How the age of Individualism is impacting work and employment

23, November

The rise of individualism has encouraged us to express ourselves in every area of our lives. Today’s generation is ...

The rise of individualism has encouraged us to express ourselves in every area of our lives. Today’s generation is used to customising everything to suit their personal tastes and interests – from the clothes they wear to the content they have delivered to their smartphone.

Inevitably this triumph of individualism is also having a significant impact on work. Where previously working lives were characterised by ‘one-size-fits-all’, today workers are increasingly enjoying an a-la-carte approach to their work – including the type of contract they work under, their pension terms, their working hours, holiday entitlement and of course their pay.

Indeed the percentage of people across the globe employed under non-standard contracts continues to grow. In Japan, 35% of people work under non-permanent contracts and this figure is 40% in the EU. Meanwhile, 15% of the EU workforce – some 33 million people – are self-employed and the number rises to 25% in the US. Even those Europeans with ‘standard’ contracts now work atypical hours – with two-thirds working evenings or weekends as opposed to the classic ‘9 to 5’.

We are moving from a mass society to one of choice, tribes and differentiation. Even in Asian cultures, which are traditionally more collective, we see a rise in customisation and individual consumption patterns.  In the workplace this increasingly personal approach reflects workforce diversity and the needs of individuals. Production methods have changed and advances in information technology have enabled people to work differently; operating remotely and coming together in virtual teams on an informal basis. There is also increasing interconnection between work and private life as people build networks and informal alliances in place of what used to be colleagues.

In short a structural shift in the way that both businesses and individuals relate to work is taking place. Individuals are looking for empowerment. Instead of the old ‘command and control’ relationship with employers they want to be on more equal terms with their colleagues and to decide their own working hours and conditions.

So what does this all mean for the future of work? Well certainly the full-time permanent contract as characterised by the 1950’s manufacturing-based economy is disappearing and with it the concept of a ‘job for life’. Career paths of the future will be multi-faceted with the average working life encompassing periods as an employee, some years of self-employment and inevitably also times of unemployment.

Unavoidably, the rise of individualism also has its downsides and not all workers will benefit from the trend. Those with fewer skills will not be as able to impose their preferences, and those whose jobs are little affected by the digital revolution – characterised as “high-touch” or “high-presence”, such as truck drivers, assembly line workers or those working on construction sites – will not suddenly be able to work differently either. Indeed in the future we are likely to see those employees with a skill-set that is in demand being free to make their own choices and require that employers adapt to their way of working. So plumbers, builders and bookkeepers will likely be able to negotiate their terms while new graduates and those with fewer skills will not fare so well.

We must remember that work can also be a source of suffering – particularly for the working poor who cannot earn a decent living despite having a job – and so for many a rise in non-traditional contracts and ways of working could result in greater insecurity and precariousness. Individualism can also be misused with workers having increased responsibility but no rights and subject to continuous monitoring and evaluation.

I believe theanswer to that challenge is to embrace the opportunities that individualism affords while also setting in place firm safeguards to protect people from the downsides. The fact is that today’s labour markets are no longer static but fluctuating, with the creation and destruction of jobs on an unprecedented scale. The duration of the average job continues to shorten as the lifespan of companies decreases. An individual born in 1940 would have had an average of 2.4 jobs by the age of 40, while one born in the 1960’s has already had 4.1 jobs and the US labor department foresees that someone in education today can expect to hold between 10 and 14 jobs by the age of 38. In the future people will have to assume greater responsibility for their own career and there will be an important role for labour market intermediaries in identifying work opportunities and supporting people to move from one job to another and make swift and successful transitions in the workplace.

Governments will also need to adapt their labour laws to fit the new reality. We need a new social contract fit for a post-industrial society and an enterprising, individualist workforce. Social protection laws will need to be innovative and include new safety nets and a tailoring of social rights to support people during more varied working lives. And as people move jobs more frequently they will need their social rights including pension, holiday entitlement etc to be portable, and attached to them, not their employer.

There will be challenges but in many ways the rise of individualism allows people to bring more balance and flexibility into their working lives.  As our population ages and we all live longer there will be many people who want to work on their terms and in their time. Well thought-out employment and social policies will allow them to do that. The writing is already on the wall and the single model is dead. Work has become plural and variable.


About Denis Pennel

Managing Director of Ciett and Eurociett, Denis Pennel is a labour market expert with deep knowledge and years of experience relating to employment at global and EU levels. He recently published “Travailler pour soi”, a book about the new realities of work.

Follow Denis on Twitter @PennelDenis


As the International Confederation of Private Employment Services, Ciett is the authoritative voice representing the interests of agency work businesses. Founded in 1967, Ciett consists of 51 national federations of private employment agencies and eight of the largest staffing companies worldwide. Its main objectives are twofold: to help its members conduct their businesses in a legal and regulatory environment that is positive and supportive; to gain recognition for the positive contribution the industry brings to better functioning labour markets.

Follow Ciett on Twitter @ciett_waytowork