The Future of Work is the Gig of Disruption or: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Get Back to Work

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You know how some things seem timeless, while others, no matter how annoying, just don’t seem to go away. Or are they both one and the same? That’s the problem: confusion.

One of the biggest threats to humankind today may not be nuclear war or climate change — it may very well be confusion, on a scale larger than the world has ever known. The misplacement of a comma or an innocent misspelling could mean the difference between life or death (or at least the flawed delivery of your Zappos shoes to your undeserving, though outwardly affable, neighbor). In any case, confusion seems to have become the bane of our existence and an accepted feature of our everyday life.

But not for me -- because I have chosen to resist. And my first target is buzzwords — in particular, buzzwords in my research domain. So, today, I have selected three for target practice: the future of work, the gig economy and disruption.

The Future of Work

With revolutionary technology and geopolitical upheavals, we live in changing times and, therefore, with much uncertainty about the future. And yet, there seems to be no shortage of bona fide authorities on the future of work. Sometimes abbreviated as “FOW” in the nomenclature of the illuminati, the future of work is discussed with amazing alacrity by journalists, marketers, pundits and hucksters of every sort. (I’m not judging here — I count myself among the guilty.)

But after seeing many articles with titles like “The Future of Work is Here,” I have to wonder if it’s really the future anymore. Or is there now some other future of work? And if so, when do we reach that elusive FOW?

Usually, by this point in my train of thought, I realize I’ve reached an infinite regress and stop thinking about the topic to avoid going completely insane.

Of course, it’s natural and normal, perhaps, to try to think about what work will be like in the future. What forms it will take. Who or what will do it. Who will have work and who will not. How companies will source and consume work and services and get things done. But is it really that helpful for many of us to keep blabbering about the future of work?

To me, an eco-aware seafood lover, it would be more helpful to ramp up the discussion of the future of fish, while keeping the FOW acronym in circulation or changing it to FOF (since, indeed, no one would probably notice the bait and switch).

The Gig Economy

Now for something truly closer to home (perhaps on your doorstep): the gig economy. The gig economy is not something that will start happening in the future; it’s already happening now. Right?

Well, one thing we do know about the gig economy is that it is increasingly being talked about. The Google Trends line below shows the upward trend in searches with the term “gig economy.” (Google calls it “interest over time,” and the details get a bit complicated, so we needn’t go there now.)

There is a touch of irony here, however, because this increase in searches effectively means more and more people are trying to figure out what the hell the gig economy actually is.

It certainly is difficult to put a finger on a definition. Are gig workers the ones that pick you up and drop you off (or pick up and drop off a package, a meal or a dose of medical marijuana)? Is the gig economy about the millions of workers across the globe who get their work from digital platforms? And does that mean just the low-skill tasks or also the highly skilled engagements? Does it encompass, as Staffing Industry Analysts defines it, essentially any kind of contingent workforce? It almost makes you want to scream.

Recently, Upwork sponsored research that found that only 10% of freelancers surveyed identified the gig economy as the group they worked in. Forty-nine percent identified with the freelance economy. And, geez, only 25% said the on-demand economy! What have things come to?

My answer: The gig is up. Let’s dispense with the use of the term Gig Economy, and let’s start talking about real things. The world of work is changing in radical and complicated ways. So let’s not oversimplify the matter. Let’s not try to condense it down into a neat, little, meaningless pill that is easy to swallow. We are all grown-ups here, aren’t we? (An eerie silence…)

Disruption

Wake up! We are living in a world of disruption. Don’t you know? Everyone is being disrupted, and everyone is disrupting someone — or if they’re not, they’d better start, lest they themselves be disrupted.

And if you don’t think all of this disruption is not the least bit disturbing, you probably should. In the hallowed halls and ivory towers of analyst coveys, big consulting firms and prestigious academic institutions, disruption has entered the canon of terms like digital transformation and reinvention. Is this a good sign?

Has disruption gone too far; or rather, have we gone too far with it? Poor Clayton Christensen, the father of disruptive innovation — even he has been disrupted by Jill Lepore. (Et tu, Brute?) For Christensen’s sake, I’m just hoping he trademarked the term and is raking in the royalties like some heinously successful rock star.

OK, I’m probably being much too hard on disruption. Let me pause and get a dinner napkin, as I have worked myself up into a lather. Yes, we need the concept of disruption, but we need real disruption — when something new happens (or is caused to happen) and upsets other people’s apple carts. It can be a new idea, a new technology, a new product solution or some bad “you-know-what” — and maybe more.

There are two parts: (1) something new and usually unexpected happens and (2) the result is the wreaking of havoc on some status quo. In other words, if I tap you on the shoulder when you are in a conversation with someone, that is interruption, not disruption. If I am the troublemaker in class about to do my thing, then I am only being disruptive with a small “d,” not disruptive with a big "D" (unless, of course, what I have done happens to cause the cascading collapse of traditional education as we know it).

That brings up one other thing: Disruption — or its effect — typically happens quickly (allowing that all things are relative). Amazon was disruptive in the book selling industry, Apple’s iTunes in music. But something like an e-procurement system or a vendor management system (VMS) or a supplier network — none of these, by my understanding, has been disruptive with a big “D.” I guess we could try to argue that they have been transformative, but that opens at least a few cans of worms, so let’s move on.

My main complaint here, as you have no doubt gathered, is that disruption, like the terms future of work and gig economy, has been abused — profanely abused. They are no longer tools in the service of knowledge, but have become, at best, clogs in the plumbing of our understanding. And we need help.

We need a caustic drain cleaner or something more powerful. So I have taken it upon myself to become that iconoclastic terminator, the self-appointed rotocleaner, drain man that all good, sane people will be rooting for. This is now my job, my work, my duty, my gig — or whatever.

For me, buzzwords have become public enemy No. 1. And nothing would satisfy me more than at least one big hyperbolic flush!

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Voices (4)

  1. Philip White:

    I think the adage “don’t read the comments” needs to be extended to “don’t read most articles”. Five Forces taught us that when there are low barriers to entry, the market will be flooded with competitors. The advent of free social media is the one Disruption that your article fails to mention, but journalists everywhere have felt the impact.

    1. Andrew Karpie:

      All well and good, Phillip. The problem is that I am not at all suggesting that disruption does not happen. I am merely skewering the abuse of the term in the contingent workforce space. I could not agree more with you about the disruotion from social media

  2. Leslie Marsh:

    Fantastic read, thank you Andrew! The supply chain can absolutely benefit from conversation that brings into great focus what is happening now . If we are not addressing the now, we are at best ill prepared for the future. I also think that if we can get to a point where we minimize superfluous “noise” around these concepts, it will lead to a greater sense of empowerment among all parties and increase participation in creating the changes we want to see!

  3. Terri Gallagher:

    Agreed Andrew! Too many of those in the space are being disrupted rather than driving (or harnessing the changes to truly elevate the space). It goes beyond mastering a few terms and lingo (hence the confusion) and throwing it into your marketing collateral and calling yourself an official disruptor. You are right, the changes are not coming; they are here and it is creating a world of opportunity for those that get it and stepping in. The customer of today demands it.

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