’s good reason to believe that good, stable jobs will become ever more scarce:

  • Recent years have seen elimination of countless jobs through automation: for example, ATMs, supermarket self-checkout, automatic toll takers, telephone operators, automatic baristas, bartenders, burger makers, warehouse workers, even keymakers (in Walmart now). For example, Applebee’s and Chili’s have reduced their waitstaff by implementing iPads for ordering and paying your check. Can other restaurant chains be far behind? Millions of cab, bus, train, and truck drivers could eventually be out of a job if driverless vehicles becomes a reality. Oxford University researchers forecast that, within 20 years, computerization will eliminate almost half of all of jobs.
  • In a previous TIME article, I pointed out that many desirable jobs, for example, in journalism, art, acting, and nonprofits have been converted to volunteer “positions,” internships, and low-pay independent-contractor work.
  • In the just-mentioned previous TIME article, I also pointed out that the costs of hiring an American continue to grow. In addition to the employer mandates of the Affordable Care Act, costs are increasing for Workers Compensation, Medicare, Social Security, Americans with Disabilities Act, EEOC, Family Leave, and employee grievances and lawsuits.
  • Uberization. Our smartphones enable just-in-time hiring: whether a corporation needing a CFO for a day to solve a problem, a homeowner searching for a handyperson who’ll show up in a half hour, and, of course, anyone needing a ride. By-the-hour and by-the-day hiring will become ever more common, not just to ensure that the worker really is needed but to avoid those expensive and stressful wrongful termination lawsuits. If you’re only hired for one day and the employer doesn’t want you back for a second day, it’s hard to claim wrongful termination.
  • A scary variation on the above is the contest. When I wanted a cover designed for my next book, I posted a request for designs on 99designs.com. Over 100 graphic designers submitted one (including my requested revisions from the finalists) and I only had to pay for the one I selected—just $300. In other words, 100+ people did a lot of work for nothing and one person earned probably about $10 an hour. I envision employers posting contests for all sort of work, from the best approach to streamlining a corporate process to the best fundraising plan for a nonprofit. Each would-be worker would have to compete worldwide for the privilege of getting hired for just one perhaps very short project, and at a fee near a worldwide low.
  • What is to happen to the billions of people who, by definition, are below average in hireability?!

    Without a broad-based plan for ensuring reasonably remunerative and otherwise rewarding work, there is increased risk of social unrest, especially given the expanding gap between rich and poor and the crushing college student debt, which isn’t even dischargeable through bankruptcy.

    This five-part plan, some of which was covered previously, might help:

    1. K-16 entrepreneurship education. New businesses create jobs, so teaching students the art and science of ethical entrepreneurship should create jobs while providing new goods and services. The best tradeoff might be to replace a day or two a week of physical education with entrepreneurship education.

    2. K-16 vocational education. For fear that we might prematurely place someone in a not-college-bound track, we force all students to take a one-size-fits all curriculum: college preparatory. That’s true even though we know that even by the early grades, fairly accurate predictions can be made about who will likely be better off in a path not aimed at college—for example, a path that would teach kids how to build, install, operate, maintain, and repair the sorts of complex equipment that is described above, plus MRI machines, car assembly robots, etc. Of course, there will be occasional wrong guesses about which child should go in which curriculum, but far fewer errors than by ignoring the probabilities and insisting that everyone get a college-preparatory curriculum.

    3. Taxpayer-funded jobs. I envision a Work-Project-Administration-like program, an Assistance Army, that would, for example, build infrastructure, bring more tutors to K-12 classrooms, provide better in-home support for shut-in seniors, beautify riven inner cities, and fund visual and performing artists to enrich the community.

    4. Educate the public to embrace “mosaic careers.” Of course, full-time, stable jobs offer advantages: Many people like having a routine, a regular place to go to work, a job they can grow comfortable in, coworkers that become friends, whom they pass the years with. Alas, for many people that may be impossible in today’s and especially tomorrow’s economy.

    Many people so dislike the idea of earning their living from multiple part-time, low-pay, often temporary jobs that they’d rather be unemployed. Other people are daunted at having to look for multiple jobs, perhaps frequently. Those are legitimate concerns, but mosaic careers do have advantages, for example, variety, flexible schedules, and more learning opportunities. Perhaps a campaign of public-service announcements, a la the anti-smoking and anti-drug-abuse initiatives, might convince more people to pursue a mosaic career.

    5. Educate the public on the value of and how to live on less. The public may need to accept that The American Way–trying to spend your way to happiness–may be not only unrealistic but unwise, if not a fool’s game. Beyond the basics, most people find their greatest contentment through rewarding work, relationships, and creative outlets not through an expensive hobby like golf or a 20th pair of shoes.

    Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. specializing in education evaluation from U.C. Berkeley and subsequently taught there. He is the author of seven books and an award-winning career coach, writer, speaker and public radio host specializing in career/workplace issues and education reform. His writings and radio programs are archived on www.martynemko.com.

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    Write to Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net

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