Crowd-Sourced Labor: Will It Trump Permanent Employment?

A few weeks ago, I wrote up some of the trends that I'm going to be watching in 2012. One was the interesting phenomena of access to assets replacing ownership of assets in more and more realms. Car-sharing services such as ZipCar, room-sharing services such as AirBnB, and project-based programming services from companies like odesk are upending a lot of our assumptions about what it takes to run a business. Indeed, owning anything may soon be seen as an industrial-age relic in a lot of cases.

The trouble with assets is that owning them creates inflexibility that can cause problems when things change. And, as "things changing" starts to be more of the norm, figuring out how to unload assets — and people — becomes a significant problem. In addition, we often don't need an asset on a permanent basis: being able to borrow it for as long as we need it is good enough. Which brings us to the interesting question of when an employer would hire someone rather than simply pay for the services used on an as-needed basis.

I was intrigued, therefore, to see the Wall Street Journal featuring the use of crowdsourced, as opposed to dedicated, resources by AOL to get jobs done. This is similar to traditional outsourcing, but also different in significant ways: the labor of thousands of people on teeny, tiny little tasks can be combined to accomplish jobs that machines can't do. The employer doesn't need to make a commitment even to a temporary project team, much less to permanent employees.

While this obviously has downsides for the workforce — work that employees used to do can now be farmed out on the open market — it also has surprising positives. For some workers, it's desirable to earn a little pin money, work when it is physically difficult or undesirable to get to a fixed job, and pick one's hours.

Indeed, a lot of "regular" jobs aren't all that attractive. Consider a study published by the New York Times which found that, even though they are regular employees, retail workers tend to have unstable, unpredictable work schedules, making it difficult to plan child care, enroll in school, or handle other responsibilities. Perhaps those workers are in a transitional stage — their work is not yet crowdsourced or outsourced, but the stability and predictability that conventional jobs once offered them is long gone.

Which of course raises the issue: Many of the assumptions about society that we take for granted are based on the notion that relatively stable employment relationships are the norm. When will our thinking catch up with the new reality?

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