The crucial thing to appreciate is that the recovery in Ireland will be freelance driven and not employee driven

In the past few weeks my email account has been deluged with messages from people asking me to be members of their “linked in” business network. “Linked in”[1] is a kind of Facebook for the perennially ambitious; My Space for over-achievers.

It is a network of contacts that you might have made in college, in different jobs, or more possibly it is a list of names and people you’ve come across as a result of just mooching around, trying to get by, stumbling from job to job as you grope your way to something called a “career”.

The core idea is that it supposedly plugs you into a network that can positively influence your next move. Doubtless there is something in this. If you need something done, or need to get advice from someone, is it better to have a group of people you know (or in my case vaguely know) to fall back on? It’s the Yellow Pages for unemployed accountants.

Casting aside the pathologically lonely and the eejits who scour the net terrorising everyone they have half-met in a previous life, the surge in Linked In tags is telling us that there is something else going on out there in cyberspace. People are clustering because they are scared. They are clustering because they’ve just been let go and they are trying to form their own networks to see whether their old contacts can help them out in this time of need.

Equally, and significantly, the Linked In surge might also tell us something positive about the recovery and might shed light on the nature of work in the future.

Over the years we’ve often heard the refrain, “It’s not what you know but who you know”. It has always been about who you know. And maybe more significantly, far from being a class issue, the contact network is ubiquitous.

Whether you are a working-class kid trying to get a trade or a trial for Everton or you are a middle-class kid trying to get a job at Bank of Ireland, whether you are a plumber or a barrister, your contact book is crucial. This is how the world works.

On the face of it, a network reinforces old rigidities whether they are class, trade or tribe-based. But, if you think about it another way, the links between people underpin the idea of six degrees of separation.

This is the idea that we are all related and that all you have to do is pick up the phone using your existing contacts and you will be able to find someone who knows almost everyone.

Why is all this important?

All the focus in the media at the moment is on macroeconomics but the recovery will come from microeconomics. When we pick up the paper or turn on the telly we are bombarded with macroeconomics. How much will the Government spend? How will the banks fare? Who is in charge? What tax rate should apply? All these questions are crucial but the real dynamism of the recovery will come from individuals and the way each one of us approaches the next few years.

The Linked In surge reflects a democratisation of networks. People are opening up their contact books to each other.

One of the quickest ways that we will get out of this recession is if we can match people together. For example, a few weeks ago this column highlighted an Argentinean initiative which matched old, recently unemployed workers with young emerging companies. This operated through a website and within months it was bringing people together, matching youthful exuberance with middle-aged experience. Something similar will work here.

But the crucial thing to appreciate is that the recovery in Ireland will be freelance driven, and not employee driven.

It is difficult to see a time, any time soon, where huge swathes of people will be employed on the same basis as they were in the past. The outlook is too uncertain. The future lies in small companies setting up where they see opportunities. Recovery will come from people creating their own businesses and working as freelancers do now, without pension benefits and being paid for their skills at a probably reduced rate.

In such an environment, hard as it is to appreciate now when money is tight, capital will not be the main constraint. The biggest impediment to recovery is the right people not finding the right opportunities. This is where sites like Linked In come in.

For Ireland, what is the point of having a well-educated workforce if no-one knows about anyone else? By putting people together, these networking sites will provide a huge resource in the next few years. In fact, this is where the internet will probably come into its own.

For many people under 35 all this is self-evident. They have been working this way for years. They move between jobs easily without too much concern. The older generation has yet to grasp this.

Therefore, the big mindset shift has to come from those over the age of 35. These people, the majority of the workforce, have been in permanent and pensionable jobs and they are the people who will be most affected by rising unemployment. When they lose their jobs they are lost, they don’t know where to turn. They are institutionalised.

Yet they have contacts and they know someone somewhere.

Even though it doesn’t seem so when they are on the streets for the first few weeks, they have years of experience which can be harnessed. They just have to be found and this is where Linked In and similar sites can play a role.

This recession will only be reversed by us. We are the private army of Irish people who get up every morning and go to work as New Age Freelancers. We are the recovery and the more connected we are the better.

[1] LinkedIN:

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