Work Has Always Changed

It’s the time of the year where futurists make predictions (we really need more follow-up on those) and big proclamations are upon us.  Among these I’ve been reading are, “Work has changed forever!” and “Is this the end of the 9-5 workday?”

The implications of the 9-5 workday are two-fold:

  • Once the US moved from a manufacturing economy to a service one in the late 20th century, buyers began to expect 24/7 service. Obviously, that’s not conducive to a single work schedule.  While this led to some outsourcing of many service positions (and the infrastructure that supports them), it led to many different work schedules onshore as well.
  • For non-service positions, this phenomenon is more closely linked to the autonomy provided during work from home. But, even this was taking place pre-pandemic via the gig economy.  Once office workers got a taste of the value of controlling their own work schedule they have decided that they don’t want to give that up and the continuing Great Resignation has given them the leverage to keep it.

So, the 9-5 workday has been eroding for many years.  I am not going to predict where it is going, but I think the trend is that we will continue to see fewer 9-5 jobs, even as some employers are insisting on more traditional schedules due to return to work edicts.

I don’t know if the pandemic and resulting economic implications changed work as much as it changed how a lot of people feel about work.  When your employer (or the government) decides that your job is “essential,” but you don’t feel that your compensation is reflective of your essential-ness, you are going to have a more transactional approach to that relationship.  This had led to unionization in sectors which had not had them before and increases in wages and working conditions in restaurants.

For office workers (and management), the pandemic revealed some other new truths:

  • You don’t have to go to an office everyday to be productive.
  • Things that were thought to be a part of work that were not great (e.g., commuting, inflexible schedules) are bugs, not features.

The current low unemployment rates will continue to provide people the opportunity to flex their autonomy regarding how they want to work so that they feel better about it.  The current levels of this won’t last forever, but I think it is realistic to think that the rates of job switching will stay high relative to future unemployment rates in the near term.  People now understand that they do not have to put up with what they feel are not great working conditions.  This additional turnover could provide people with more options, even when unemployment rates creep up.

Change is every present.  It’s hard to predict, but easier to understand and adjust for if we seek to understand the causes.  The bigger mistake is assuming (hoping?) that things will go back to the way there were.  That just is not realistic after such an impactful event as the pandemic.  Regarding employment trends, we are much better off looking ahead, even if that doesn’t include making predictions from a crystal ball.

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