Last week's big financial headlines underscore the fact that while the economy may be improving, significant long term unemployment is going to be the norm for the foreseeable future. What is the solution? Jobs, most reasonable people say.
Until recently, I wouldn't take any issue with that premise. Who could?
But I believe things are changing.
Instead of thinking about "jobs" in the traditional sense, I think we need to focus on making it easier for people to find work. Businesses today can procure products and services in any number of ways- many of which are significantly more cost effective and less constraining than the notion of expanding payroll.
Don't get me wrong: one of the most rewarding things I do in business is create jobs and hire great people into them. But it's also true that the dynamic of our lower-margin, geographically dispersed economy means that a lot of the "work" that many modern companies do is done by people who are not employees at all.
In speaking with other CEOs, I find that many agree it’s harder than ever to justify the cost of hiring an employee when it's possible to spend far less on contractors or services like Elance and oDesk for things that in-house resources used to do.
And when it does come time to hire an employee, the expectations for what that person needs to be able to do are higher than ever- often including needing to know how to manage international projects through those very services.
Stepping back, when it comes to trying to find solutions to our country's economic and upward mobility challenges, I would argue that as long as we remain fixated on the term “jobs”, we’re not focused on solving the right problem.
A global "find and replace" that substitutes the word "work" for "jobs" would be a good way start to thinking about solving the underlying problem.
The good news is that while jobs are getting harder to find and create, the nature of the new economy makes it possible for people without traditional education and infrastructure advantages to compete for work on a level playing field. Countries like India and China have been ahead of the curve on this trend, but I believe the US is poised for a massive comeback.
When I look at the entrepreneurial opportunities opened up by the Internet, I see a world in which people are connected effortlessly to each other so that someone in need can be paired with someone with a passion to do what is needed.
A hobbyist having trouble tuning the engine on a classic sports car will be able to video chat with an "unemployed" auto worker in Detroit, for example, to help figure out how to get his motor running. A bridesmaid should be able to connect with a freelance special effects designer for help removing an ex boyfriend from scenes for a wedding video. A highly motivated second grader in a troubled school should be able to connect with the CEO of a social media company for a half hour lesson on believing in yourself.
And so on and so forth.
These interactions will be mediated by near-seamless networks and markets that eliminate the barriers to easily doing business with each other. As providers we'll be able to set a range of things we're interested in doing and a minimum price, and the rest will fall into place around our schedule and the schedules of our ideally matched customers.
As our value rises, so will our income.
This is admittedly a wishful scenario- but one that could only exist in a world not constrained by the old rules of "jobs".
Such a future is inevitable in one form or another, and the more we focus on putting people to work, as opposed to just putting people into jobs, the sooner we'll get there.