07/16/2014 10:53 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Circle of Life: Applying Zen to the Project Economy


Photo credit: Zenonline | Flickr

Bloggers and reporters alike are responding to post-recession America with a similar refrain: the traditional 9-5 job is dead. If you listen, you can hear the bagpipes playing an accompaniment to the doom and gloom future painted for the j-o-b.

Should we be running for our bomb shelters and setting fire to our resumes?

Not exactly. We are at a pivotal point in our history where two distinct economies are developing: the current "Industrial Economy" and the more futuristic "Individual Economy." The latter describes what MBO Partners has been calling "The Project Economy" for the past 25 years (Insert Rodney Dangerfield quote here).

For decades, the industrial economy largely defined a job as work performed for a single employer. Prior to technological innovations, that work was also often performed at a physical site, with exception to those whose work required them to be in the field. Having a job was almost universally accepted as being employed as a W-2 worker. Employers, employees and government were aligned in their language. Everyone knew their role and we knew how to count the employed.

Enter the independent consultant and the rise of the project economy. More than 17 million people have made the leap to a new kind of job that is not dominated by a W-2 or a traditional relationship with a singular employer. With new regulations on the way, healthcare changes, technological advances and tax reforms, companies are beginning to hire 1099 contractors in droves.

Unemployment is high in America (let's not even get into the Eurozone), and although it's slowly, slowly improving, people don't feel like sitting around and watching. The work still needs to get done, whether or not a W-2 form gets filled out to do it.

Independent workers are marching forward to a new work landscape that has room for many ways to engage with a company. These workers are not mourning the loss of the traditional job, but creating satisfying, successful careers by controlling their own destiny.

If we are going to use this morbid metaphor to describe the changing economy, then I'd like to recall an old song, "The Circle of Life," from The Lion King. From the "death" of the traditional job springs the life of the Project Economy, and that could be a positive change for the workers of America.

Some companies may not be ready for such a "Zen" approach to the changing structure of American business, and they will both fight it and try to sneak past it. Misclassifying employees as consultants is nothing new, and I predict that this type of case will proliferate in an environment where regulations are often vague or uncertain.

Unfortunately for these companies, along with a changing work landscape, there is a government that's always looking for revenue. Ben Franklin said that in this world, the only things certain are death and taxes. If the "death" here is the traditional job, then we can count on the vigorous efforts of regulatory agencies to collect their share of taxes. Companies should not try to avoid the Project Economy. The enterprises that will succeed are the ones who embrace it and find a way for their independent consultants to thrive.

Some may feel fear at the "death" of the traditional job, but to them, I say, "Hakuna matata." Working independent is a positive change for America, and while it may be a difficult transition, it might be just what we need to kick-start this economy.