The Golden Era of Work: The Great Untethering

There's never been a better time to be a worker, with a robust job market and ample work flexibility. But unintended consequences are cropping up. Second in a series.

Published: Nov 28, 2018

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Talk to anyone in the workforce over the age of 40, and they'll likely regale stories of how their parents woke up at 5 a.m., put on a company uniform, boarded a train to go to work, and didn't return until well past eight. Vacations, if they happened, were carefully orchestrated around the weeklong factory shutdown usually around Christmastime, when workers got a rare reprieve.

Kids today, in contrast, see a much different routine. Maybe it starts with dad dropping them off at school in the morning and then finding a nearby coffee shop to work from. Six hours later, he's picking them up and prepping dinner, while mom works late at the office-which is the local WeWork where she rents out desk space. Vacations happen throughout the year. And if little Johnny gets chicken pox, it's no problem for either mom or dad to work from home or take a sick day, because both their companies offer unlimited sick days

A person's lifetime work hours, by 2040, will average 38% less than in 1995.

Despite the tendency to complain about our work stress (more on that later), it isn't hard to take a long view and realize how great work is these days. Never in the history of employment have we been so untethered from our jobs, allowed to often come and go as we please, and squeeze in errands, gym time, and school plays during traditional work hours. One study by the late economist Robert Fogel estimated that by 2040, a person's lifetime work hours will average 75,900, or 38% less than the 122,400-hour estimate for 1995. Discretionary hours-i.e., for sleeping, eating, relaxing, and more-will hit 321,900 by 2040, up from 298,500 in 1995.

"For years I used to notice when I took a day off that traffic was light," says Katy Caselli, an organizational psychologist in North Carolina and founder of the corporate training firm Building Giants. "But now traffic is always going, because people aren't just commuting and settling into the office and then commuting again eight hours later."

Indeed, the new normal for companies is to actively not hire employees. Instead, they're outsourcing as many jobs as possible, with some firms farming out 20% to 50% of their entire workforces, giving rise to an army of contractors. With fewer incentives-no healthcare insurance, no matching 401(k)-workers can call more of their own shots and make frequent changes, dabbling in this or that, resulting in a career that may look more like a patchwork quilt than a straight line.

And while that opens up a slew of opportunities for workers, the shift to such an untethered environment is also bringing about unintended consequences. Working remotely may offer greater flexibility, but it also can make individuals feel disconnected, particularly if they aren't participating in team building or the occasional break-room office gossip. "The question then becomes, how do we connect people who are disconnected due to location?" says Trish Ryan, president of the staffing-industry firm Ryan Consulting Services, who has worked with organizations that are now requiring individuals to go in the office a few times a month to curb this effect.

Communications may be faster than ever across email, Slack, and texting, but hiring managers say writing skills and overall communication abilities are suffering. (We aren't, at least not yet, at a point where a proposal or presentation can be completed only in emojis.) The need for this skill set goes beyond presentations, though, and is having larger repercussions. "Some people don't know how to stand out and be recognized," Ryan says. "Quick judgements are made from a LinkedIn profile or a Facebook page instead of actually having a conversation with someone." That has also led to higher turnover rates for some companies, as younger workers feel no loyalty to firms the way older generations do.

On a larger scale, the effects over the long term remain unknown, as an entire generation of workers won't have the stability that their parents and grandparents had: pensions, retirement plans, healthcare coverage, tuition benefits, and more. Already this is causing the youngest set of workers to rely on their parents longer; the Pew Research Center estimates that 15% of 25- to 35-year-olds were still living in their parents' homes, up from 10% of Gen Xers who lived in their parents' homes when they were the same age. At the same time, employees under the age of 26 are turning down employer-provided health plans at rapid rates, because many of them are still covered under their parents' plans.

Still, career pros say now is the time to go after the next move, since low unemployment is showing that anyone who wants to work can. After all, companies are pouring $91 billion into training expenditures. And people are quitting jobs at the fastest rate in 17 years, either because they already have a new position in hand or because they're confident they'll be able to find their next gig quickly. "People are no longer slaves to the job," Caselli says. "How to write your own career is only growing."

Click here for part three.

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