As the US election season gets underway, American politicians are rolling out their usual lines about creating jobs for the middle class. It’s a terrific sentiment, but if they’re talking about the middle class that used to populate middle-management jobs in offices around the country, I’m sorry to report that that train has left the station.
The sad truth is that middle management is on its way to becoming virtually extinct. While there will always be some people supervising the work of other people, changes in technology, business culture and demographics are all conspiring to upend what has long been standard practice in companies.
We should no longer expect traditional job ladders for managers to move up the ranks, or even retaining the notion that middle managers are the glue that connects workers and ensures goal alignment up and down the hierarchy.
This is different.
Replaced by computers
While lauded, technological advances have already taken their toll on lower-level jobs. Office software, including email, enables executive assistants to take on more work. ATMs replace tellers; Amazon eliminates store clerks; automated toll-free numbers have reduced the need for customer service reps.
Further up the chain, the problem gets much worse, particularly for some professions. What do you think these changes have done to the people who supervised all these front-line workers? That’s right, there’s just not the same need for them. But it gets much worse (or better, if you’re a company looking to cut costs).
Human-resource managers, for instance, can’t keep up with the latest computer algorithms that do a better job identifying what job skills are needed for a particular position, and how to get talent, than they do. So companies begin to wonder: why do we need all of those HR managers? Bosses who used to make choices over the type of music we listen to, or TV shows we watch, can’t keep up with data-driven analyses from Apple, Netflix, and Amazon that can much more accurately assess what content we want.
Rather than managerial “rules of thumb” to guide such decision-making, real data based on past behaviours has become remarkably effective at predicting what we like to consume.
A cultural shift
The demise of middle management isn’t due to technological advances alone. Start-up cultures have had just as big an impact. Start-ups hate middle management! Within start-ups, there are people who generate business ideas, people who write code, and people who sell what comes together from those ideas and that code.
None of these essential jobs in the start-up world is dependent on middle managers making sure people do what they’re supposed to do. Instead, start-ups embody the notion that you can do more with fewer, pushing each individual contributor to take on greater job responsibility.
Millennials at work
Nowhere does this technology and business culture come together more naturally than in the way the millennial generation embraces the new world of business. The idea of being supervised by a middle manager whose job is to supervise, rather than to actually do things, is anathema to young people who come out of university believing they know more than they do.
Where does this confidence come from? Their parents, of course, who ensured they were rewarded, win or lose.
The upshot is that millennials look for — even demand — jobs that are meaningful, where they can have an impact. Pigeon-holing this generation into small jobs and strict reporting requirements to middle managers won’t retain them.
All of these changes — technology, business culture, and demographics — add up to a world where middle managers will be less valued, and less needed. It’s already started, and I see no reason why it won’t accelerate.
It’s not all bad. Organisations where people make their living by doing things, more than they do by making sure others are doing things, well, I like that. And the rise of the millennial generation is coinciding with these other changes that will create organisations custom-made for how they want to work. That’s a good thing.
Jobs in some sectors may be less vulnerable. While the tech industry holds no love for middle management, moving from start-up to bigger business inevitably requires a little more managerial oversight. High-growth companies in any industry will also need to build out talent to manage new opportunities. Technology and growth have always been good places to work; expect competition for these jobs to be even more intense in light of the broader trends on middle management.
But for those caught in the middle of this seismic shift, it doesn’t look quite so good. For some, they’ll try to ride it out as long as they can and that might work for a while. Despite the magnitude of the underlying changes, few things happen overnight. Hopefully.
But for those with a longer time horizon, it’s time to really focus on getting on the right side of history by upgrading skills, seeking out opportunities to directly impact the work and not the people who are doing the work, and adopting an entrepreneurial mind-set no matter how big the organisation.
Getting stuck in the middle is the last place you want to be.