Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mix-and-Match Careers, or How to Find Work in the New Economy

Richard Florida has been writing for The Atlantic for at least several months now (I started reading in April or May, so I can't reference anything earlier) about his ideas: the Creative Class and its influence on cities and regions in the new economy, and how the new economy will replace the old. He's got a lot of interesting ideas; you should read a sampling of his articles. His latest is about projected job growth in metro regions across the nation, correlating projections to a few characteristics of the regions. The highest R^2 value (strongest correlation) he finds is for the inverse relationship between projected job growth and percentage of residents in the "working class."

"This suggests that the structural forces that are reshaping the U.S. economy from an industrial to a more idea, knowledge, and human capital driven post-industrial economic system will continue to deepen. "

If you've read anything by Florida, this is no news. Consider it required background for the rest of this post. The recession didn't usher in the knowledge economy, but it is striking a death blow to the product economy.

Another recent article from The Atlantic, this one by Derek Thompson, enumerates four interrelated crises that are keeping unemployment at a 50+ year high. Point II is that businesses, uncertain about their economics future, are unwilling to commit to hiring new full-time employees, so they make up their labor shortage with contract work, consultants and part-timers. The result is that contract work is in less of a shortage than full-time, salaried positions. Anecdotally, I've heard my brother has been turning away web design contracts lately because he has enough work.

I don't expect this trend to reverse when the economy picks back up. Companies needing creative workers could probably actually benefit from a high employee turnover, because it would bring in a steady stream of fresh ideas. Contracting out work instead of hiring full time employees would give companies an advantage of being able to change the composition of their workforce quickly and easily by hiring different contractors. If an online service needs designers and developers at the beginning, content creators and support staff after launch, and more developers to expand, they don't have to hire and lay off in cycles. Instead they can just contract out everything. Thompson had actually written about this trend several months ago, so go read his article on the rise of part-timers for more explanation.

As Thompson points out in that older article, the idea of accepting various contracts instead of a full-time career can be appealing to twenty-somethings. I see it as imperative that college students and recent grads, or anyone else starting a career anytime soon, give up on the idea of finding fulfillment in a 9-5 job with a salary and benefits. You may be able to find one of those if you search enough antique stores, but they are unlikely to give the creative class the experience that we seek. In the words of Aesop Rock, "we the American working population hate the nine to five day in, day out when we'd rather be supporting ourselves by being paid to perfect the pastimes that we have harbored based solely on the fact that it makes us smile if it sounds dope." We don't want a career, we want a life.

I expect that to find success in the new economy, creative workers will need to adopt an entrepreneurial spirit and treat themselves as a one-person company selling a service: their own skills. This approach will give creatives the opportunity to apply their creativity to a variety of problems, limited only by their own ability to market themselves. If you can convince a client that you are qualified to do the work, you can do whatever work you want. This mix-and-match approach is very appealing to me, and I expect it is appealing to many of my creative friends who have no idea which sort of "career" they should look for because they are skilled at and interested in so many different things. Another free anecdote: My wife exemplifies this crippling diversity of skills; her blog is about the five careers she wished she could follow.

Creatives, develop your skills. Discover how they can be used to benefit others, because the whole point of this thing we call a "job" is to allow others to support you in exchange for a service with which you can provide them. Learn how to market yourself. And don't let anyone try to tie you down to doing one thing for eight hours a day, five days a week.