My consulting firm Competitive Futures has one thing – and just one thing – in common with Uber: neither of us want to create a single job if we can help it.
Yup, we’re both anti-job, as are most corporations these days, a state of affairs which should be an absolute nightmare to every single member of the workforce, not to mention every single politician on Earth. Also to be concerned are the civil servants tasked with economic development which is almost uniquely measured in full-time jobs created. The concern and worry are of little importance, though – this trend is unstoppable. So get ready for an all out assault on the full-time, benefits-paying job, as well as an uncertain future.
There’s nothing you can do.
The history of Gobbe creation
Now, lest you think I’m a sociopath like, say, Thomas Friedman, who tells you to deal with CEOs forcing you into labor competition with emerging economies by “being special,” I’m no elitist monster chuckling while you race to the bottom of the wage pool with Burundi. In fact, I do create employment and even enjoy paying good wages for people who are really great at trend analysis and other functions essential to helping executives with high-level strategy. But, like Uber and IBM and AirBnB and lots of companies these days, I don’t want to create jobs – I’d rather create gobbes.
I know, what the hell am I talking about? What the hell is a gobbe? If you’ve ever seen Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory or been to a construction site, you have a clue as to our economic history. The Brits continue to use the word “gob” to mean mouth, hence the magical everlasting gob-stopper. Contractors don’t arrive at their salaried positions, they arrive at a job site. The origin of the word job comes from gobbe, old English for a “big mouthful of food.” Back in the day, the only people who had stable position in the world were the nobility, invested by the king with land and title and thereby entitled to rents on an annual basis. The rest of everybody had to simply hustle every day, using their skills for whatever needed to be done to get to a gobbe, a mouthful of food.
It sounds precarious, and it was, but as science and technology progressed throughout the Western world, eventually Europe saw the formation of guilds, groups that would protect each other, collect up a sick fund, assure the skill of its members, and direct them to where the best gobbes could be found. In the case of the Masons, the guild of coordinate the arrival of labor at wherever the latest cathedral was being built by whichever monarch sucking up to the Pope at that time. The pay was still in gobbes, but the guild helped make sure people had access to sleeping arrangements and other niceties. (And to make sure you were dealing with actual Masons and not freaks looking for a free meal, they came up with rituals and handshakes as an early form of information security, something that made them seem secretive and creepy for centuries.)
All of this changed in the Industrial Age, when the capital formation and technology reached a point where you could put a factory in some central location and have your labor live around it in an urban environment. It was rather dirty, dangerous, and smelly, but the notion of stable employment was born since the factory wouldn’t just one day be finished, like a cathedral or a bunch of horseshoes. It was at this moment that the gobbe became the job, a social position you could get and maintain on a long-term basis, providing stability to both the capital-owning class and laborers.
Now, those laborers weren’t guaranteed not to lose a hand in a giant set of gears, which launched the labor movement and communism, but the essential idea was that laborers wanted a set of guarantees to go along with this modern concept of the job. First, they wanted to not die at work, next they wanted a weekend, and then they wanted stability that really only the aristocracy had enjoyed. And for around 150 years, the system has worked pretty well.
Hierarchy loves jobs, Wirearchy loves gobbes
As taxi drivers know all too well, the Internet – especially the mobile Internet – is playing havoc with jobs. Like Uber, the mobile web allows us to coordinate supply and demand in spectacular new ways which, if you’ve invested in a $100,000 hack license to drive cabs, is an absolute disaster. If you’re an ad agency or web developer, or soon with telemedicine, even a doctor, the Internet is opening new customers and brand new competition, and possibly wage pressure. Or perhaps it’s giving you brand new audiences, as indy authors and musicians have discovered. In any event, the mobile web is really great for gobbes and hostile to jobs. Many big corporations are very excited about trading gobbes for jobs, and leaving you to pay your own benefits. It’s more efficient, after all! Don’t you agree?
The end of job is upon us because hierarchy is being exchanged for Jon Husband’s truly visionary concept of wirearchy, a society where traditional, stable, inflexible, stationary institutions are replaced with networks that operate from peer-to-peer in real time as a way to coordinate nearly every aspect of our lives. The fact is, this transition is making a real mess, in everything from news media to academia to taxis. Unless we cut it out with all of the gadgets, chances are this techno-social evolution is, like the end of the job, quite inexorable because our old, stable institutions are to be replaced by new, flexible, efficient networks that are making everything cool, fast, and uncontrollably chaotic.
The real challenge here is political. As societies and democratic political entities we must create new institutions that can provide social order and happiness as we move between the two systems. The economy, let us not forget, is still based on vast armies of lawyers arguing over intellectual property rights. It’s still about governments that insert themselves in the relationship of employer and worker to create a tax base. We still measure economic progress primarily in jobs, not in flows of money in exchange for work. In America, we still have healthcare tied to your job unless you are old, poor, or disabled. But the rules of employment, the rules about how to create that weird thing called a job are changing at breakneck speed. When these things get really dodgy all at once and laborers perceive a massive loss of position, they often start talking revolution and brand new social orders. Unless I’m reading history incorrectly, this can get ugly.
Every politician should be laser focused on what this means. Every business person needs to understand what’s at stake. Every worker needs to be extra special and impress the CEO so he doesn’t send your job to Bangladesh. (Totally kidding! Though, no, seriously, that’s what Thomas Friedman recommends.)
The gobbe may be the enemy of the job, but it’s also its past and future. Really the stability was temporary, as most stability often is. The challenge before us is really think through what it will mean to end the job as a means of wealth transfer while maintaining the integrity of the whole system. This is no small order.
As for me, if you’ve got mad skills in competitive intelligence, trend analysis, and foresight, send me a CV. I may have a gobbe for you.