For all the brouhaha over the Healthcare.gov debacle, the issue Americans — especially those in their 50s and 60s — seem most concerned about isn't health insurance. It's the availability of work.
There's good reason to be concerned.
While people age 55 and older have a lower unemployment rate (4.5 percent) than the overall U.S. rate of 6.6 percent, when older workers lose their jobs, it typically takes them much longer to find new ones than younger workers. And when they go back to work, they’re generally less likely to land jobs with responsibility, compensation or benefit levels matching their previous jobs.
The New Workplace Normal
There are reasons to believe this may be a permanent reality.
After firing their middle managers, companies are making do without them. Employers are also reducing their healthcare and pension costs by creating more part-time and project-based opportunities sans benefits. At the same time, firms now require different skill sets than when many older workers joined the workforce.
So what's an unemployed, or nervous, boomer to do? My advice: Rethink the whole basic concept of a job and join the ad hoc workplace.
I’m talking about being employed by having multiple, short-term, sometimes overlapping, gigs and projects. This ad hoc workplace is becoming the new employment normal for many.
It's where knowledge workers do their jobs from home, as individual projects or in teams with people they may never meet. Ad hoc workers make deadlines, get paid, and create careers with none of the characteristics traditionally associated with jobs: Predictable hours, a reporting hierarchy, guaranteed pay, benefits, a position with a title, prospects for advancement and some semblance of job security.
None of this is foreign to many young workers. They’re used to coming together virtually in order to create projects they hope will rock the marketplace. Many of them don't consider a benefits package as a given and few will turn down a great job because there isn't a 401(k) match.
Advantages for People in Midlife
For people over 50, the ad hoc world of work holds intriguing possibilities.
It's a way to generate income if your retirement savings flatline or decline. Projects can be creative and challenging. And if they wind up stressful or unsatisfying, that’s okay — there's a clear and manageable end date. Ad hoc employees who work from home avoid the expense of commuting and don’t need to uproot their lives by relocating.
Is the ad hoc workplace right for you?
7 Skills for Ad Hoc Workers
Here are seven things you'll need to do well to thrive in this brave new world:
1. Handle uncertainty. As an ad hoc worker, you're essentially a freelancer, so you’ll need to deal with some or all of the following: late paychecks, an unclear chain of command and projects that stall or accelerate with no notice or explanation.
2. Build and grow a network. It should be comprised of other professionals who refer each other to potential employers and alert them to relevant upcoming projects. The Wall Street Journal just published an article about this, describing this type of banding together as a freelancers’ “hive.”
LinkedIn is particularly useful for staying in touch with colleagues and clients, as well as finding new ones.
You’ll also want to maintain close connections to multiple clients, customers, colleagues and employment agencies that use project-related workers.
3. Keep your skills and knowledge relevant, aligned with marketplace demands. You may need to take a few courses (online or otherwise) to build or update your skillsets. If you're in an industry that requires certification or recertification, make sure yours are current.
4. Be adept at using online collaboration tools. These include cloud-based apps such as Dropbox (a file-sharing service which lets project members know what each other is doing) and Webex (for online meetings, web conferencing and videoconferencing).
5. Be comfortable working virtually, remotely and alone for significant periods of time.
6. Juggle multiple gigs. You’ll be doing this while simultaneously looking for your next project or projects.
7. Be a one-man or one-woman band. That means creating and managing your personal brand, acting as your own HR department, taking on duties of an administrative assistant, managing sales and working as your business’s bookkeeper.
For others, it's a reasonable stopgap measure while they look for a full-time job — if they can find one.
Either way, working ad hoc gives you options that didn't exist back when telephone operators did.