Charles Babbage's Difference Machine. Image via Wikipedia.org.

Charles Babbage’s difference machine, a precursor to the modern computer. Image via Wikipedia.org.

It took centuries to transition out of the industrial age and into the age of information, but only the blink of an eye for the social age to arrive.

Gone are the days when only industrial-sized companies could create value and exert influence. Today, the key word is connectivity. Seth Godin has gone all-in on that notion, describing this new era in terms of the “connection economy” – value is created by connecting buyers to sellers and by bringing passionate people together.

The adoption of co-creation at Starbucks, the creation of open marketplaces like Etsy and Shopify, and the emergence of peer communities like McAfee point to how new and established companies are experimenting with their business models.

This spells big opportunities for their workforces. The only catch is recognizing them. Here are several ways the social age is changing how organizations operate and what it means for their workers.

There’s no such thing as long-term job security. The age-old promise of a lifelong career at one company is gone and has been for a while. IBM used to be famous for its promise of lifetime employment, but in 1992 this policy was scrapped. One year later some 60,000 employees were made redundant.

In his 2002 book, Free Agent Nation, Dan Pink links the rise of microbusiness, temp workers and soloists to the decline of job security. The bottom line is that career advancement is no longer your company’s responsibility.

Globalization means skilled labour is all over the map. We used to think of the West as the domain of intellectual work and the East as the place to find cheap labour. If that ever was the case, it certainly isn’t now.

Countries like China are investing heavily in education and it’s paying off. By 2030, 30 percent of the world’s college-educated workers will come from China, while only 5 percent will come from the U.S.

Businesses are outsourcing entire departments. The global financial crisis was a wakeup call for businesses, but for their employees, it was a nightmare: Cost-cutting measures led to dramatic reductions in the workforce.

But just because the recession is over, doesn’t mean people should expect to get their jobs back. In his book, Choose Yourself, James Altucher contends that larger companies won’t be restoring their employee numbers to pre-GFC levels.

Instead, thanks to cloud computing, the rise of outsourcing and pay-as-you-go models, it’s now possible for companies like IBM, Google and Amazon to outsource services like email, web-hosting and data centres at a lower cost than if they operated their own departments.

The status quo won’t cut it. Since World War II, a high standard of living has reached deep into the middle class and altered expectations. Today, it’s up for debate whether the middle class continues to thrive, but purpose-driven businesses are on the rise, thanks in part to the transparency of the web.

The Mean Value Theorem is celebrated by the Chinese Government in Beijing. Image via Wikipedia.org.

The Mean Value Theorem is celebrated by the Chinese Government in Beijing. Image via Wikipedia.org.

What does this mean for big-business employees?

Time to get social. Compliance and obedience will no longer be rewarded in the workplace the way they once were. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, says people working in large organizations should behave less like employees and more like entrepreneurs.

The map is gone. Career planning used to be straightforward, but now uncertainty prevails. A college education is no longer a guarantee of success. As the industrial age fades out and the social age creeps in, the rules as we know them no longer apply. We are just beginning to figure it all out.

There are two races: a race to the bottom and a race to the top. In other words, be the cheapest or be the best. Workers are increasingly being split into two camps: those who deliver mass, routine low-cost work and those who bring unique value through creativity, innovation and by delivering “wow” experiences.

The pressure to deliver more for less has never been greater, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a demand for exceptional quality.

A Bell Aircraft Corporation assembly line. Image via Wikipedia.org.

A Bell Aircraft Corporation assembly line. Image via Wikipedia.org.

What does this mean for you?

The good news is that the social web levels the playing field: Anyone can market themselves. You no longer need to be branded by the business you work for. You can stand out.

As we contemplate how these changes impact our work, we must figure out where we fit in. The question I believe we all face is whether we’ll be employed in the next five years. Are you prepared for the social age?