06/19/2013 02:21 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2013

Adapting to a World Without Jobs

In 1994, the organizational consultant William Bridges predicted the end of jobs as the way of organizing work. Almost 20 years later, it's looking like he might have been right. Now, half of working Americans are earning income from sources other than traditional jobs -- as freelancers, consultants, contingency workers, independent contractors, and temps.

Bridges predicted that labor-saving technologies would eliminate the jobs of full-time employees who fulfill strictly prescribed duties for unvarying pay during regular hours. He saw that such traditional jobs are a rigid solution to an elastic problem in a fast-moving economy. Employers focused on cutting costs are not going to hire full-time employees when the work that needs to be done doesn't require full-time attention. Already they have laid off most of the middle managers who once were needed to supervise employees.

Bridges wrote: "No longer the best way to organize work, the traditional job is becoming a social artifact. Its decline creates unfamiliar risks -- and rich opportunities." These opportunities are obvious both to employers and to experienced workers with highly developed skills. For example, a worker can perform a specialized task for a number of companies on contracts that do not require the service on a full-time, permanent basis.

An opportunity for Baby Boomers

Older workers who are creative and entrepreneurial are taking advantage of this shift in the labor market, seizing it as an opportunity to work past retirement age without being tied to a nine-to-five schedule. The Baby Boom generation has received the gift of 20 active, healthy years added to the middle of the life span, thanks to nutrition, exercise, and the medical miracles of the last century. Over the years since Bridges talked about the end of jobs, the share of workers planning to continue employment past the age of 65 has quadrupled, from 10 percent to 40 percent. The shift is due, in part, to the workers' need for income with the shrinking of savings accounts and pension plans. Many Boomers, however, also seek personal satisfaction, choosing to forge new careers in fields that interest them or work for causes that they believe in.

Technology and longevity have given Boomers choices that did not exist previously. New ways of doing work have also given seniors the flexibility to take charge of their work schedule, work environment, and work focus. Experienced workers of any age who use current technologies and stay informed about market trends should be able to match their skills to opportunities for meaningful paid work. Professionals in their late sixties and seventies have the advantage, however, when it comes to coping with the insecurity of contract employment, because this cohort is more likely to have health care coverage and some pension savings as a cushion between contracts.

Safety in "flexicurity"

Both employers and workers benefit from the flexibility of labor contracts written to meet changing needs. But employers and workers also must contend with the insecurity that is inherent in the contract system. Workers juggling contracts can swing between overload and famine, while employers may lose production capacity as they search for qualified workers in a competitive market.

For the past several years, the European Union has been advocating "flexicurity": an integrated strategy for enhancing both flexibility and security in the labor market. Flexicurity attempts to reconcile an employer's need for a flexible workforce with a worker's need for protection from long periods of unemployment. Denmark, in particular, has emphasized flexicurity principles in its labor market policies and social security system. These principles emphasize flexible and reliable contractual arrangements and comprehensive lifelong learning strategies.

In his bestselling book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (third edition, 2013), Bridges talked about three stages in the psychological process of adapting to change:

1. Letting go of the past
2. The "neutral zone," where the past is gone but the new isn't fully present
3. Making a new beginning

We've made a new beginning in adapting to the end of jobs, but the transition is hard. The challenge before us is to come up with a system that prepares and protects both employers and workers.*

*Older workers who want to live and work smart will find useful information in these two books:
Life Planning Network. (2012). Live Smart after 50!: The Experts' Guide to Life Planning for Uncertain Times. Boston, MA: Life Planning Network.
Marci Alboher. (2013). The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life. New York: Workman Publishing.