Somewhere in Chihuahua Mexico there is a young mother chasing her toddler around the living room while chatting online over Skype.
She used to work for $50 a week in one of the city’s grimy maquiladoras — the foreign-owned factories that manufacture American consumer products for export.
Each week she paid another 4% of those meager wages to the corrupt labor union that claimed to represent her interests.
Now she earns almost as much in one day as she used to earn in a week. She works from the new home she just purchased with her husband.
Her “job”? She’s self-employed and spends her days teaching Spanish to clients from all over the world using a Skype-video connection.
She was my Spanish teacher a couple of years ago and even with a new baby bouncing on her knee then was an exceptionally gifted teacher who racked up great reviews from her students.
Her story fascinated me, so I asked her one afternoon how she did it. She told me that she answered an online ad to tutor Spanish students and in a very short time built that into a business contracting with several online language tutoring companies.
She’d never met any of her clients or even her “employers” face to face.
Her experience represents a cataclysmic change that will soon define the future of work for the rest of us.
If you want to get a sense of what that future looks like, I highly recommend a fantastic little eBook by Robert Paterson called You Don’t Need a Job (The Rise of the Network).
Paterson starts with the premise that the future of work will follow well-defined structures based on the laws of nature rather than the regimented, grid-like industrial-age structures that defined most of the 20th century.
The best way to encapsulate Paterson’s vision is with the following photographs — a brain cell, the universe, and a third photograph I added – a map of the Internet.
For simplicity’s sake, lets refer to such structures as the “Ford Model” – the revolutionary industrial systems and processes that created most of the mass markets of the 20th century.
Pretty astounding isn’t it?
Paterson’s observation is that the regimented, assembly-line systems and structures that defined the industrial age – while very effective for their time — have served their purpose. They are now dying.
The most important step we can take as individuals, he believes, is not to resist, protest, or reform such systems. It’s for us as individuals to move on and let them die.
What will replace those systems is a return to a work environment that better approximates natural processes.
In short, Paterson envisions a “Back to the Future” scenario defined by the “artisan” — the dominant paradigm of the pre-industrial age when communities were largely decentralized, self-sufficient, and when 80% of us did not even have anything we would define as a “job”.
The emerging networked world will have many of the same characteristics of the pre-industrial artisanal age (decentralization, resilience, self-reliance, smaller and human)– but with a twist: This time we will all be networked and interconnected.
As Paterson points out, centralized organizations, structures and systems have become highly inefficient, prone to failure and have reached the point of diminishing returns.
Just as the Ford Model won because it cut the costs of goods and services in its day, so too will the decentralized network model win today for the same reasons.
Our new networked world explains why a company like Craigslist with only 20 employees could completely disintermediate the advertising-based revenue model of an entire newspaper industry by allowing buyer and seller to interconnect instantly and for free.
It explains why a company like the Khan Academy started by one guy in his living room is now a direct challenge to our entire centralized education establishment — not only in the U.S., but globally.
And it explains how my Spanish tutor was able to create a wildly successful home based business that generates more income than she ever could have imagined.
In Paterson’s vision, the networked artisanal world of the future will not be limited by your credentials – ancient artifacts of a dying industrial system – but will only be limited by the size, purpose and trust of your network.
As he explains, if you are a Drupal programmer, no one cares if you have credentials or not. They don’t care what you look like, smell like, how you dress, or where you sit in the social hierarchy. You either excel at Drupal or you don’t.
To paraphrase the famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog… And if you have skills and talent, nobody cares.”
This is the future of work, and the implications for our own work lives are fascinating to ponder:
Imagine if your work were location-independent, you didn’t have to commute to the office to sit in a cubicle for 8 hours a day, and could live anywhere on the globe you wanted.
What if you weren’t limited to the obligatory two weeks of vacation offered by your employer, but could travel freely whenever and wherever you wanted as long as you met your work commitments?
What if you could be your own boss and pursue those things you were truly passionate about while picking and choosing the clients you wanted to work for?
And most importantly… What if you could do all of this and still run circles around employees at large companies burdened by the high overhead costs, legacy rules, inefficient structures, and suffocating bureaucracy of the industrial age systems from which you are now liberated?
Paterson lays out a compelling and optimistic vision that this in fact, is our future. In other words, our “jobs” (at least the way we’ve historically envisioned them) are indeed at grave risk, but how we work is about to become much more liberating.
Coming up: Old institutions won’t go down without a fight…