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Brave New Work

Experts agree: Stable jobs are giving way to a free-agent system.

Margaret Blair is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C., and author of Ownership and Control: Rethinking Corporate Governance for the 21st Century.

I pick up two strands of thought in the corporate sector, and I have difficulty reconciling them. On the one hand, for certain kinds of specific knowledge, executives are extremely concerned that they are not going to be able to hire and keep good people. On the other hand, there's a concern that they don't want to lock themselves in anymore. They don't want to give the impression that this is a job for life.

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AT&T is actually taking part in a new online network, through which they and other companies can market their employees to other employers. AT&T doesn't seem to want to consider their employees as permanent fixtures, but as free agents, obligated to keep up their own skills and forever market themselves.

We may be moving back to a system that in some ways resembles that of earlier times, where you have skilled craftspeople whose primary association is not with a company but with a guild. They move around from project to project. Construction has always operated that way, as has film production and, often, software programming.

A problem is that we don't have the alternative institutions that can support that kind of labor market. AT&T was obviously addressing their own internal needs and recovering from the bad PR of their own layoffs. But maybe they also have a visionary idea. That is, they are trying to improve the mobility of labor by increasing the amount of information that is out there about these employees. It's a matter of putting systems in place that can help workers and keep them comfortable with how they might find work after the current assignment ends.

Maybe more creative work will end up happening through this sort of craft model. Companies may be more at risk in terms of the fluctuation of day-to-day incomes, but they've learned to manage that. Along with that is some uncertainty for employees, but there is also some new freedom. Under that system, workers can control a lot of their own work. It's not inherently bad.

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