The Future of Work: The Long Job is Dead, the Gig Economy is Here

America's current workforce experiences "short jobs" or "gigs"

How long have you had your current job?

A year? Two years? Five? Ten?

In the U.S. today, the average worker’s tenure in their current job is 4.4 years. You read that right; there’s a dot between the fours. Most American women will have 10.7 jobs in their careers; men will have 11.4.

In contrast, when my dad retired from the West Bend Company in 1989, he’d worked there for 33 years. You read that right; there is no dot between the threes.

Yup, a lot has changed between Dad’s economy and mine. People who study such things would say that my dad had a “long job,” and America’s current workforce experiences “short jobs” or “gigs.”

What’s interesting is how many institutions—government, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, health insurance companies and others—just don’t get it.

When Marti and I visited the White House last year (and by “visit” I mean we had our picture taken in front of it), we saw four huge posters hanging off the front of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building that, ironically, faces the White House. The four posters had one letter on each of them and spelled J-O-B-S.

No doubt, the U.S. Chamber is playing on Americans’ longing for long jobs. But their call for J-O-B-S hides the truth: the U.S. Chamber’s members—like many American employers—don’t support long jobs anymore. They lay off millions during each recession, rely increasingly on part-timers, independent contractors and consultants, and, in many ways, prefer short-term employees. Even their CEOs have short shelf lives.
Long jobs have been gone for a long time. But it’s not just tenure that’s changed; the workforce has changed, too. Our next generation of American workers may prefer the financial security of a long job, but they also relish the variety that our current “gig economy” offers.

Take Marti as one example. When we met in 2004, she was juggling five gigs: slinging coffee at EVP, teaching classes at MATC and UW, helping Phil Porter with his art and doing consulting for small businesses. She wasn’t aching for a long job; she was recuperating from them. She’d had several long jobs in the insurance industry. The money and security were nice, but they zapped her curiosity and trampled her individuality. She prefers the gig economy.

But it’s not just Gen Xers and Millennials who work in the gig economy. Increasingly, Baby Boomers (born 1946– 1964) are, too.

Last year, the first Boomer turned 65, and as they face retirement, they’re not pointing their Cadillacs toward Sun City. They’re working longer.

An AARP survey of people turning 65 reported in 2011 that 46 percent are employed full or part time. And many of them want to work until they fall over.

That doesn’t mean they want to work full-time. Indeed, Boomers are a main driver of the gig economy. My friend Jan recently took a short-term position with a prominent local nonprofit; it’s the perfect gig—she gets to blend all of her amazing skills with a cause she’s passionate about.

And Madison will be better for it.

Baratunde Thurston is another member of the gig economy. He’s the digital director for The Onion, author of How to Be Black and works as a stand-up comedian. He’s not nostalgic for long jobs or the business models that underpin them.

Thurston says, “I was talking to some documentary filmmakers at a conference, and they all just talk about loss, the loss of a model. I can empathize. But I’m not upset that the model is dying. The milkman is dead, but we drink more milk than ever. Do we really want to return to a world of just three broadcast channels?”

And that’s the larger point. There’s a shitload of work to be done in this country. And it’s time for America to wake up, embrace the gig economy and those of us who piece it all together.

Rebecca Ryan and her team help cities and companies become great for the next generation. Can’t wait a whole month to read more from Rebecca? Visit her blog:

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