Even the terminology is outdated: “employee“? “temp“? Which new words can we appropriate to more accurately express the evolving relationship of humans to their work? “Temp” sounds like someone you ought to feel sorry for. “Employee” sounds like a worthwhile life goal. But does this reflect reality?

The “jobless recovery” in the U.S. and the swelling ranks of freelancers give new critical mass to the consultant caste, and open the debate on their terms of engagement to a broader audience. Traditionally, the consultant had to be a hustler to survive; a sharp negotiator, someone with an ability to put a figure on anything with confidence and quickly. According to the Iowa Policy Project, a nonpartisan thinktank, 26% of the U.S. workforce had jobs in 2005 that were in one way or another “nonstandard”. That’s more than one quarter of the American workforce. Co-working is on the rise.  More than ever before, people are going to have to negotiate their work life on a piecemeal, week-by-week basis and the gap between the mindset and skills set of the employee and the free agent  will narrow. This week’s BusinessWeek cover story shows a photo of a harassed looking woman meant to represent “The permanent temporary workforce” with a potted plant in one hand and the other hand sporting a bandage for RSI.

Dee Hock, founder of VISA, was way ahead on this debate and predicted: ”In organisations of the future, the concept of superior/subordinate will crumble as we come to understand that everyone must constantly, simultaneously lead and follow and our governmental, educational, commercial and social organizations must be reconceived to enable them to do so.”

The superior/subordinate issue is just one. Another is the increasing complexity of our social networks. This will force us to adopt more complex concepts of our personal identities and the way we interact with others. Look at how you express yourself differently across different social media platforms. On Twitter I tend to share information which is twinned to my environment blog, La Vie Verte. On Friend Feed I tend to focus more on people who are immersed in education, organizational change and community management. On Linked In I tend to my network, a mix of friends and work contacts. And so on. There is no “job description” that governs the way I present myself across these platforms. And the future is going to be more and more like this. Tom Haskins summed this up nicely in a comment on one of Harold Jarche’s blog posts: “For instance, I could think of myself as both a talented, unique somebody and nobody special – just one of us. Then I would relate as someone with special needs, requests, motivations and value to contribute while also being free to respond and reciprocate as if I’m no different from anybody else. If every node in an interpersonal network adopts paradoxes like these, the network would function very responsively, resiliently and adaptively in its context.”

What else? The art of “managing” those who are above and below you will transmute into something else. Right now the bets are on community management as the way of the future. I’m reading Jono Bacon’s “The Art of Community” right now and learning about the nuts and bolts of “herding cats” (the metaphor applies to open source programmers).
The book lays out his experience of 10 years of community management at Ubuntu, and tries to codify that experience with a series of guidelines for managing any kind of community. The underlying assumption of the community management paradigm is simple: big organisations cannot deliver what we need in the 21st century.

Seth Godin talks about the ability to find and organize 1,000 people as being the killer app skill today.  It could be 1,000 people each spending $1,000 on a special interest cruise = one million dollars. Here’s the rub: “What’s difficult is changing your attitude. Instead of speed dating your way to interruption, instead of yelling at strangers all day trying to make a living, coordinating a tribe of 1,000 requires patience, consistency and a focus on long-term relationships and life time value. You don’t find customers for your products. You find products for your customers.”

The old model was: give us your time and your loyalty, and we’ll pay you a check every month, and put away some money for your old age. Today, young people out of college and spending years trying to get the most abject internship with pitiful remuneration and no job prospects. Middle-aged people who are in positions of responsibility in organisations are so stressed and overworked they complain about not having time to think. So mistakes are made serially because of this collective attention deficit disorder, and the margin for feedback loops to improve process is wiped out.

So whether you’re an employee or a temp, get ready for some serious disruption in 2010!