In the early 1990s I was in an introductory Industrial/Organizational Psychology class and the professor, someone who worked more often in the non academic world than in it, told us she saw work transforming to non permanent, to contracts. Today we might call them gigs. Whatever the case, the age of the gold watch and pension, of management training programs and lifelong employment are largely gone. That there are exceptions only highlights the rule, the default, the status quo. For most of us we will change careers multiple times, we will have many jobs, and we will not have the sense of job security. This isn’t news. You’ve probably read on this a lot already.
If you’ve looked at projected salaries for positions listed on LinkedIn you might have noticed low little they pay. From The Pew Research Center https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/07/for-most-us-workers-real-wages-have-barely-budged-for-decades/ (emphasis added by me) “But despite the strong labor market, wage growth has lagged economists’ expectations. In fact, despite some ups and downs over the past several decades, today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the
highest-paid tier of workers...Meanwhile, wage gains have gone largely to the highest earners. Since 2000, usual weekly wages have risen 3% (in real terms) among workers in the lowest tenth of the earnings distribution and 4.3% among the lowest quarter. But among people in the top tenth of the distribution, real wages have risen a cumulative 15.7%, to $2,112 a week – nearly five times the usual weekly earnings of the bottom tenth ($426).”
We’ve been taught, through start ups offshoring, through MBA programs and business books to find the lowest possible cost for products and services. We have been taught that employees typically are less knowledgeable than contractors or agencies in particular functions that aren’t entirely unique to particular organizations. The transformation to the gig economy for workers isn’t just about mobility and convenience for those working. It’s also the end of the fairy tale view of full time permanent employment, 1950s style, that many of us grew up being told about.
While there are exceptions to this, maybe in highly regulated industries with a lot of educational requirements or industries with a strong union presence, otherwise, this is where things are headed.
This isn’t a view into the gig economy. It’s the deeper implications. You’re not a soldier, you’re a hired gun. Let’s see what that means.
How Gigs Differ from Employees
When a company would hire someone for the long term they’d be interested in lifelong professional development. You want people to be well rounded, to be able to do a bunch of different things, and to offer different solutions. If you have someone on the payroll for years it makes sense to invest in their continuing education. It makes sense to do trials and plan upgrades and long term support.
When you hire contractors for gigs you do not plan on them being around forever, or paying for their education. You’re paying for something specific.
Agency of Record
In the old days, companies hired an agency to be their agency of record, and they handled their marketing. Increasingly over the last couple of decades we’ve seen brands move to a project by project basis, where internal employees determine strategy, decide on projects and assess agencies. Some of these relationships are more strategic, some more tactical. But the days of skimming a percentage off the top of a big budget you got to use are much like the gold watch, full time permanent jobs now, increasingly rare. And lest you think the client side marketing people have the endangered beast full time permanent jobs, keep in mind the life expectancy of a CMO is 43 months, and when a new boss comes in you can expect them to bring their posse with them.
Focus and Bargain Shopping
We’re seeing more and more services focused on particular tasks or deliverables that can make operating a company cheaper and easier. The downside is, if your job was doing something that can be replaced by a company that specializes in that, that charges little to do it, your job just evaporated. Even if there are just options to make it possible for amateurs to do what you did, with some helping hands, your job likely disappears.
What Does All of This Mean?
The take away from all of this is generalists are out of favor. And the meaning of generalist is becoming more specific. If you’re a master at writing or design or programming you’re now a specialist but in a general sense. This sounds like nonsense, but what it means is you can’t just sell yourself as an expert in your discipline, you need to offer something very specific and tangible. If someone wants to hire someone for an indefinite period to handle lots of things you’re a good choice. However, if someone needs something specific – if they need a project or something precise done, they don’t want a generalist. If you’re an agency or a contractor, a freelancer, a gun for hire, this is very important.
The problem a lot of freelancers and smaller agencies have is a lack of specificity or focus. It’s understandable – you don’t want to paint yourself into a corner, where you can’t pitch for work because you’re saying you’re a specialist in something much more specific. But if you make yourself a generalist your pitch is to people who trust you and know they need someone who knows what they’re doing. In other words, you need someone smart enough to know they need to trust someone, and they need to acknowledge that they can’t do everything themselves. You’re limiting yourself to people who have trust you via referrals or relationship, who know they don’t know everything and they need to trust someone else. These people are not that common, and you need to work hard to sell your personal or agency brand.
Contrast that with offering solutions to specific problems, knowing that’s how companies usually shop these days. If you sell yourself as an expert in small team project management, or graphic design for health supplements, or Facebook ads expert for restaurants, your pitch is a lot simpler, and the mental arithmetic for seeing if you’re what’s needed is a lot simpler. You’re not trying to sell that you can do anything related to buying media or graphic design or programming. You’re offering a solution, not yourself.
You have designers and developers and writers on staff, who could probably learn how to make an app. At the same time, you have a company offer to customize an app for you based off a working one they have that you can test, and you can see examples of the customized versions they’ve made. You’re choosing between asking your employees to take on more work and do something they haven’t done before and paying a vendor to do something they specialize in. If the vendor fails, you blame them. It’s not your fault.
You need to make an annual report. You have staff that could probably handle it. Or you have an agency make it that specializes in reports like that. The perception is they are experts and your employees aren’t. You could probably think of dozens of examples like this. In the end, where we are currently, employees are taken for granted and not empowered to take risks, innovate and succeed. They’re blamed for when things don’t go right and for cultures of stagnation, but they’re not equipped to change those cultures. The idea of long term vision, of planning and training, is largely disappearing with companies and founders shopping for best of breed solutions to particular problems. At the same time, what’s handed off to outside vendors is more tactical, as well. They aren’t empowered to guide strategy and execution – they’re directed to do very specific things.
Knowing the game is the only way to play it with a hope of success. In most organizations, these are the changes that are happening around us.