To get a sense for the likelihood of top talent shifting away from the firm and toward gig labor, we first have to understand the conditions that brought about firm-based work in the first place. Here’s how I’d break that down:
- Knowledge limitations: Knowledge was hard to obtain and diffuse across specialists, necessitating teams.
- Productivity limitations: The pre-digital landscape demanded far more intensive time resources, necessitating teams.
- Networking limitations: An individual’s ability to source jobs usually couldn’t match the steady stream of work found at firms.
- Safety-net limitations: There were scarce substitutes for health, legal, financial security outside of firms.
- Cultural limitations: Postindustrial, pre-Millennial mind-sets just didn’t tend to foster a go-it-alone attitude on a mass scale.
With respect to (1) knowledge and (2) productivity, the sheer complexity of many workplace challenges historically meant that eventually no one person was capable of keeping the whole project in his or her head; there was simply too much to know and too much to do. But knowledge resources and productivity tools have improved vastly in the past five to 10 years. Even simple tools like Lynda.com, YouTube, Google Docs, and Adobe Creative Cloud have made cross-disciplinary knowledge dramatically easier for workers—especially independent workers—to pick up.
With respect to (3) networking, “platform” startups create efficient labor exchanges that rely on little more than individual pocket computing power. When talented individuals can easily find gigs, one of the only apparent advantages of working at a firm might be its ability to foster teamwork. But even gig platforms might be able to solve that, too. People can use their smartphones to find co-collaborators and coworking spaces on their own. Think Upwork, HourlyNerd, Meeet.co, and WeWork.
With respect to (4) safety nets, thanks in large part to the health care reforms of the past decade, gone are the days of sticking with a firm solely for the benefits. Legal and tax-accounting security used to be sticky, too. How else could the humble knowledge worker safely contract his or her time while accurately reporting income to the IRS? But these services are now a cinch, from Healthcare.gov and LegalZoom to Xero.com and TurboTax, among others.
With respect to (5) cultural limitations, knowledge workers are getting much more comfortable finding creative ways to earn a living in the digital landscape. Native digital culture has broadened millennials’ options in particular—their average job tenure is only two years versus boomers’ seven—which incidentally feeds back into (1) knowledge above. Millennials intentionally amass more job experiences and self-directed learning by age 30 than their parents or grandparents ever needed or desired.
A RECRUITING BATTLE ROYALE
In earlier days of knowledge work, these limitations made firm-based collaboration not just desirable but necessary. As these conditions subside, however, the sheer necessity of collaboration evaporates. But people may still opt for it on the basis of nostalgia or merely habit, but it’s simply less crucial for a job well done.
In some industries, there’s now one freelance “comprehensivist” where there used to be a team of specialists.