The Future of America Is Freelance

The recession is pushing millions of people to work part-time, but Freelance America isn't all push. There are also those pulling the Gig Economy toward them by eschewing an office and taking multiple jobs at once, because they want to. In this new movement, nobody is pulling harder than Solvate.

solvate 2.pngImagine an e-Harmony for freelancers and companies searching for a connection. That's Solvate. The NYC-based company hooks up dedicated independent workers with companies looking for independent talent. Armed with a shiny new Talent Engine, Solvate indexes its workers' strengths and former clients as specifically as possible. So if your company needs a website designer with experience with magazines and, say, pharmaceuticals, Solvate helps you dig into its treasury trove to find exactly the person you're looking for.

But Solvate is more than a matchmaking service for freelancers. It's an argument for a whole new kind of economy that might be right around the corner.

Look at the trends. Long before the Great Recession decimated payrolls and forced millions of employees into part-time positions, freelancing in America was on the rise. In a 2009 New York Times Magazine piece "The Self-Employment Depression," Emily Bazelon wrote that between 1995 and 2005, the number of self-employed independent contractors grew by 27 percent to almost nine million workers. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in New York City, self-employment accounted for two thirds of the job growth between 1975 and 2007, according to the Chicago Fed.

Solvate CEO Mike Paolucci says he thinks his company is on the leading edge of a major economic trend. "We're saying rather than outsource to India, let's do business in America, in the world's premier market," he says. "It's time for a reinvention of the economy, and it's going to be a business like us leading it."

solvate 1.pngSolvate only takes independent professionals who demonstrate that they want to remain independent. These aren't a bunch of semi-retireds, or young people praying to find full-time work. These are 20- and 30-somethings who went solo for flexibility, for variety, and for the freedom to be their own boss. Forty percent have a graduate degree. One is seven has an MBA.

But Paolucci isn't just a matchmaker. He's also an evangelist. He sees freelancing as not only a symptom of the downturn, but also a vision of the next economy.

It's not surprising that businesses welcome freelancers. Technology, cheap overseas labor, and uncertain global business has shrunk the classic full-time salaried staffer. Insurance, taxes, and benefits lump tens of thousands of dollars on top of average wages. Full-time positions are big-time headaches for employers on tight budgets.

What is surprising is the case Paolucci makes for workers to embrace Freelance America. Think about a job like an investment in a company, he tells me. The same way a diversified portfolio is more resilient a single stock, an independent worker spread across multiple clients has a better chance of keeping his income in a recession than an employee with all of his eggs in one company's basket. "It's an economy that isn't all or nothing, but rather one talent with 40 clients," he says. "It's a more efficient mechanism to allocate labor."

Sounds blissful. But there are problems. Full-time staffers benefit from government-subsidized health care, retirement funds, paid vacation, and strict laws to prevent wage theft. Freelancers usually don't. Working with no strings attached feels free, but those strings are valuable. How do you replace them?

Paolucci has ideas. It starts with building on health care reform to help families buy their own insurance on exchanges, he says. It starts with organization like Freelancers Union helping contracters band together to buy protection, a la Freelancers Union. It starts with new incentives for families to save so we can move beyond 401(k) plans. In Paolucci's mind, it's already started.

"This is the way the world," he says. "Today's independent professionals will be seen as early adopters in a major trend and life style change. We're making a better economy."

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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