FORTUNE – Are we approaching a decade of discontent?
We hear much about the jobless, and that those who’ve found work should simply be grateful. However, Americans aren’t happily employed. More than half, 70%, of U.S. employees reported last year that they were actively dis-engaged or not engaged in their work, according to a Gallup Poll.
The problem is that employment models have not kept up with how much our lives have changed since the 1950s and 60s. The post-war reconstruction-fueled boom meant that one breadwinner’s salary could provide food and shelter for the whole family; as a result, the majority of women worked in the home. The key employment laws were established then, tailored to this specific construct.
We live in a very different world now; it is a structurally different and increasingly interconnected one. First, it is global. U.S. economic conditions and actions have repercussions in other countries and vice versa, such as Europe’s debt crisis slowing down our recovery. The increasingly complex business environments and opportunities, such as highly sophisticated and re-packaged financial instruments, have managed to outmaneuver existing frameworks and regulations leading to barely controllable peaks and troughs.
The result is ongoing uncertainty and volatility, and individuals are now looking for more control over their own lives to try and reduce the impact of these economic oscillations. They are focusing more on making their current circumstances more manageable, less of a struggle.
Over the past half-century, changes have been dramatic at a family level too, catalyzed by factors including women’s emancipation and economic necessity
- 67% of married couples are dual-income households;
- Working mothers have increased from below 30% to 78%;
- Marriage and child-bearing are being delayed over 4 years;
- The population is aging and retiring later (61 and rising);
- Divorce rates over 40% mean complex family dynamics.
What would the updated employment models look like? The number of independent workers is up 5% from 2012 and 10% from 2011, according to a 2013 report by MBO Partners State of Independence. The study found that an additional 26 million people are considering making the shift to independent working over the next 2 to 3 years, with a net increase of 6.3 million expected by 2018. Various reasons are driving the uptick: New technology has enabled more people to work remotely; contract workers are providing more agility for companies to react to market fluctuations and more workers feel confident they can bring valuable skills to the table independently, while steering their own career paths.
It's clear more people are developing their careers outside the rigid constraints of traditional full-time jobs, and many more would make the change if they felt they could do so without stigma or penalty. The key is to have more real options - a range of accepted, and respected choices. A full-time job would be one of those options, but it should no longer be the necessary pre-determinant of a successful career or secured future. Most importantly, all these alternatives would have the flexibility to apply effectively to different types of people, situations and life profiles.
This is far from a charitable proposition. Countless studies show employers gain when they offer flexible work environments, such as flexible hours, working remotely and job sharing arrangements whereby two employees share one job. Having an employee telecommute once a week saves companies more than $6,500 per person, Telework Research Network estimates. There’s also less turnover and workers are over 10% more productive, according to a 2013 Stanford University study, Does Working From Home Work?
Updating the employment laws is long overdue, and essential – including maternity/paternity leave, affordable child and elder care, paid sick leave and healthcare for part-time workers. Neither political party wants to be held responsible for burdening businesses with the additional costs associated with some of these needed policy changes, no matter how personally valuable and important. So they will likely only be achieved with meaningful collaboration across the aisle.
Let’s apply the extraordinary American creativity and innovation to work not just at work, and the country will be a happier place. And a more productive one, too.
Sophie Wade is founder and CEO of Flexcel Network, LLC, which provides flex-focused placement services focused on entrepreneurs and growth companies. She writes and speaks regularly about flexible work and employment issues. Sophie has an BA from Oxford University in Chinese and an MBA from INSEAD.