Freelance work to be the new normal?

During a recent private discussion with a reporter on the dismal state of the nation, she advocated that we could save ourselves if only we could be food secure. Typically, I asked her if she thought empty bellies was the only problem confronting Saint Lucia and then quickly proceeded to suggest money was needed for road repair, for maintaining the prime minister’s welfare-state-within-a-failed-state, to say nothing of healthcare and the thousands of recently declared “most vulnerable” citizens with their presumed unique needs.
At that point my friend the reporter threw up her arms angrily. “We shouldn’t have put all our eggs in the tourism basket,” she said. “Now we are paying the price. We should return to bananas.”         Very gently, I reminded her of the various doomsday speeches that the present prime minister had delivered over the years, especially when predicting our future lay “in the service industries”—whatever that meant.
Obviously exasperated, my friend the reporter turned on me: “Forget about those politicians. They care only for themselves. We should immediately start planting food, enough to feed ourselves. Otherwise, we perish.”
I didn’t have the heart to remind her of the cost of food production, land availability and so on. Or that even bananas had to be subsidized on more than one front. I let it go at that, rather than totally spoil her evening.
I thought of my reporter friend last week while viewing in the U.S. a PBS program entitled: “Freelance Nation: Tough Finding Fulltime Work.”         It began with the host unnecessarily reminding viewers that millions of Americans were jobless while the numbers that have ceased looking for work continues to rise. But then she quickly moved into a new area that caught my attention.
“Nearly one out of every three Americans identify themselves as freelance workers,” she said, “and those jobs span all fields, from nannies to nurses, to web designers and lawyers. While it’s a trend that cuts across all income levels and fields, college graduates in the creative fields are leading the charge.”
She paused, smiled before dropping her next bomb: “There’s even a TV show about—MTV’s ‘Underemployed’ debuts tomorrow. It features a group of 20-somethings struggling to make their mark in the professional world, a professional world where many part-timers are still hoping for full-time work. Just last month over 8.5 million Americans who wanted full-time positions were stuck in part-time jobs. So what impact is the rise of freelancing having on the economy and the way American companies do business?”
She did not answer her question. Instead she introduced Sara Horowitz, the founder and executive director of the Freelancers Union and author of the new book ‘The Freelancers Bible.’
Her first direct question from the show’s host was: “You know, most people consider freelancers, or at least they used to, as a position that you take when you’re out of a job. How would you define freelancer in today’s marketplace?”
“Well,” said Horowitz, “I would describe freelancers as really sort of the new normal. You know, freelancing used to be a euphemism for being unemployed. And now this idea of what is a traditional worker and a freelancer is just becoming blurred. Freelancers work part-time in jobs and projects and gigs. And this is how we are all coming to work.”
The host: Most people still think, when they think of a regular job, they think of it as a full-time job with health care, with vacation days off, with other benefits. Is the whole paradigm changing?
Horowitz: Yes, for sure. I think that what work used to be was we will have the American dream. We’ll work 40 hours a week and we will have this job. And what we are starting to see, the real game changer, is that American workers are starting to say, ‘wait a minute. I might want a different choice. If I’m going to have a job and I’m going to have benefits and I’m going to follow somebody else’s dreams, well, maybe I should start to have my own dreams, work in my own way, be a micro entrepreneur, a freelancer and that this choice might actually let me do just as well if not better as working traditionally.’
Host: We use a lot of freelancers in our business, in the TV business. But are there just certain sectors of the economy where freelancers make sense? Are you finding this is spreading everywhere?
Horowitz: Yes, I mean what you really saw was this trend started probably 30 years ago with media and publishing and that’s where, as you point out, it’s just going so strong. But what we’re seeing across the entire economy from very low-wage workers up through really very well trained and pretty affluent workers. And I think in part what we can see is that companies really are looking for flexible workforces that they can define the job now as a project or a gig. And I think what we’re going to have to do as a society is say there’s something different here. We need to start rethinking some things, like how we define unemployment and other things to support this new workforce and let them really flourish.
Host: But going back to the company. It’s very interesting. Do companies find that it is better to have freelancers? It may be more cost-effective than having full-time workers where you have to provide them with all benefits. What are you finding?
Horowitz: Yes, well, that’s definitely true. I think that what we’ve seen is that there are definitely companies that set up this new workforce to not have benefits and that sort of thing. But I think again this really points to the convergence of the freelance and the traditional workforce. Everyone in America is facing these kinds of wage decreases. That’s why we’re seeing such a bad distribution of income. So I think freelancing has to be seen as part of that larger trend.

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