Story of the Jacks
"Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f**king big television, washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers ... Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home." Such goes the life advice Irvine Welsh gave to Generation X in the opening of his antihero novel Trainspotting. 20 years later, the Generation Y, also called millennials, is redefining professional success and personal status symbols.
Career? Nowadays it is commendable to drop out of college to become an entrepreneur. In fact, Silicon Valley billionaires such as Peter Thiel have even set up "dropout grants" to support students who are wishing to drop out of school to start a new company.
Family? It is fine to live together permanently with no strings attached and no kids.
Big television? Already a relic, as social media have replaced the time millennials used to spend watching television.
Car ownership? According to a 2014 study of the Rockefeller Foundation, 66 percent of millennials rate "reliable public transportation" as one of the three most important factors in deciding where to live. Go, figure.
Home ownership is also no longer hip, as millennials are renting instead of buying. On the cool scale, living permanently in a luxury hotel or serviced condominium is the new having a mansion in the suburbs.
In short, millennials don't like commitments, and jobs are no exception. The average millennial is expected to change between 15 and 20 jobs in the course of his or her working years; long gone is the lifelong loyalty to a corporation with steadfast servitude for years on end, waiting for the next promotion.
"My résumé doesn't fit into a page!" complains the quintessential "Jack" at the age of 28. As a millennial born between the early 80s and late 90s, Jack has long discovered that job-hopping is the secret to success in an intensely competitive world. "Why bother with a career when there are no guarantees?" he asks, having held a variety of unrelated jobs in six short years, despite his background in chemical engineering at a prestigious college.
Thanks to the failure of social safety nets, especially after the Great Recession, the millennials have grown cynical of long-term careers and all the benefits associated with it such as prestige, job security and a hefty pension. Entrepreneurship is on the rise and accumulating experience in a job is not as important as it used to be.
How did this happen, and all so fast?
Let's be honest. The demise of specialized careers had already started with the rise of liberal arts education whereby somebody who studied anything can go on to work in anything. A guy like me who studied political science in college could then go on to become a management consultant-turned-pharmaceutical manager-turned-reporter-turned-technology entrepreneur, with still decades to go in the work force.
To add to that came the worldwide web, which trivialized specialization. Thanks to the virtually infinite amount of organized data on the Internet, we all started acting as single-serving physicians, handymen, gym instructors, publishers, cooks, photographers, psychologists, translators and many more in various points of our daily lives.
Specialization was once the virtue of the most prized worker. "The division of labour [...] increases very much dexterity of the workman," Adam Smith had observed in his seminal Wealth of Nations, but modern trends are tearing apart the Smithian order of capitalism in favor of the Jacks of the world.
Story of the freelancers
It is only in the last few years that the jack-of-all-trades transformation of the labor force has become relevant for everyone. Increasingly, it is not only the Ivy League kids and the tech whizzes who shun traditional careers. The zeitgeist they have created is trickling down all the way to unskilled labor. And that is made possible by the rise of mobile applications.
By allowing real-time exchange of information over a purpose-built computer program, mobile apps are now used by many ordinary men and women to monetize their time, rather than a hard-earned skill.
Instead of being a cook or plumber for life, they are now getting paid as a cook, plumber, driver, bodyguard and many other professions simultaneously on an hourly basis. Within a few years of their launch, companies such as Uber and Lyft have turned regular guys with cars into part-time taxi drivers, while companies like FancyHands let people do others' chores on daily rates and those like HourlyNerd allow more sophisticated freelancers to sell consulting projects by the hour.
Generalist entrepreneurs and their freelancers are shaping the new order of business. So, what does this mean for the world?
For one, it means that more full-time jobs will be replaced by part-timers because it is mutually efficient. Just as auctioning off time by the hour affords the freelancers to maximize the financial return on their time, along with personal schedule flexibility, it also allows the companies to hire labor only as needed, scale up and down as demand fluctuates and not worry about cumbersome layoff processes.
In fact, by 2020, more than 40 percent of the US workforce will be so-called contingent workers, according to a study conducted by the software company Intuit.
This also means that with the rise of mobile applications and the so-called sharing economy we are finally nailing the coffin of specialization. The future of business belongs to many careerless entrepreneurs with good ideas, their hourly freelancers of all trades and the investors who will back their ventures.
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