"My father had one job in his life, I've had six in mine, my kids will have six at the same time" -- Robin Chase, Co-Founder of Zipcar.
It would seem that up until recent times, human ingenuity focused mostly on increasing the efficiency of work. Improvements of basic tools and machines, completely new inventions and the change from mostly rural, agrarian economies to large-scale, urban-based capitalism changed forever the kind of work we did and how we did it. And through all these changes, workers have had to adapt. Globalization, free trade, off shoring and automation have all impacted workers.
So what are the new or next big disrupters? Lots has been written on the future of automation and the outsourcing of work to machines. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning is fascinating. And the “Gig Economy” is already here. Studies vary but some are saying that by 2020, upwards of 40% of Americans will be involved in some sort of freelance or contracted work (a “gig”). Uber is a great example of that new model. But this model is being refined even further. “Crowdworking” refers to websites or “apps” where users/employers can advertise simple or repetitive tasks and gain access to thousands (millions?) of potential “employees” around the world who undertake the tasks advertised. Sites such as Amazon Mechanical Turk or Microtask act as the gathering point for requestors and workers. Instead of hiring employees or negotiating complex freelance contracts, anyone who needs a job done that can be done on a computer can simply go to the market and instantly pick from any number of willing workers. Need a group of photos labelled “Scotland”, or the contact information for businesses in a specific area confirmed or a set of images described in French, there are countless workers who will do it.
The idea of breaking down a job into simple or micro components is not new. Think of the classic assembly line with each station responsible for a specific repeatable task. Off-shoring used this logic to remove the more “mundane” tasks of customer service and call centers or even computer programming from high cost labor centers to countries with a well-educated and populous workforce where wages were low. And while these workers were expected to learn about and be connected to the task owners business, in the case of crowdworking, the workers have no relationship with the task owners at all, except as a point of revenue.
The success of the model means that larger businesses are investigating the usefulness and utility of posting jobs to these sights. The “taskification” of jobs might mean that companies start looking at any number of simple tasks that make up a full-time or part-time employees’ day which could more economically be carried out by a worker in Bangladesh who has a master’s degree and is chronically underemployed vs the North American worker earning $50,000 a year.
And as was demonstrated by off-shoring even traditional knowledge worker roles can be “taskified” into smaller fragments. This on-demand, task-based approach offers companies the ability to tap into an unlimited network of resources including technical experts, seasoned professionals, robots or simply human labor to complete a wide variety of tasks. What this means for the future of work will be played out soon and one thing that we can count on is that new generations of workers will once again, be forced to adapt.