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From the Desk of the Executive Director

Ken Phillips is co-founder and Executive Director of Independent Contractors of Australia. He is a published authority on independent contractor issues and directs research on related commercial and trade practices issues. Through his numerous articles in newspapers and think-tank and academic journals, Ken is known for approaching issues from outside normal perspectives and is frequently sought out for media comment.

Is employment dying or will arrogance prevail?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In the introduction to my book Independence and the Death of Employment I begin with a quotation from the Roman Emperor Caligula in 41AD where he says'Bear in mind that I can treat anyone exactly as I please'. (You can read the Introduction to my book for free.) Caligula could and did do as he pleased. In the extreme, he had legal authority over life and death without constraint. At a whim he had people killed for nothing other than his amusement.

Is this the mark of a 'civilisation'? Hardly! High-order civilisations are marked by the extent to which all humans are treated with respect, dignity and equality under the law. Achieving this has been one of the greatest of human struggles. Democracy is one of the greatest of achievements in this area. So is the dignity and respect, embedded in law, in the treatment of religious views and practices, sexual preferences, persons with disability and so on.

The hallmark of these developments is that individuals have the right to be themselves, to make their life decisions as they see fit---but all this within the framework of respecting the decisions that all other individuals make. Somehow, rather than this resulting in chaos and disharmony, it results in order and harmony. Don't ask me why. But the miracle of the human spirit is of better societies when each individual can 'do their own thing' within the framework of mutual respect.

As this trend develops there is one area where 'Caligula lives'. In the way our working lives are organised, the law, social institutions and attitudes push and enforce work into a command-and-control process.

However, since the 1970s at least, there's been a clear shift. People are demanding control of their own working lives. In the economically developed world, the bondage of command-and-control employment is being replaced by self-employment. People control themselves. Research indicates that this accounts for around one in five people in the workforce. In the USA the figure is around one in four.

It's quite a staggering shift in the nature of society. It's something I've devoted my time and energy to researching, understanding, commenting, advocating and lobbying on. It's why Independent Contractors Australia exists.

Some commentators of late have been going as far as to say that this trend line is so strong that, by 2050, 'employment' will have faded to nothing. And these are not the predictions of isolated individuals but of people deeply involved in large global businesses who witness the trend across the global environment. Forbes magazine, for example, says that for the USA it is the 'age of independence'.

But will employment 'die'? My emotional sympathies may be with this view but my observations tell me to be cautious. The reason is because of Emperor Caligula. There's an inbuilt 'DNA' within the human psyche that causes people to want to 'control' other people. It's a powerful force.

It's evident in countries run by dictators. Democracy constrains and frustrates that ambition. Religious fanatics want to control all those around them.

In the work environment, the urge of one group to 'control' others is institutionalised. The law generally assumes that command-and-control dominance is the way firms are organised. Public service bureaucracies are structured on hierarchical controlling relationships. Tax, anti-discrimination and related laws are likewise similarly structured. In the private sector, larger firms are organised as controlling bureaucracies. The legal and human resource professions enforce this arrangement. And the assumption that this is the way things are, always have been and must be, is powerfully ingrained in politics and attitudes in relation to business. The very existence of trade unions and the way they operate is entirely based on the assumption of 'controlling' employment. Further, vast numbers of individuals in business hold to the view that the way they can personally acquire wealth is only if they have 'control' of others in the work situation.

To overcome this requires higher order human behaviours. It means people seeing their work relationships in different ways, where 'control' comes through relationships of mutual respect for each individual. This is often talked about but the 'talk' is rarely 'walked'.

These, then, are questions:
  • Can or will employment die? Will self-employment take over?
  • Will the Caligula factor always push work into command and control?
  • Or will the way people organise work develop so that the urge to control is systemically, institutionally and behaviourally suppressed under the mutual respect that accompanies a focus on individuality?
  • Is this just a conspiracy by people who want control but pretend to be fair?
Let us know what you think by posting us your comments (see link below).

Here are some interesting quotations:

From: 'For American workers it's the age of independence':
    "...the undisputed reward of independence is accompanied by the burden of empowerment."

    "Following a job loss or layoff, professionals turn to self-employment largely out of desperation. The study debunks this myth, and validates something I have known for more than 25 years of serving the independent professional market---people choose to be independent not out of force but because they love what they do."
From: 'By the year 2050 employment will have disappeared':
    "...the Industrial Age brought about the modern employee and a new type of bondage in the form of unions. This bondage is being replaced by independence."

    "As a result, the panel expects that the term "employee" will probably disappear in the second half of the 21st century as workers transition into becoming their own business, with full time workers being replaced with part-timers and freelancers who will negotiate with other businesses on a contractual basis."
John F commented on 16-May-2012 01:40 PM
Hi Ken The academics producing research on small businesses seem to have their own ideas of an acceptable model of work/life division. They seem to "know" where that division should occur, in terms of hours at work or hours with relaxation, and hence,
"know" what is good or bad. They seem to miss the point; some of us genuinely love and prefer our work to frivolous activities such as boozing at the pub, or shrieking at football matches. Some of us get so much satisfaction from our business that we have
no need for other outlets. And the wives of those of us who work from home probably wish that we would spend more away with clients, and less time in the home office under her feet.

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