Welcome to the ‘Opt In’ Era of Work

Today’s social contract requires individuals take more responsibility of their professional advancement, writes Managing Editor Frank Kalman.
employer-employee social contract

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately on the nature of work and the future of employment.

Part of the reason has to do with the current book I’m reading, Thomas L. Friedman’s “Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” The book is both a fascinating and frightening read. Its main point is that the forces that are driving society today are advancing so fast that they’ve surpassed humans’ reasonable ability to keep up and adapt. The book deals with many topics, including financial markets, climate change and technology, to show the reader the seriousness of our current predicament.

One of the topics Friedman discusses is the workplace. Primarily, he discusses at length the evolution of the employer-employee social contract — a topic close to home for Talent Economy, since the theme of our upcoming Spring 2017 issue, out in April, is all about the evolution of this social contract.

To get a sense of how the employer-employee social contract has evolved, consider this passage in the book from John Donovan, AT&T Inc.’s chief strategy officer:

“You can be a lifelong employee if you are ready to be a lifelong learner. We will give you the platform but you have to opt in. … Everyone has a personal learning portal and they can see where the endpoint is [for whatever skill set they are aiming to acquire] and the courses that will get them there. You can pick a different future and how to get there. You can be anything you want to be in this system. But again, you have to opt in. The executive’s role here is to define the vision for the future. The company’s responsibility is to provide the tools and platforms for employees to get there, and the individual’s role is to provide the selection and motivation. We need to make sure that anyone who leaves here [does not do so] because we did not provide them the platform — that it was their lack of motivation that did not make it happen.”

The most important phrase used here is “opt in.” If there’s anything that’s become clearer in my recent thinking on the future of employment, work and careers, it’s that we’ve entered an age where people need to opt in more. What does this mean? It means that employees — not companies — need to create more, both for themselves and the companies they work for. They need to seek out their own learning, their own motivation and resources to push themselves and their careers forward. The company is there to offer support, but they’re not going to hand-hold through the process. As the employer-employee contract continues to evolve, employees are going to be expected to do more, not less, when it comes to advancing their ability to better their careers.

Friedman makes the point that this “opt in” mentality stands in stark contrast to the social contract as it stood immediately following World War II. For one thing, the social contract back then was much more oriented toward the employer providing for the employee. A full-time job, a salary, generous health benefits, a pension — these were the staples that represented the American dream.

Over time, however, more and more of the responsibility shifted to employees. We’ve moved from the defined benefit society where employees were guaranteed a pension for life, to the defined contribution society, where employees are responsible for what they put in, what they contribute. More individuals are getting paid directly in line with what they produce, and more are relying on their own financial contributions for retirement savings, not a company-provided pension.

For employees, this means exactly what it sounds like it means: Employees need to opt in to their careers. They need to take control, be assertive and motivate themselves to be lifeline learners to keep up with the pace of change. The resources for higher learning are out there; it’s up to individuals to self-motivate and take advantage of them.

For employers, this doesn’t mean they’re off the hook entirely. Companies’ success is entirely dependent on the quality of talent they employ; therefore they need to ensure that they’re building environments where employees can opt in successfully. Employees are going to have to hold more on their end of the bargain, but employers are still going to have to create the foundations for them, from providing office spaces equipped with cutting-edge technology to flexibility allowing employees to work when and where they’re most productive.

The “opt in” era represents a major change in how we think about employment. But it is also a major opportunity for both employers and employees.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor.

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