In 1970, a Yale law graduate named Charles Reich published “The Greening of America”. In it, he traced a turn in world view from what he named Consciousness I (the outlook of local farmers, self-directed workers, and small-business people) to what he called Consciousness II (the outlook of a society of systems, hierarchies, and corporations). He thought that Consciousness II was giving way to Consciousness III: direct action, community power, and self-definition.
We have been dulled and blinded to the injustice and ugliness of slums, but the new consciousness sees them as just that — injustice and ugliness —as if they had been there to see all along. We have all been persuaded that giant organizations are necessary, but it sees that they are absurd, as if the absurdity had always been obvious and apparent. We have all been induced to give up our dreams of adventure and romance in favor of the escalator of success, but it says that the escalator is a sham and the dream is real.
The Greening of America dominated the bestseller lists for 36 weeks and sold 2 million copies. It has been out of print for almost two decades, but its lessons linger. Like Reich, exponents of the gig economy eschew the grind of the forty hour work week. The virtues espoused by giggers are that of flexibility, freedom, adventure, and defiance: qualities that attract those of the Consciousness III generation. The so-called millennials.
What is the gig economy?
It goes by many names – the sharing economy, the on-demand, peer-to-peer, or platform economy – but the most popular colloquialism is “the gig economy”. From Uber to Taskrabbit, Airbnb, and Fiverr, up to 162 million people in Europe and the United States engage in some form of independent work.
The number is predicted to jump to 43% by 2020. A Deloitte report discovered 42% of executives surveyed expect to increase or significantly increase the use of contingent workers in the next three to five years. 76% expect that automation will require new skills in the workforce in the next one to three years.
Companies like Airbnb and Uber embody the trend, but they are not the only beneficiaries of the gig economy. Companies in all sectors, from construction to logistics to business services, are tapping into freelance workers as part of their regular workforce. At a more basic level, this means that jobs of the future are uncertain: we cannot teach students how to prepare for jobs that don’t exist yet. This has, in turned, commodified the ability to learn.
Learning as a skill
Lifelong learning is replacing the traditional college experience, where higher education is a phase students enter at 18 and exit at 22. Instead, a new set of providers that offer education in short spurts has risen: from free online courses at EdX and Coursera to online skills at Lynda and bootcamps like General Assembly.
There are approximately 63 coding bootcamps operating in the U.S and Canada, teaching basic programming skills to students without previous experience. They have a simple goal: to get you a job.
Because General Assembly, Coursera, and Lynda are focused only on job-relevant skills, the outcome is easy to measure. Graduates either get a job or they don’t. General Assembly, for instance, claims some 90% of its graduates find a job within 6 months.
Employers are recognising this paradigm shift as well, spending $413 billion on informal, on-the-job training annually (in comparison, individuals spend about $30 billion for professional education and certification). The pursuit of knowledge is a skill on its own: Coursera’s most popular offering is “Learning How To Learn”.
How to prepare students for the gig economy
66% of millennials aspire to start their own business; independent work supplying the cashflow for entrepreneurial pursuits. In gigging lingo, they are known as hedgers.
These are programmers who moonlight as DJs, auditors who create popular Youtube videos, terracotta potters who consult for large finance companies, and Instagram models who toil as divorce lawyers. The hedged career is a kind of gigging career: custom-assembled, financially diverse, and defiant of organisational constraint. Hedgers combine the benefits of traditional employment – a fat 401k, health benefits, and a steady paycheque – with the freedom and passion of a side job.
There is a phrase for these moonlighting jobs: side hustles. They range from the glamorous – handmade jewelry on Etsy, art prints on Society6 – to the mundane: baristas, Uber drivers, and copywriters. It can be a way to make extra cash on the side, or a way of diving into your true passion without compromising a day job.
For students to be able to hedge their bets, they must begin early. The ability to transfer knowledge between the classroom and the workplace and back again fuels both the gig and learning economy, and employers have shifted their attention from recruiting seniors to scoping out juniors to be interns the following summer. Key skills to succeed will be time management, the ability to learn and its corollary thirst for knowledge, creative thinking, and negotiation skills.
Career paths will be neither clear nor straightforward for millennials. Learning is now a lifelong necessity, but many fresh graduates will struggle throughout their lives to reimagine their careers and find the right training at the right time and price. Online platforms will attempt to bridge this gap, but for those used to a traditional employment model, it may be an unpleasant mindset shift.
As we approach Consciousness III, it’s time for higher education to focus on the career development of its undergraduates. If they don’t take on this responsibility, it will be them next on the market.